Interview with Cecilia Setterdahl: From canvas to carpet

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Swedish artist Cecilia Setterdahl turns her colourful paintings into matching carpets and chooses Dubai as her base to take this concept further.

Swedish-born artist Cecilia Setterdahl has been painting professionally for more than three decades, creating bold works of acrylic on canvas, characterised by geometrical shapes. Instead of retiring in Switzerland where she spent most of her career, she decided to start it all over again – now translating her paintings into handmade carpets.

Setterdahl felt that Dubai, being at the heart of the Middle East’s evolving design scene, would be the right place to take this idea further.

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“We used to have a holiday apartment in Dubai, so we were very familiar with the region. When my husband retired, and our kids moved away from home for their studies, we felt it was time for us to move on too,” she says.

Together with her husband Michael, who had just retired from a steel business, Setterdahl was among the first tenants to open a showroom in Dubai Design District.

“I just painted before, and when I started doing carpets, suddenly I was in the middle of the design scene. We feel a bit odd here and very different compared to other carpet makers. And we feel a bit different to designers in Dubai in general, but I think this may be a good thing.

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“In the beginning, it was difficult to get people to come to visit our showroom, but d3 is getting bigger, and we see more people and different businesses moving in. I’m confident that with the second phase of the project, it will change a lot, creating more opportunities for designers to collaborate,” she says.

The boutique has been a buzz word for in the region, so Setterdahl hopes to tap into the hospitality market as well.

“What surprised me here is that there is a lot of ‘greyish’ and not so many individual designs. It is the same with commercial and hospitality projects. We had few talks with hotel groups, which seek more individual statement pieces.”

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The first carpet Setterdahl made was for herself.

“I’ve been painting my whole life, but doing carpets was a pure coincidence,” she recalls. “We were at a wedding in Mumbai and the bride’s family was in a carpet business. We asked them to do one carpet for us based on my painting.”

Setterdahl liked the way the colourful carpet transformed the room, so she decided to do a few more, and that’s how her venture into a carpet business started. At first, the carpet manufacturers in India refused to do her designs as they were breaking away from the usual patterns and colours they used.

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She explains: “We faced so many challenges in the beginning since we didn’t know much about the carpet business. We were sending pictures of my paintings to India, but the carpets that came back would be in different colours. Now we are all using the same colour codes to avoid any confusion.

“Another challenge was knotting these geometrical shapes and vertical lines. When you have a rich floral pattern, you can get away with minor mistakes as they are not visible, but with straight lines every knot is visible.”

Not every painting is turned into a carpet. The chosen canvas is first modified into a carpet template and then begins the process of matching the wool to the paint colours, including the possible inclusion of silk for effect.

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Once colours and materials have been decided upon, then begins the process of hand-knotting the carpet against the master template. Using New Zealand semi-worsted wool, it usually takes about three months to make a small size carpet.

“A painting is one kind of visual experience, whereas a carpet is very different and tactile,” says Setterdahl.

The transformational moment of moving the design idea to a blank canvas is the most time-consuming, yet exciting, aspect of the journey. Pencil lines and shapes are drawn, intersections are changed, lengths and heights are measured for accuracy, base colours are added, and thickness of future colour swatches are determined to ensure everything is in place to move the vision forward.

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If, after the setup, the design continues to inspire the next step begins.

That’s how the Meeting, Inside, Circus, Good Night, Newcomer, Reaching Out, Watching and Morning Sun paintings and their matching carpets were born.

“My goal is to find perfect symmetry between form, shape and colour,” Setterdahl concludes.

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