NESHAN, The Iranian Graphic Design Magazine

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Neshan 41

Iranian Contemporary Design

Homa Delvaray: Designer of Powerful Intricacies

Roshanak Keyghobadi

Homa Delvaray was born two years after the 1979 revolution in Iran, which marked the start of a radically different era in Iranian history and culture. The new government’s policies were in stark contrast to the past era and many Iranians found themselves learning new personal and public codes of conduct. Historically and culturally, Iranians have always been in dual conditions (such as being the conqueror or conquered, being traditional or embracing modernity) and have been in constant personal and public conflict in coming to terms with contrasting positions.  

As Iranian writer Goli Taraghi (2010) aptly observes and comments about her personal life, in Iran, generally an Iranian lives “between two opposing worlds just side by side…two modes of being…contradictory and schizophrenic.” This is what Taraghi calls: “problem of duality” and “living in two worlds” which I suggest that in contemporary Iran, women can sense it more since they have to follow additional cultural and social rules and regulations with extra intensity and their lives are touched by it more than men. As a young Iranian woman, Homa Delvaray started her artistic career in this environment of binaries and majority of her works portray these contrasts. 

In 2007, Delvaray was part of a group exhibition titled “Rokhsat” that featured works of young graphic designers from various parts of Iran. As this group explained in their exhibition’s statement, in Iran’s traditional sports, a young wrestler asks for Rokhsat (permission) from the elders for entering the ring. The group requested Rokhsat from the generations before them (and their viewers) to present their design innovations and artistic visions. This was not only an open invitation for a glimpse at contemporary design practices in Iran but also a venue for identifying the new generation of Iranian women designers1 in contrast to the previous generation of designers which were predominantly men. 

Since then Delvaray has been a highly productive designer and has worked on many projects such as books2, book covers3, identity design4, music albums5, and posters. She has been constantly challenging herself and experimenting with innovative ideas. To better analyze and critique Delvaray’s works, I have specifically chosen to focus only on her poster designs.  Therefore, I will first examine her posters chronologically and then, discuss what I believe are the dominant themes in Delvaray’s designs and visual language that make her a unique designer.

In search of a visual voice
In 2006, Homa completed her Bachelor of Arts graduation project.6 For this project she created a series of ten posters titled “Iranian Poets” and chose Ferdowsi, Naser Khosro, Khayyam, Saadi, Molavi, Hafez, Nezami, Nima Youshij, Forough Farrokhzad and Manouchehr Atashi as featured poets. She selected typography and images, which related to each poet visually, psychologically and philosophically. Her design is clearly based on a recurring structure that resembles elaborate diagrams and charts but unlike the function of a chart, which is clarification and explanation of information, her charts are puzzling and hard to solve. Delvaray’s interest in using traditional patterns and ornamentations and reference to Iranian visual sources starts at this point.

Dimensional Typography and Lined and Multi-Layered Design
In 2007, Delvaray experimented with two different design approaches. I call one, Dimensional Typography and the other, Lined and Multi-Layered Design.  An example of her Dimensional Typography is the “Assma al Hossna” poster where typography takes the center stage as a sculptural or architectural entity. She constructed the letters by using the traditional square Kufic script7 and changed them into shapes with personality. She decorated the heavy and cubical letters with many Iranian traditional patterns and colors and made the letters burgeon or become passageways and gates.  An example of Delvaray’s Lined and Layered Design is the poster titled “Dialogue.” This design is influenced by traditional Iranian carpet designs in combination with objects and elements of everyday urban life. In their linearity these designs possess multiple layers of form and content. Posters: “ Sohre-ye Shahr (Hafez Day)” and “ Hope for the Future”.

Design of Binaries
In 2008, Delvaray expanded her visual vocabulary and gradually shaped her personal style, which I call Design of Binaries. Visually, she sets legible type, soft forms, warm colors, open space, symmetrical composition and natural elements against illegible type, hardedge forms, cool colors, enclosed space, asymmetrical composition and mechanical elements. Conceptually, She draws attention to binary ideas such as life and death, calmness and anxiety, spiritualism and materialism, hope and despair, play and somberness. In her poster “Save me from what I don’t want” natural and mechanical elements although inherently in opposition, appear to coexist harmoniously. In the center of the composition, a bird is peacefully perched on a flower branch in front of either a sunrise or a sunset, alarmingly surrounded by weaponry, pollutants and industrial activities. 

