Posted by R. John Howe on 02-13-2003 09:05 AM:

"RKO" or "Sonic Wave" Rug

Dear folks -

One of the most unusual rugs that Joe Fell presented on this rug morning is the one above. Neither Joe nor any of the others in the room (and there were some notable figures present) had much to say about this piece except, Harold Keshishian, who recognized it as one of the “sonic boom” rugs.

Shortly after Joe’s session, while looking for something else, I encountered an extensive article in Hali 110, (May-June, 2000) by Hans Konig on this distinctive group. I’ll “mine” it a little here for those who may not have access to it.

First, Konig says, that this group was first so designated by Charlie Ellis in 1967, when he was studying Chinese rugs in the TM collection and came upon the one below.

This piece is estimated to have been woven in the early 18th century.

Ellis, Konig says, was struck by the similarity of the “stroke and dash” field pattern of this rug to the “sonic waves” on the RKO movie logo and characterized it in that way. His description has stuck.

One of the first things to notice, with this Ellis example, is that one feature that strikes one looking at the Fell piece, the rounded corners, reminiscent of the shape of some saddle rugs, is that the corners on some RKO rugs are not rounded. More, it is not clear why some are. Konig feels they were not saddle rugs.

RKO rugs are woven in one piece, not two as most saddle rugs were and do not have the narrow “waists” that are often present on them. In addition, RKO rugs have a center medallion as an important design feature and this would be covered by a saddle. He is, on the other hand, not sure what the real use was. One RKO rug is inscribed suggesting that it was presented to a Tibetan monastery, but Konig believes that the RKO format was mostly made in East Turkestan, in Ningxia and in Gansu and was not made for export.

Konig reports that the RKO rugs are fairly rare. He expected when he began to prepare his article to find only about 15, but was ultimately able to identify 36 of them. He thinks that most pieces in this group are 19th century or older. He found only two pieces that seem likely to have been made in the early 20th century, on the basis of the unpleasant synthetic dyes in them. He conjectures that some of the pieces he found are as early as the early 18th century, but admits that these estimates are conventional.

The piece above is from the Ballard Collection.

Konig mentions that RKO rugs that seem older tend to have 45-60 “stroke marks” per row and that the seemingly younger ones have 25-35 of these marks per row. I’ve counted the stroke marks in a couple of rows of Mr. Fell's piece and the 42-43 result might indicate that his piece is a somewhat older one in the RKO group.

Konig analyzes the main design features of the RKO rugs: the ends, the center medallions and the “stroke and dash” field pattern and he provides structural differences that help distinguish which pieces were woven in which location.

He ends saying that none of the suggested origins of the “stroke and dash” field design seems satisfactory to him, but that a little mystery provides us with things yet to do.


R. John Howe