Since its origins in the early 20th century, with the invention of machine printing, Iran's graphic design community has produced rich and varied work that has is been exhibited all over the world. Contemporary designers include Homa Delvaray, whose byzantine illustrations, vivid, typographic posters, and Persian fonts have been praised in the Middle East, Europe, and the U.S. Reza Abedini, meanwhile, is probably best-known to the Western world for his unique style of modern Arabic typography. Then there's Morteza Momayez, a book designer and one of the recent leaders in the Iranian graphic design world before his death in 2005.
Much of Iranian contemporary design melds Iran's rich visual history with modern-day influences, yet it's still underrepresented in the West—particularly the United States. "There's a community within International Design that has no idea about Iranian design," says Majid Abbasi, who runs the Tehran- and Toronto- based Studio Abbasi. In 2003, Abbasi co-founded Neshan, the only graphic design magazine in Iran, along with Iranian designers Saed Meshki and Ali Rashidi. With the magazine, these designers wanted to both build a platform to celebrate the graphic design community within their own country, as well as showcase their homegrown talent to the rest of the world.
Momayez assumed the role of founding editor-in-chief of the magazine until his death, when the others continued to run it in his honor. Neshan is published quarterly, with both a print version available in various bookstores and libraries in Iran, as well as an online version accessible to everyone. For each issue, which highlights new work from the Iranian design scene, as well as from select international designers, summaries of the articles are put online in both Farsi and English. Abbasi, who has traveled to the U.S. for his own work and exhibitions, says that recognition of Iranian work is a bit better in Europe than in America, largely because of proximity and the European biennials, where Iranian designers have historically had a good showing.
Still, Iranian design lacks widespread exposure in the West, and part of Neshan's mission is to change that. It hasn't always been a simple task. For one, long-time international sanctions on Iran have made it difficult for the magazine to able to accrue international subscribers (another reason for the summaries of the issues online). But Abbasi says the time is right for the design scene to flourish inside of the country and be recognized outside of it. Since President Mohammad Khatami assumed the presidency in 1997, Iran has become a more open society, allowing for NGOs to form and thrive and for cultural projects like Neshan to reach a wider audience.
Though Abbasi and the other founders are involved in design organizations in Iran, such as the local AIGA, Neshan is self-funded by the founders, with money from subscriptions and advertisements going straight back into the magazine's production. Independence from the government, religious or cultural establishment has allowed them to operate more freely of religious and cultural limitations, even under President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a religious hardliner who ran a less open society. But even in those years, censorship could be seen as an unlikely catalyst for creativity, as any designer who has worked with constraints knows.
The distinguishing factor of Iranian contemporary design, Abbasi says, is the tradition of merging the historical with the modern, resulting in a variety of styles that range from calligraphic to minimalist, from modernist black and white to a bold use of color. Many designers working today mix and match cultural codes and styles, drawing from their Middle Eastern roots with vivid Persian imagery but also finding influence in international design movements like the clean and meticulous Swiss Style. Then there's the fact that Arabic typography can be such a beautiful and powerful tool of expression—one that not many international designers are able to wield. "The benefit, or privilege, of Iranian graphic design is the knowledge of the designer about the Farsi alphabet—knowing the poetry and using it in their works," says Abbasi.
Abbasi points to the posters of Aria Kasai, the dense drawings and rich embroideries of Iman Raad, and the evocative imagery of Farshid Mesghali as some of his favorite works coming out of Iran, as well as just a few of the names that everyone, internationally, should know. He's hopeful that Iranian design will continue to get the recognition and attention it deserves, until finally it's appreciated as much in the West as other international styles. He sees a parallel between Japanese graphic design, which rose out of the reconstruction years after World War II to become familiar and highly respected around the world. "Year by year we become more familiar to the world," he says.
[All Photos: courtesy Neshan]