Deco Mechanics Design 
The poster for “Ali Mohammadi’s painting exhibition” is an example of Design of Binaries but it is also what I call Deco Mechanics Design, which is not only highly decorative, but is also constructed to look like tools, machines and mechanical working parts. Letters are decorated and saturated with patterns and imagery and the background is covered with maze-like lines. In the “Reciprocal Visit” poster the patterned neon green letters, are colossal three-dimensional masses that defy gravity and are suspended in mid-air ready to be assembled and read. Posters: “Divar Koub” and “One Hundredth Birthday of Futurism.”

Illustrative Typography
Delvaray’s simultaneous understanding and passion for both typography and illustration, guided her towards creating Illustrative Typography, which expanded her visual horizon and blurred the boundaries between graphic design and illustration. Although some of her posters such as, “Junction Box” (in three color versions) and “Standard” were still limited to renditions of mechanical devices or insects and animals, yet in her “Iranian World View” (Die Iranische Weltanschauung),  “Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles”, and “Tehran Monoxide Project” posters women, men and children suddenly emerged and coexisted with her Illustrative Typography and Deco Mechanics Design. Another drastic change in Delvaray’s design was the complete separation of typography from imagery in posters such as “Iranian World View” and “Junction Box.” In these designs typography is boxed-in, tamed, and a mere caption for the illustrations.  Since 2011, Delvaray has kept experimenting with various design genres that she has in her repertoire as it can be seen in posters such as “The Undones”, “My faint face I blush with the blood of my heart”, “Silver Cyprus”, “Recycle Game”, “The Closest Planet Concert, Ansoo Music Band” and “Iran Silk Screen School.”

Her most recent design is titled “Flag of Peace” where she is showcasing her ability to weave typography and imagery with her masterful techniques and also skillfully re-thinking the meaning of the flag. She explains: “National flags are historically patriotic symbols of identification. Distinct designs on flapping fabrics, flags define the imaginary lines of the borders where the war and peace are at tension. I wanted to challenge the very notion of ‘raising’ a flag. Inspired by Persian carpets, a collective creation of tender souls, I imagine a land where the flags are not raised in the wind but put on the ground to sit together. I long not for a distinct design but a tapestry of colors and shapes that refuse the simplicity of the identification and reminds us of the collective work that we need to achieve and maintain peace.” 

Dominant Themes: 

Homa Delvaray uses her visual voice to create narratives that are intricate, enigmatic, dynamic, challenging, and confrontational. Her narrative designs may start with a basic visual language and a single story but it ends up with highly sophisticated design solutions and narratives. Inspired not only by Iranian prose and poetry but also by miniature painting, lithography, metal work and carpet designs, she forms, joins, layers, twists, turns, stitches, and weaves elements of her designs and paints them with vibrant colors. Looking at any of Delvaray’s posters is like entering a story. Each illustration is a Pardeh8 waiting to be read. Yet there is no Pardeh Khan (narrator) to walk the viewer through the story and she does not make the reading any easier either. What makes her voice and narrative apart from others is her sensitivity and meticulous way of putting together complex ideas and elements with diverse visual histories and components and assigning new meanings to their new identities. She looks at the traditional visual elements as raw materials to work with and rejuvenates them by using them in contemporary contexts. Her narratives are highly personal and told from first person point of view yet they have a universal appeal since they describe shared human sensitivities and concerns. 

She explains:9 “I neither agree with those who are entirely against returning to tradition and leaning towards decorative art, or those who are making a business out of it. If someone considers herself a beneficiary of this tradition which has penetrated the core of life and manifested itself through time, with no doubt she can find a moderate route that is fond of the tradition, borrows from it, extracts her own personal aesthetics from it, corresponds to its time and then leaves it behind. The work that is the result of this procedure is no longer tradition, past heritage or else; it owns it and is not removed from it.  It is not generated out of nowhere and is not a lie. Through time it has not limited itself to form only and it is the Iranian spirit, which has reached this present moment. This is the reason that such work has an Iranian appearance and voice. If there is something that connects the body of my work together and is considered to be my style, it is ultimately my voice, which I hope that every so often my whisper has been loud enough to be heard by a few.” 

