Katen (pictured right, above) and Latif (pictured left, above) are the duo behind Kat + Maouche, master curators of vintage Berber rugs sourced directly from the foothills of the Atlas mountain range. Lush and wildly expressive, each rug is one-of-a-kind and knotted by hand. We are honored to carry these rugs as part of our Schoolhouse Art Studio for our new spring collection. Read on to learn more about how Kat & Maouche came to be, their passion for what they do and the process that goes into selecting these truly special art pieces.
Tell us the ethos and purpose behind Kat & Maouche? What made you start your company and how has it grown over the years?
"As Kat + Maouche has grown it has evolved, but it started, and remains first and foremost, a way to promote Berber art, artists, and culture. The indigenous peoples of North Africa, the Berbers have a millennia old, distinctive culture that is little known outside the region but has driven history within it. We came to this through years of life experience. In Latif’s case, it was a lifetime. He is from a Berber family in Algeria where he lived until his late 20’s. I grew up in Oregon and have lived all over, to travel but usually to study. We met and married in San Francisco where I was working on a PhD in International Relations and Latif ran the neighborhood corner store. When we eventually moved to Algiers I started research into Berber/Arab political issues in North Africa hoping to write a dissertation before art intervened, a much more interesting window into culture.
So our shared experience was in North African politics and culture, albeit from very different perspectives. We’ve been thinking for over a decade about how to bring that interest and research to others and how to build a life for ourselves that keeps a foot in both worlds."
"Moving back to the US and having our daughter, Salma, made it all seem more pressing. So, in 2014, with a four year-old in tow, after a decade of thought, we finally did it. We knew the region well and had old friends throughout Morocco, but it took us five months of travel to work out the details to do it right. We returned to Portland and opened a pop-up in Chinatown in November of 2014 but quickly realized the interactions a brick and mortar allowed were vital to what we do. We sell rugs, but it is a means to talk about Berber art and culture and that is best done face-to-face. We’ve come to think of ourselves more as an art gallery than a store and love when curious people come in, when weavers come in, when people walk in not knowing what we are and wind up talking art and travel for hours. And we very much wanted to be a Portland business, to be rooted here. We’ve been open for two and half years now and are here to stay."
What does your process look like from start to finish when it comes to finding and sourcing your collection of rugs?
"Sourcing carefully and well is the key to all of this. It starts with really knowing what we are doing and that has taken, and continues to take, time and research. We are working against both lack of research and piles of misinformation. Berber rugs have not been well-documented or studied as have Persian rugs, for example. They have largely been sold to tourists rather than serious collectors or dealers and continue to be mass-produced, even imported, for the souks in tourist centers that are far from the rural areas and culture they represent. So there is a large and growing market for souk rugs, made for the tourist trade, that we are well aware of but ignore. We specialize in genuinely vintage rugs made for personal use by small Berber tribes. To do this you have to really know your sources and really know your rugs. I’m a researcher by training and temperament. Latif is literally at home with Berber culture and language. It’s a good combo that lets us do this the only way we know how.
Knowing the difference between souk rugs and vintage rugs, getting far away from Marrakech into Berber regions, knowing the culture and the language in the mountains, building relationships in small towns, sourcing as close to those communities as possible, doing everything that we can to be sure those communities benefit and that these are understood as specifically Berber art is all critically important for us.
Even when buying from a few serious dealers in Marrakech, we have to know how the rugs get there from the mountains. We think of it as tracing the provenance of art. There is a transaction cost in terms of information lost any time a rug changes hands and our real work is making sure we get the rugs here packed with as much information as possible. So we buy as directly as possible and we do serious, continuous research to fill in the gaps. We respect them as cultural objects and look for the pieces that best showcase that. We know what is common and what is rare, always looking for the hand of the artist. The process includes not only how we find and buy pieces, but how we present them and how we sell them as well. Customers come to us for a rug but we insist, slyly if we must, they get an appreciation for the specificity of place and of culture with it. Our overwhelming goal is to be a source of art and information."
