“It’s almost a distasteful color,” says the British rug-maker Tom Atton Moore of the vivid chile-pepper red that appears in many of his handmade wool and acrylic creations. The fiery, cautionary shade, little seen within living rooms, is characteristic of his work as a whole, which often has an almost defiantly undomestic feel. Emblazoned with amorphous shapes in bold colors that include electric blue, a corrosive chemical green and rust red, his designs don’t immediately evoke a sense of coziness. Only upon closer inspection do the dense, lush textures, subtly uneven surfaces and satisfying thickness of the pieces reveal themselves, encouraging a childlike impulse to sprawl across them.
It’s this contrast between abstraction and tactility, aesthetics and utility, that Atton Moore, 24, explores in his work. “I love things with a use,” he says. “For me, fine art has a slight disconnect: It’s beautiful, but I always want something more.” For the past few months he has been hunkered down in the cool, quiet basement of his mother and stepfather’s house in rural Kent, making rugs for his debut solo show. Organized by the design dealer Jermaine Gallacher and scheduled to open in his South London showroom in October, the exhibition will comprise eight or so rugs of varying sizes and will expose Atton Moore’s work, until now known mostly to a handful of his fellow London creatives and those who have come across his Instagram account, to its widest audience yet.
Atton Moore only began tufting — as the practice of making a rug by inserting threads through a woven backing fabric using a specially made gun is known — a little under two years ago. He had recently graduated from the London College of Communication with a degree in illustration and was searching for a new outlet. Though he had some experience with loom weaving, he was eager to work on a more ambitious scale, and tufting offered a practical way to make larger textile pieces (his rugs currently range from roughly 4-by-6 feet to 5-by-7 feet). After cobbling together a wooden rug-making frame at his then home in London and watching video tutorials on YouTube, he honed his skills through trial and error. Tufting, which is solitary and slow-paced, he found, was a welcome contrast to his other career, in modeling, which he had fallen into several years before; modeling, meanwhile, helps fund his rug-making practice, and fashion designs have occasionally provided ideas for a shape here or a color there.
For the most part, though, Atton Moore’s inspirations spring from more unexpected places, and derive either from an exploration of a specific form or an attempt to document the anxieties of contemporary life reflected back to us through our screens. One sprawling rug of white, burgundy and maroon — part of an ongoing series he calls “Studies of Leon” — features abstracted renderings of elbows and moles based on nude photographs he took of a friend and then distorted almost beyond recognition. Another depicts an aerial view of water pooled in various patterns on top of one of many expanses of radioactive topsoil that have been stored under vast plastic sheets in Fukushima, Japan, since the 2011 nuclear disaster there. The image is taken from the 2018 documentary series “Dark Tourist,” about the niche travel-industry sector that arranges access to macabre places; Atton Moore took a screen grab of this scene and recreated the water patterns with nebulous black and white splotches about the size of a hand on a clay-colored background. In fact, he frequently creates motifs from screenshots of images he has taken, often zooming in on a particular person or environment to capture their exact look at a specific moment in time. “Rugs and tapestries tell stories you can look back on in the future,” he says. “I want to document the world now.”
His latest rug, which depicts in close-up the shapes of fallen petals from a magnolia tree in the verdant garden of the house in Kent, is an oblique portrait of the effects of climate change. “The petals fell so early this year,” he says, gesturing toward the tree, when I visit in May. “I started collecting them at different stages and photocopying them together.” Dozens of black-and-white images of different petals lie in a pile in his work space, their forms resembling beguiling Rorschach tests. Hanging across the back wall, the rug, still a work in progress, evokes a topographical map, the decaying bits of petal like black tributaries against a forest-green background. As he does with all his pieces, he first used a projector to transfer a sketch onto a gray polyester backing fabric to create a guide before running the tufting gun in close lines up and down the cloth, a time- and labor-intensive process whose repetitiveness he finds soothing. Once the tufting is finished, he will then seal the underside, hand-stitch the edges with a needle and finally crop the yarn to a more regular length — though not so uniform as to loose all its natural undulation. For this last stage, he uses one of his most prized tools: a pair of sheepshearing clippers. It will take him about two weeks, from start to finish, to complete the piece — and between 40 and 50 spools of vintage dead-stock yarn.
Indeed, if Atton Moore’s motifs are often mediated through a screen, his approach is otherwise decidedly analog and traditional. While a number of artists — from Alexander Calder to Deborah Kass — have created rugs stitched with their images, they have tended to rely on other makers to produce them. For Atton Moore, having his own hands in every stage of the process is essential: By allowing the edges of a piece to be slightly wonky, or the pile of another subtly uneven, he is leaving his mark. Lifting a corner of one of his rugs reveals the stitching still visible underneath: He purposefully seals each creation with clear latex, he says, “so you can see it’s not perfectly done, that someone made it.”