In “Iranian World View” (Die Iranische Weltanschauung) poster Delvaray’s visual narrative depicts combat of heroes with enemies and evokes mythological images of Rustam and the White Demon (Rustam and Div-e Sefid) of Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh. Perhaps she is re-narrating and reminding the viewer of the never-ending battle of Iranians with ideological, cultural and social forces of evil that have been imposed on them continuously throughout the Iranian history. The figures and text are restrained in a small space (industrial pipe frame or a cave) and confined to their designated spaces and portray this situation. 

Delvaray’s visual voice possesses a poetic quality that is influenced by both traditional and contemporary Iranian poetry. Among the contemporary Iranian poets her visual narrative is close to the poetic narrative of Mehdi Akhavan Sales (1928-1990). In 1968, Akhavan Sales explained10 that he tries to graft the healthy, sound nerves and veins of the pure living language—which bring all its dynamic elements and its strong skeleton from the past—on to today’s blood, feelings and pulse (as far as he can succeed in such surgical mediation). It is for this reason that he employs everything from the past, which is acceptable and good to be developed; everything still useful, alive and active; the words, which are full of meaning, and have special intrinsic elegance. For this he depended on a thousand years of Persian literature. Delvaray also performs her “surgical mediation” through developing her special and highly ornamental and complex contemporary designs based on thousand of years of Iranian imagery.

One of the distinguished aspects of Delvaray’s visual language is its ornamentation and complexity. Her poster designs are highly decorative, complicated and enigmatic. As design critic Alice Twemlow explains:11 “Ornament is clearly an integral part of the dominant visual language of the moment…among this dense forest of fashionably ornamental graphic design is work that stands out because, in addition to the irreverence and fun, it brings complexity, meaningfulness and a seriousness of intent.” Delvaray’s art also play a mediatory role.  As historian of Islamic art Oleg Grabar12 explains “Ornament is ‘calliphoric’;13 it carries beauty within it” and through this beauty it draws the attention of the viewer to the work of art and assists them in entering the aesthetic realm of an artwork. 

In defense of complexity and ornamentation, Delvaray argues: “I do not believe that transmitting the client’s message to the viewer in the easiest possible way is the only mission of the graphic designer…If a graphic designer supposed to have a commitment, it would be finding a new way of communication for what she has to say in order to relate to the viewer.  There are no pre-assigned general rules to help achieve this goal sooner. The designer has to choose and try new approaches to challenge herself. The ultimate goal of a design work is not be simple, legible or even beautiful or be part of all the similar and boring collection of designs that lack creativity and challenge. By simplifying design and making it obvious to the viewer a designer would insult the intelligence of the viewer and assumes that they are not able to solve a simple riddle or comprehend complicated relationships.”

 Delvaray believes that designers can change the collective taste of a society and culture by respecting their viewers’ intelligence and educating them through thought provoking and powerful designs. She defends selecting complexity and ornamentation in her work and explains that visual complexity is the method, tone and dialogue that she has chosen as a contemporary graphic designer in order to express and transmit her concepts to her viewers. This is a personal reaction, interest and concern and originates from her environment and her individual and historical background. In fact, her visual mentality and aesthetic ideas are borrowed from Iranian/Islamic visual traditions and their dominant aesthetics. She believe that the best choice for beginning a challenge and the greatest source for inspiration is using the never-ending visual treasures of a culture that is so attached and fused with ornament that has been created since pre-historic time till now; it encompasses the wide scope of architecture, painting, calligraphy, and other arts.

In “Tehran, A Lovely Hell!” poster, Delvaray showcases her unique dichotomist visual language and she explains the idea behind her design: “The title/word/image ‘Tehran’ is rendered in three-dimensional ‘Kufi-ye Banna-i’ script against a mountain and plain in the background. It is a part of a composition of what seems to be a group of unrelated (indeed they are unrelated!) objects. ‘Damavand’, is an inactive volcano mountain to the east of Tehran which symbolizes Tehran’s natural geography… The plain is inspired by Iranian lithographic prints with their distinctive vegetation and patterns.  The deer and bird forms are made of metal and are used in ‘Alam’14. There is a pack of ‘Bahman’ cigarettes, which is considered to be the national cigarette by many Iranians, is antique and stinky and a lot of artists smoke it with pleasure! There is an iPod playing the music video of ‘Archive’ that is the most popular Western group amongst youngsters in Tehran. And that joystick. A lot of Tehrani people–mostly men–can’t stop playing video games in parties. I believe Tehran is all this. A city that has a heritage and a history with flavor of cigarette smoke, music and lack of seriousness and a little bit of play…Tehran is A Lovely Hell. It is a combination of all dichotomies-pleasant and threatening-all of this together.”