How are these special pieces made – where do the designs come from and how old are they in general?
This gets to the scarcity of serious research as well as the glut of misinformation that comes with art sold mainly to a tourist market. It deserves a good, serious updated book. Or five. The true vintage pieces were made by hand by Berber women for use in rugged, rural, semi-nomadic tribes. They reflect the artistry of utility. They are both specific to place, each region and era having shared characteristics, and wildly individual, each an expression of the weaver herself. There is astounding variety that requires you to really consider each rug on its own. But, you can make generalizations about some of the better-known styles. As most tribes are sheep-herding, most rugs are made from hand-spun wool on vertical portable looms. The large high-pile knotted rugs of the Middle Atlas tribes, the Beni Ourain and the Beni M’Guild, were woven as blankets for use in harsh climates. The Boujad area is less mountainous and traditionally Arab and their weaving is influenced by the traded urban rugs from Rabat and thus often show lower pile, a central medallion, stricter symmetry, and a border. The old Azilals from the High Atlas usually have the silky wool of local sheep and a loose geometry in undyed hues."
"Some symbols appear across regions, and across North African Berber art in general, most notably the lozenge, considered a female symbol. Other symbols you may see are hamzas, checkerboards, birds’ feet, snakes, branches, tools, jewelry, eyes, teapots, human figures. Again, these pieces tell personal stories so I would warn against reading them too literally, but they are generally symbols of protection, fertility, hospitality, and family history. Some motifs clearly resemble the landscapes they come from, some are narrative, some are utterly abstract, some change thought midstream. As for age, there is no systematic way of dating Berber rugs. Occasionally in a more formal piece or one made to commemorate an event, you will find a date woven in. It is unusual to find a piece that is more than 60 years old and most are significantly more recent than that. They were made to be used and that use, the signs of use and the patterns of wear, become an important part of the story and design, but also guarantee that they do not last for centuries. However, in technique and aesthetic, the authentic rugs found today are a continuation of an old weaving tradition, changing as culture and experience and individuals do, but with a line back to much earlier works. Some symbols in the rugs of the last 50 years echo those seen in 10,000 year-old Saharan rock drawings or in traditional facial tattoos. There is a rich symbolic language to pull from and the best pieces do so in personal unique ways. They are art, not mimicry, a play between materials, necessity, tradition, imagination, expression, and skill."
"Regardless of actual age and ancient tradition, in design the rugs can read quite modern. There is a freedom, a sense of line and of color and of abstraction that we label modern, but that in fact pre-dates western modern art and is deeply rooted in a traditional culture. We hope it challenges how we think about art, how we talk about traditional v modern, or craft v art, how we think of rural culture, how we think of Muslim women. Berber art deserves to be seen on its own terms, and often demands it."
What are your favorite parts of Moroccan culture and your trips abroad?
"If you are going to talk about travel in Morocco, you have to start with Marrakech. It deserves the hype. There is a fantastic design energy there born of a mix of ex-pat designers and traditional artisans that we definitely get inspiration from. And it’s a wonderful, wondrous place to visit. But as a visitor, you also have to recognize that much of that, like many places that rely on tourism as an industry, is fantasy for outside consumption. For what we do and who we are, we need to get out of that mix as often as possible. Berber culture is a different world, perhaps a less picturesque one, a more difficult one in some ways, but also real.
The sense of place explains this art, born of difficult terrain and a tough life. What is most interesting about it is not the fantasy Morocco but the reality it comes from. That art wild, free, and sophisticated comes from isolated rural tribes and not the vibrant cities is the curious contradiction of it all. To really get it you need to see rural Morocco. Drive the mountain roads from Marrakech to Fes for a taste of it. Latif is able to get deeper into the mountains and small towns in a way we can’t together so he does so on his own. As a family, we love Fes. Taroudant has long been on our list but we have yet to get there. It’s just a rich, fascinating country to travel in. I’d extend that to the entire region though Morocco is the most tourist-friendly country in the Maghreb. For us, the two most rewarding aspects of our frequent travel are the long-term friendships across the region and getting to raise our daughter to know a bigger world and its languages, and to be comfortable in both of her cultures. That is possible across North Africa because, under a lot of hustle, it is a warm and open place with people that welcome you anywhere you go."
