Muslim design: a fusion of old and new

Muslim designers cater to a wide demographic, but for many, Islamic heritage – from the old world beauty of the Middle East to their sense of personal spirituality – inspires an impressive fusion of traditional and modern creativity.

While it’s always been a love of design that drove Peter Gould to pursue that creative pathway, he acknowledges the “old Middle East” as a huge source of inspiration. It was there he was drawn towards the creative traditions of Syria,Morocco and Turkey.“Those visits profoundly affected me spiritually and creatively, and I found myself looking for ways to fuse vibrant, contemporary graphic styles with traditional Islamic design elements like calligraphy, geometric tiling and mosaics.”

It’s a creative line the Sydney-based designer has since followed, with Gould’s design work influenced “deeply and powerfully” by Islamic heritage.“I was so captivated and dazzled by what I found in cities like Fez, Granada, Istanbul, Mecca and Damascus that I think it just started pouring out of my heart and into my work,” he says. “Once that started getting noticed, I think people appreciated the unusual fusion of old and new styles. It was a blessing to start working with a range of people around the world looking for that mix.”

Gould boasts high profile commercial clients seeking this striking fusion in design, and not all are Muslim clients or brands. “My faith inspires my thinking for Islamic-oriented projects but obviously doesn’t have much bearing for a standard government annual report project, for example, I think in a broader sense it guides what kind of work I look for. I wouldn’t do projects that exploit women’s bodies (which is all too common in advertising of course) but rather projects that benefit the world somehow.”

Such lofty ideals also penetrate the works of Zahrah Habibullah, who considers herself a “designer-maker”. She’s moved from a Bachelor of Design degree with a Jewellery and Graphic Design Major/Minor, into a Bachelor of Fine Art, Jewellery.

“At this point in my life my work overlaps a number of disciplines; graphic design, photography, painting, mixed media and jewellery. I enjoy exploring all realms of materials separately and together,” she says.

Melbourne-based Habibullah is passionate about beauty and craftsmanship, and says her work “embodies a sense of celebration of this world. I love to question and explore different nuances in the physical realm of visual arts and object design. I aim to create objects and images that make people think as well as enjoying the worldly beauty of a piece.”

Like Gould, Habibullah’s work is a hybrid of culture, heritage and spirituality. Given her ancestry includes Burmese, Indian and Scottish lines with Kiwi “roots and branches that are inherently Australian”, it’s not surprising she taps into her heritage and that it has a “subtle influence” on how she designs. “It is a reflection of me. I try for it not to overtake or design what I do. It also depends what kind of clientele I am designing for.”

Nevertheless, Habibullah believes Islamic heritage heavily influences her work.“I have had amazing opportunities to live and work in North Africa, Morocco in particular, and Oman, UAE and Qatar in the Middle East where I saw unparalleled craftsmanship and artwork in everyday life, and the influence of this on my work was enormous especially in my 20s.”

For spatial designer Khadija O’Connell, her focus lies in interior/event decor, as well as paper craft, sewing and floral design. But she says she always finds it a challenge to define herself.

“Recently I started thinking of myself as more of a coordinator, just pulling things together to make a shift or create something new; The Art of Assemblage”, she says. The California-based designer says her work doesn’t really look Islamic. ‘[But] everything I do comes from an intentionality which is Muslim and my core audience is Muslim.” O’Connell has a love of traditional patterning and design, and applauds “…the amazing craftsmanship of traditional work”.

“I value the care and time that goes into the making of traditional handmade things and I find I respond very differently to them versus something machine made.”

Dr Ahmed Muhaisen, head of the architecture department at the Islamic University of Gaza, specialises in environmental building design, architectural heritage and building design. His particular fascination lies in Islamic architecture and local architectural heritage that references Islamic periods, namely the Mamlouk and Ottoman periods.

“The Islamic heritage is very rich in concepts and values that deserve to be considered in all aspects of life” he says. “As a designer and a professor, I was influenced considerably by the Islamic architectural heritage in my work.” He marries modern design with Islamic concepts by “…implanting traditional Islamic concepts with modern building materials and systems”.

On a somewhat smaller scale, O’Connell also loves using traditional objects and blending them with modern ones. “It seems to me a beautiful metaphor of who we are as well; modern people with a traditional core.”

Habibullah says it’s not a conscious decision to have the modern concept embrace the Islamic influences, it just happens. “I think that for me it just manifests in the work; when I design something, it’s an extension of me or my beliefs and intentions onto paper or metal or whatever material I choose.”

Gould shares similar sentiments, and says each project varies, according to its objectives and what the brand or design must communicate.He cites his recent work for the ‘Faith Fashion Fusion’ project at The Powerhouse Museum in Sydney, where he was asked to help develop a “creative visual identity system” representing Muslim women’s designs in modest fashion, an emerging trend in Australia.

“My concepts were inspired by Arabic calligraphy and traditional Islamic star tiling but reinterpreted into a vibrant urban street feel. Even the title-block typeface itself reflects a connection to the Arabic script style. The best design projects excite and appeal to almost everyone, regardless of their background or understanding of life.”And further to inspiration, Muhaisen believes Islamic architecture has solutions to many problems associated with the modern buildings, particularly in relation to social and environmental aspects. “Islamic architecture can be more developed and linked to the new technologies in a way that ensures preserving the Islamic identity. Muslims have to be proud of the Islamic architecture and values.”

Cover Image Name: Peter Gould

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