With the design of “Tehran, A Lovely Hell!” Delvaray’s artistic practice not only enters a new space, that is a space in-between graphic design and illustration, but also she masters what can be called “Hybrid Design” which is one of the dominant characteristics of her work.  As critical theorist Homi Bhabha explains:15 “the importance of hybridity is not to be able to trace two original moments from which the third emerges, rather hybridity to me is the ‘third space’ which enables the other positions to emerge.” In her Hybrid Designs, Delvaray crossbreeds unlikely visual and conceptual elements together and creates a contradictory offspring. 

In “Tehran, A Lovely Hell!” the sculptural hot pink type that spells out the word Tehran although gigantic, once more is “Tou Khali” (hollowed and without meaning). Symbols of nature (animals, mountain, blue sky, and plain) and culture (iPod, joystick, and cigarettes) exist in the same composition and create an amalgam that resides in a “third space”, which is neither natural nor cultural but is in an in-between state of being. This is a space which Delvaray’s visual voice is situated. This is a fresh and highly sophisticated, at times serious/sarcastic or bitter/sweet voice of a woman graphic designer in contemporary Iran that carries a new structure of authority and representation. 

In Conclusion
Homa Delvaray is one of the few Iranian women graphic designers who are vigorously engaged in all aspects of design practice and their presence in the national and international art arenas has been undeniably a powerful force is making the new face of Iranian graphic design visible. This is in stark contrast to the marginal position of women designers within the conventional and central male-dominated space in Iranian graphic design. The idea of denying marginality and demanding centrality manifests itself in almost all of Delvaray’s designs where she avoids cropping, frames the format with borders, and designs central or symmetrical compositions. Again within this framework, which can be viewed as masculine space, her highly embellished designs reclaim a central position that a traditional reading would label as feminine. On the other hand, within both spaces of Iranian and non-Iranian design practice and environment, Homa Delvaray not only questions the discourse of masculine/feminine and central/marginal but also challenges the viewers by positioning them in/out of a familiar or unfamiliar maze of narratives, meanings and interpretations.

1The Women designers of Rokhsat exhibition were: Shahrzad Changalvaee, Asieh Dehghani , Homa Delvaray, Maryam Enayati, Zeynab Izadyar, Zeinab Shahidi, Reyhaneh Sheikhbahaey and Soha Shirvani.
2Books: Kolsum Naneh, (In)discernible (Ir)regularities, Beauties Burn in Fire, My Dreams Come True Every Morning When I See You.
3Book Covers: Iranian Plays series, Life and Art of Haj Mirza Emami, Arabesque, The Best Stories of the World series, Experiences of Iranian and World Writers series, Scorched Glass, Women’s Role in Local Music of Iran, Interactive Music book series.
4Identity Design: Kashmir Gallery, Lybra Café.
5Music Albums: Moonrise, The Closest Planet
6In 2006, Homa Delvaray graduated from the College of Fine Arts at Tehran University with a bachelor’s degree in Graphic Design. At Tehran University she studied art and design with Reza Abedini who was also the advisor for her Bachelor of Arts degree graduation project.  
7Kufi-ye banna-i (square kufic) is a geometric script that is used in architecture.
8Pardeh khani is an Iranian traditional performance art in form of story telling. 
9On Vitrin Rooz website, 2010.
10From an interview with Sirus Tahbaz, Shafi’i Kadkani and Esma’il Kho’i in 1968.
11Alice Twemlow (2005), The Decriminalization of Ornament.
12Oleg Grabar (1992) Mediation of Ornament.
13Oleg Garber’s term.
14‘Alam’ is a religious flag that is decorated with symbolic objects and used in mourning ceremonies and processions of Ashoura.
15Homi Bhabha (1990). The location of culture. London: Routledge.

Roshanak Keyghobadi

holds a doctoral degree in Art and Art Education from Columbia University, New York and her MFA and BFA are both in Graphic Design. She teaches Visual Communications and History of Graphic Design at State University of New York and is also a research assistant at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Roshanak writes about Iranian contemporary art and artists with special focus on design and typography. Her essays have appeared in a number of publications including AIGA’s VOICE as well as Design Observer and her artworks have been exhibited internationally.

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