Where do you go when you are craving inspiration?
"We are lucky to be around art that inspires us every day. It has changed our lives, what we talk about, how we spend our days. But starting your own business, as a couple, is a lot of work and we look outside of it for inspiration, too. We grew up in very different places and are drawn to different landscapes. For perspective and renewal, I need a forest and Latif a warm sea. But we both draw energy from big, messy cities and when given a chance we will run to Marseille. It is our compromise between Paris and Algiers. Travel. It is always travel. It stays with you. Ghardaia, Algeria resonates and changed the way we think about art and architecture and modernism. Paris--cliché but true. We’ve had a small apartment there forever and go back whenever we can which for now is less than we’d like. Salma is (at last!) old enough to tolerate museums and it’s nice to be able to go see real art again after a 7-year respite. Last summer we finally went back to the Pompidou and the Picasso Museums to see the art we talk about all the time but hadn’t seen in years, to think about the world of the early modernists who are deeply inspiring. Finally, one of the gifts of opening a store is that our local community has grown and I, having grown up here and Latif, to whom it was all new and a little small when we moved here together, can be a part of a growing creative community in the PNW. That’s been a surprise and a source of personal and creative inspiration that is a joy every day."
Who are design influences/heroes?
"We aren’t designers. We spend a lot of time thinking about the role of collectors and curators in making sure art, even difficult art, is seen, understood, and valued. For me, that goes straight to Peggy Guggenheim in Venice. She was entirely her own. She threw herself in, took it deadly seriously, and taught herself. We likely wouldn’t know Rothko or Pollock without her and she bridged American and European modernism in a way we now take for granted. She’s also a reminder that art, making and collecting, is political, sometimes revolutionary, a fact often buried in the story. Latif will always love Yves Saint Laurent. Growing up when he did, where he did, that combo of deeply French with North African roots had enormous appeal, swagger. And still does. YSL is, of course, a French icon associated with the jet set in Marrakech, but he was in fact born in Oran, Algeria and knew Berber culture, the complexity of North African identity, more than you would think. We like to claim him as Mediterranean (to the horror of the French, I’m sure). His foundation now runs the only museum of Berber culture, and funds some of the only research on the topic, in the world. He also gets at the cosmopolitan, immediately post-colonial North Africa that had such hope and such style."
What role does art and design play in your own home? Tell us about your decor style.
"Things that matter in spaces with character. Neither of us is young any more and we have lived interesting lives that gathered things along the way. Materialists at heart, we think objects matter. We have art and books from my grandparents’ house, from the Sahara, from Latif’s family, from travels. We don’t have intentional design but we have a loft that reflects us well. It is an industrial space with big windows, high ceilings, two concrete walls and some roughness to it. It holds art, books, rugs, shoes, plants, old maps and a growing chair fetish. Odd collections, too. I buy prints everywhere we go and Latif buys pins. Immersion in Berber art has made us think about color differently. Saturated blue—Klein, Majorelle, Cobalt—peeks through everywhere now and we’ve both come full circle on pink. To be honest, much of what passes for design these days leaves us cold. There is a lot of piling on trends and over-styling generic space. We like architecture and crave good space and want a home that looks like someone lives there, that looks like we live there. It’s no one 'style' though.
We buy things we really like, slowly, hold on to them forever, and force them together. New additions include an inexpensive vintage white vinyl and chrome chair that has fueled rather than sated my tackier side. There is a traditional inlaid dining set in storage in Algiers that we will ship one day. Really, we are three clothes horses in 1,100 of open space without a single closet. Maybe we’d have a distinct style if we had closets. Arty, modernist, industrial, pan-African, sporty, pop, romantic, fern bar, avant-garde literary salon with some ostentatious Italian glam thrown in. Hashtag that!"
| Shop Kat + Maouche rugs in Schoolhouse Art Studio |