How did you become interested in Islamic geometric design?
I dropped out of university. I started out studying Political Science in Amsterdam, and though it was interesting, I didn’t think it would stay interesting forever. Soon after I came across Islamic geometric design in books. There were just so many aspects of it that interested me: its history, science and creativity. I decided that if I was going to choose such an unlikely career path, I’d have to do it with full commitment – so it’s what I’ve done ever since. Sometimes it feels like Islamic geometric design chose me, rather than vice versa.
How do you draw the designs?
The principle from my point of view is that the craftsmen who have made these patterns for hundreds of years were not mathematicians. If you can draw circles and lines, you can make these patterns. I spent many years trying to deconstruct the patterns in order to reconstruct them with a compass and a ruler. I found that even patterns that look extremely complex can be broken down into smaller sections that you can draw quite easily with intersecting lines and circles. That’s the mystery of it.
What do you make with the designs?
Most of the time people commission me to make decorative screens. They are laser cut, and usually made of MDF or steel, depending on the purpose. This year I was invited by Bradford Museums to make something for their permanent collection, which was a great opportunity for me. I made a large jali screen –that’s a marble screen you’ll often find in India. They served traditionally as a filter between inside and outside, or the area where the men and the women sit. They are fascinating because you can incorporate a lot of different patterns into one big screen: it’s like a visual source book.
Do you ever collaborate?
I like to collaborate with people who have skills that I don’t have. For example, I do creative collaborations with a fashion house in Indonesia: they use my patterns, and together we make nice things. I’m also collaborating with a leatherwear company in Granada in Spain to make iPhone 6 cases. Recently I just started working with a ceramicist in Teesside: I supply the shapes, and he makes really nice tiles. I do what I do best, and he does what he does best.
What does a typical day involve for you?
I have a day job working for a publisher, so it’s always a balancing act for me. At the moment I’m working on a book, so I make time to write before I go to work. Twice a week my alarm goes off at 3.30am, and I write and write and write. I also do workshops where I give a practical introduction to Islamic geometric design – I’ve organised one in Istanbul for January. At the moment it’s a case of trying to remember all the things that I’ve got on the boil. It’s all good fun.
Where in the world is it best to find these designs?
Cairo is fantastic – you can’t walk for 10 minutes without tripping over a masterpiece. There’s also a building in Natanz in Iran that I would really like to see: it’s a small shrine decorated with blue and turquoise ceramic tiles, it’s a jewel.
What do you like most about what you do?
It never bores me. I committed to this 25 years ago because I wanted an interesting life, and it’s given me that. Every day there is something new.
Where do you see yourself in five years time?
Recently I set up a website called the School of Islamic Geometric Design, where I put a lot of educational resources: I’d like this to become my main focus. There are so many ways that Islamic design can be used in an educational context, from primary school children to architects. Often with traditions, people are most concerned with preservation, but that means keeping things static. The masterpieces from the last few hundred years evolved through creative innovation: doing things that had never been done before. Personally, I’d much rather dedicate myself to reinvigorating Islamic design.