In fact, Tantuvi rugs, which are handmade by Indian artisans and hew to a palette that echoes the rich shades found across the subcontinent, have an almost kinetic quality to them, their lines and tessellated shapes seeming to dance around (or crash into) each other. With the brand’s No. 1-17 collection, which features sharply defined triangles and zigzags in raspberry, turquoise and ocher and plays with the idea of negative space, it’s possible to see the influence of the 20th-century animation artist Oskar Fischinger. The Kulfi collection has patches of color — frosted pistachios, saffron and deep plums reminiscent of the classic frozen dessert from which the line takes its name — that are curved and freely drawn, but the effect is much the same.
Born in Brooklyn to a mother from Puri and a father from Hyderabad who met in New York City after having immigrated there in the 1970s, Rao was always attracted to creative pursuits, and to drawing in particular. Her “incredibly open-minded” parents, as she describes them, embraced and encouraged her exploration, which was not the norm among other Indian families she knew growing up. Artistic acquaintances also had an impact. She remembers going to the Museum of Modern Art to see the work of the filmmaker B. Narsing Rao, a close friend of her parents, when she was nine. Eventually she gravitated toward fashion, which she studied at F.I.T. in Manhattan and then at Scotland’s Edinburgh College of Art before returning to work in New York. She designed in-house collections for major department stores, but was working with large factories where the administration seemed to show little interest in the finer details of the product, including the provenance of the fabrics. Rao felt “disconnected from the whole process” and left that job for a brief stint at the art auction house Phillips de Pury & Company (now Phillips). In 2010, unsure of her next career move, she did what she instinctively felt was right and booked a trip to India.
Rao first visited her parents’ homeland when she was just a baby, and had always felt a strong connection to it. For this trip, she let her mothers’ saris be a guide. “Saris are often traditionally named for the place in which they’re handwoven,” Rao says. “So I always knew the names of all these towns because of her collection of these beautiful silks.” At each stop on her list, she would receive recommendations for other places to see; she ended up touring artisan communities, and the various NGOs that supported them, across the country. Eventually, she decided to start a project of her own that would honor ancient handiwork and, working with South Indian weavers designing textiles, she founded Tantuvi in 2012. Three years later, Tantuvi transitioned into producing rugs, after Rao identified three weaving communities she wanted to work with — two in Rajasthan and one in Uttar Pradesh.
When she shared her rug designs with the artisans — some of whom were seventh-generation weavers — the pieces’ abstract compositions weren’t an immediate hit. They were used to working on clearly defined, often repeating patterns, but were won over by the designs’ luscious hues. “In India, they do love color,” says Rao, who prioritizes natural and locally sourced materials, including hemp, cotton, reclaimed silk and Bikaner wool. First, the raw material is hand-dyed via a process overseen by master dyers, one of whom has a facility in the courtyard of his Jaipur home. Then it arrives with the weavers to be hand-loomed, which can take anywhere from two weeks to two months. Afterward, each rug is washed, dried in the sun and hand-bound at its edges.
Rao has come to love the irregularities that result from handwork and that allow evidence of care and process to remain right at the surface. She begins her own process differently depending on the piece, perhaps by drawing over the top of a photograph she took in India. Rao’s husband, the abstract figurative painter Adam Sipe, often contributes; sometimes the pair sketch in separate books, with Rao ultimately combining elements from each. Her fashion training comes into play in her methodical approach to researching and selecting the colors for each season, even if she tries to avoid trends and follow her intuition. The brand’s latest collection, called Travertine, was inspired by trips to Rome and India that the couple took in quick succession in late 2019: Rao was struck by the parallels between the two places, particularly the prevalence of stone — travertine in Rome, marble in India. The resulting rugs, in sandy colors redolent of an Indian desertscape interspersed with warm corals and a deep teal, call to mind complex geological formations.
Like so many traditional crafts, hand-loom weaving is at risk in India. Work can be unreliable, particularly for those living in remote areas. But if the support structure is there, says Rao, the profession can be a well-paid and rewarding one. In the coming years she plans to open her own weaving facility in Rajasthan to train young apprentices and foster local talent. She’s also working to incorporate an eco-friendly fiber made from recycled material into her company’s practice, which she hopes to do by January. And while Tantuvi already makes throws and has been prototyping cushion covers for two years, Rao is finally set to release her first line of cushions this month. “They’re going to be heavyweight and durable, so great for the floor,” she says. Clearly, things are going well for the brand, but for Rao the success has been far more than commercial. She is glad to be working to safeguard a precious Indian cultural practice, and she feels more connected to the country than ever.