The history of French antique rugs and carpets that we know started in the first half of the 16th century when France initiated diplomatic and trading agreements with the Ottoman Empire. Many Oriental rugs were imported to France. Soon the oriental style became a serious trend in renaissance Europe. At the end of the 16th century, France suffered from the so-called Wars of Religion.
The Good King Henry or – more formally – Henry IV, who was the king of France at the time, wanted to revive the luxury arts that deteriorated greatly during that period. French luxurious goods (mostly silver) were exchanged for knotted-pile carpets in Persia and other eastern Mediterranean regions. These antique rugs were brought to France in order to establish manufacture producing oriental rugs and carpets for many French regal palaces.
The Savonnerie carpet and rug factory was located at the same place where the Museum of Modern Art currently stands: Quai de Chaillot downstream of Paris. The factory was established in the building of former soap factory, hence the name was taken (French Savon). At the beginning of the 17th-century king, Henry IV engaged the weavers Simon.
Lourdes and Pierre DuPont in the production of the first Turkish rug exclusively for the royal family. The patterns were obviously created in the way in which they copied the Turkish manner with its motifs. During the process of designing the French style emerged rapidly, and soon became a significant inspiration for other European weaving centers. Instead of arabesques and intricate foliage patterns, Savonnerie style introduced cartouche designs and multiple architecturally organized borders. Up until the latter decade of 1600s the main designer of the rugs and the director of the company was Charles Le Brun, a famous baroque artist, architect and official painter on the court of Luis XIV. In this period and during the 17th century the most frequently used motifs were detailed scrolls and acanthus leaf ornaments shown in an architectural manner.
Rococo was the era of very dense decorative patterns, with heavy use of the rocaille ornament. The designer and artist Pierre Joseph Perrot was one of the most inspirational people in the world of antique rugs. Under the influence of his designs, the weavers from the centers of Aubusson and Beauvais started producing highly decorative flat-pile and knotted-pile rugs and carpets. Their rugs were made in late baroque style with extensive but delicate ornamentations and light color palette.
The thin-pile carpets of this period were mostly made on a drawloom. Weaving on that loom had to be done by using additional warp. This technique was also used by tapestry weavers. The history of weaving in this area dates back to the pre-gothic era, but it was the middle of the 18th and during the 19th century when the fame of Aubusson rugs really flourished. Flat-woven rugs were especially popular inasmuch as the term Aubusson rugs became almost the synonym for a flat weave French rococo rug, in opposition to Savonnerie which made knotted-pile rugs.
The 1800s was the age of revolution in the technology of weaving which of course affected the manufactures in France. British Looms created by weavers of Axminster, which was the rug center established by former workers of Savonnerie, the jacquard loom, and the steam-powered loom created by an American inventor Erastus Bigelow all contributed to the growth of production and efficiency of factories around the world. Both Savonnerie and Aubusson rugs were not restricted to the crown anymore. The public could finally appreciate the craftsmanship and beauty of the design of these world-famous luxurious rugs. During the reign of Napoleon Savonnerie was conjoined with the Gobelins Manufactory and its autonomous existence came to an end.
The 20th century was the time of giving up on the neoclassical and baroque style in France and leaning towards contemporary design. Many French rugs were inspired by abstract art, among which we can enumerate cubism and fin de siecle styles such as art nouveau and Art Deco. Soon it was modernism with Le Corbusier that strongly influenced weaving as well as the whole area of art and architecture and introduced the Berber carpets to Europe. The factory of Aubusson still creates rugs and tapestries and continues to inspire designers and enthusiasts to look for their exceptional style.