The debut article of my first By Design column featured in International Review of African American Art, Fall 2011 issue spotlights the fabulous Malene Barnett, carpeting and rug designer.
The Art of Everyday Use
MALENE BARNETT CLIENTS ARE FLOORED BY HER RUGS
Not all carpeting rolls off assembly lines in factories or is imported from exotic places in the Middle East, China or India. Hand-made floor coverings that rise to the level of art are created by Malene Barnett, principal and owner of Maleneb in Brooklyn. She has built a brand specializing in hand-woven carpeting and rugs of original design and high-quality fibers for commercial sites and homes.
At the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City, Barnett initially majored in fashion illustration but really longed to paint. Her decision to change majors was clinched when she happened to see a display of projects by students in the textile surface design department. As a textile design major, she was inspired by the early textile renderings of Lois Mailou Jones, a young, African American designer who went on to become a major 20th century American artist.
While taking a carpet design course, Barnett won first prize for a Stark Carpets-sponsored, carpet design competition, and committed to this specialized field in textile design.
Barnett graduated in 1996 and worked for a succession of companies, including Afritext where she modernized their line of African prints; and Nourison, an industry leader, developing products for major household brands.
After four years at Nourison, Barnett had an urge to explore the world. She quit her job and, carrying just a backpack with seven outfits, traveled to India, Malaysia, the Philippines, Indonesia, Singapore and Hong Kong. Each environment piqued her curiosity about the indigenous spiritual symbols, patterns and architecture of the cultures that she visited. She sketched this iconography in a small sketchbook as ideas for new designs.
Back in the States, Barnett worked freelanced for her previous employer, Nourison, designing handmade accent rugs and carpeting for some well-established consumer brands such as Bed, Bath and Beyond, Nicole Miller, Liz Claiborne and Macy’s. With her guidance, Nourison profits grew from $1 million to $15 million. Then Barnett was offered an opportunity to start a carpeting line with JLA Homes, a home furnisings company; once again profits increased.
When the economy started to tank in 2008, Barnett decided to launch Maleneb. “Why would you even think of starting up a studio in such a dismal economy?” I wondered. “The timing was right,” she replied. In leaving Nourison, she again was following a calling. She defines herself as a visual artist, with a propensity for hand drawing and painting, who loves to design carpeting and rugs. And besides, she explained, “most of my previous projects offered little exploration of my own ethnic sensibility.”
The luxurious residential rugs and carpeting in the Maleneb collection are hand woven designs based on the icons, patterns and colors that Barnett observed during her travels and as she continues to look to artifacts from various ethnic cultures and the natural environment for inspiration, her work is informed by food rituals, ancient architectural structures, traditional garments, unusual textile patterns and paintings are a part of the mix.
The collection consists of three distinctive themes: Signature reflects the diversity of everyday life, for example, the Mehndi-inspired rugs of rich burgundy and red wool yarn with linear designs based on a palm decorated with henna tattooing for a wedding. Classical— traditional motifs and icons such as the Adinkra writing system of Ghana. And texture which explores the multiplicity of organic forms in nature. In order to achieve the characteristics of flowing water, mountainous landscapes and tree trunk textures for the Texture theme, Barnett mastered a distinctive technique of creating varying pile heights.
As a member of the Good Weave organization working to end child labor in South Asia, all Maleneb pieces carry the “Good Weave” brand to distinguish them from those made under exploitative circumstances.
Besides designing the collection, Barnett gets numerous requests for commissioned projects. For example, Ken Staves, an architect based in Calgary, Canada, called to request rugs for his new home, based on photography he had shot of magnificent, New York City architectural skylines. From this imagery, Barnett crafted a series of tapestries that now hang on the walls in Staves’ home. The Carl Ross Design Croup hired Barnett to create special rug tapestries for the lobby walls of the Hyatt Vacation Club Hacienda del Mar in Mexico. Her design for this commission was inspired by the 15th century rock art of the Taino Indians of Mexico.
A spunky seven-year-old girl passion for drawing and painting has become one of the top designers of carpeting and rugs in New York City.
Limited Edition Tap Tap rug, abstract angular colorful shapes, with varying piles based on the colorful, hand-painted local tap tap buses in Haiti, this rug design was featured in the Global African Project exhibition catalog, 2010.
For more information on Maleneb click: maleneb.com