Suddenly Suzani – the rise of Asian embroideries
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In a sitting room created by Swedish interior designer Beata Heuman, a chequerboard floor is complemented with an inky pomegranate-print wall covering and a plump, curvy, block-pattern-printed sofa – all in blue and white. “It’s like being in a china sugar bowl,” she says. The eye is drawn, however, to the two pieces on the wall: a Goya exhibition poster, and a vibrant floral-embroidered wallhanging in bold pinks and crimson.
“Hanging a tapestry or a material on a wall is a way of softening a space. It adds liveliness, depth and texture,” says Heuman. Such embroidered textile panels have a rich history. Suzanis, named after the Persian word suzan, meaning needle, were originally produced by nomadic tribes in central Asian countries such as Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kazakhstan.
“We don’t have much information on them before the 18th century, but there was a tradition of embroidery far before that time,” says Louise Broadhurst, director and international specialist of oriental rugs and carpets at Christie’s auction house. “Suzanis were woven by the women within the villages as dowry pieces. Each woman in the family would be given a strip to embroider – usually in silk, onto a cotton foundation – then the panels would be joined together.” Bedecked with flowers and fruit – symbols of fertility – the finished pieces were used in tents as decorative dividers and floor spreads.
Today, examples from the late 18th and 19th century can court fierce bidding. What interests most collectors, says Broadhurst, is the “fabulous colours and designs, which have a really dynamic, contemporary feel. Quite a lot go for below £10,000, but they can really go up in price if they’re particularly early, or they’ve got a really good provenance, or the design and colours are just that little bit different.” One such, from the Shakhrisabz area of Uzbekistan in the first half of the 19th century, combining vibrant red and pink rosettes with unusual light-blue leaves, fetched £40,000 at Christie’s in 2019.
Ignazio Vok, who began buying suzanis – as well as Anatolian and Persian flat weaves – in 1974, amassed the world’s largest private collection: it was sold via specialist auction house Rippon Boswell & Co between 2015 and 2017. Across three sales, 76 suzanis sold for a total of €2,130,300. This May, a selection of 19th-century Uzbek examples were offered at Rippon Boswell & Co’s spring sale, including an eye-catching example from Samarkand, its circular blooms trailed with vines, which sold for €4,000. The top price of €8,500, however, went to a pretty pink-toned prayer mat featuring a rare mihrab tower motif.
“There are different patterns associated with different cities in Uzbekistan,” says London-based dealer and interior designer Susan Deliss. Those made before the turn of the century – including a swirling c1870 example being offered for $24,500 by New York dealer Jason Nazmiyal, and a punchy c1850s one at $35,000 on 1stdibs – stand out for their use of natural dyes. They are vibrant, but softly so, says Broadhurst, who advises caution when it comes to colour. “If you go to the souks today, to Istanbul or Iran, you will be shown a lot of suzanis that they say are antique; nine times out of 10, they’re not,” she says. “Sometimes they’re tea-stained to make them look old. The telltale sign is the colours; if they look a bit fluorescent, invariably that’s because they’ve come from a bottle.”
That’s not to say that 20th-century suzanis embroidered with synthetically dyed threads aren’t desirable; they are, but they are also less rare. On 1stdibs, for instance, there’s a wide range of colourful midcentury versions from Samarkand available for between £600 and £1,500; those at The Tolstoy Edit come in more muted hues, from £580 apiece; while Francesca Gentilli also stocks suzanis mostly from the 1970s, at around £250-£1,400.
“I occasionally get my hands on a really lovely 19th-century one – but generally, they are difficult to find or are in pretty rubbish condition,” says Deliss. The majority she sells are new, including one with a “wonderful swirling pattern” recently bought by John Benson, CEO and co-founder of new arts and culture platform aonia.com. “It has a glorious mix of subtle colours,” he says. “It will hang halfway up the main staircase of our Georgian country house, surrounded by Regency mahogany furniture and modern British paintings.”
The less rarefied pieces also have potential for reinvention. Deliss has repurposed one as a headboard for her Burgundy bedroom. Fellow interior designer Rita Konig has a vintage suzani (from Nushka) as a bedspread in her London home, while Chloe Jonason has used one to create a seat cushion for a folky painted bench. Kit Kemp is also a fan, and used suzanis and their motifs in her design for the Covent Garden Hotel. In the US, homeware brand St Frank sells framed vintage suzanis (an ochre vine design is $8,250) as well as converting them into cushions ($265); “We truly cannot keep those in stock,” says founder Christina Bryant Herbert. You’ll even find suzanis fashioned into jackets by designer duo Muzungu Sisters (from £450).
But when it comes to their main use, decor, Heuman believes in going big: “Suzanis can go from the top of your sofa to the ceiling. They give a good impression in a room. For one project, we wanted to fill a wall but didn’t have much of a budget and actually found a suzani on eBay. It was very inexpensive – and it looks amazing.”
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