Eric Broug has dedicated thirty years of his life to Islamic geometric design. His work as an artist, consultant and educator has taken him around the world but in the current COVID-19 pandemic, the Dutchman opted to make the most of staying put. A few weeks ago Broug turned retailer, opening a homeware and gifts shop in the north of England where he lives, taking in-store what he’s used to curating online.
(The following Q&A has been edited for language.)
Salaam Gateway: We saw your LinkedIn post about your next career move - a shop! Could you tell us more about this?
Eric Broug: For the last few years, I have had to get on a plane to make my money.
I give workshops in Qatar, Kuwait, UAE, Canada, USA etc. With the COVID crisis I realised that this would not be happening to the same extent and, besides, for the sake of the environment, I don’t want to be flying so much anymore.
I am used to curating content online on my Instagram account, I am now doing that in my shop. It is based in Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire, voted "the coolest town in Europe" a few years ago. I’ve been open a few weeks and it has been good. I am also online (www.brougs.shop) and I am selling, for example, beautiful silk scarves from Granada, maamoul cookie cutters from Syria, and leather purses from Al-Andalus. It is an exciting new adventure but most of all, it is an act of faith for me and my family.
You're an expert in Islamic geometric design. What exactly do you do with regards your career in the field?
I write books, I teach, I design, I make art, I do design consultancy, I curate content on social media. Anything and everything, really. The theme that ties everything together is that I like to make this design heritage accessible to all.
How long have you been working in Islamic geometric design and how did you get into it?
I have been dedicated to Islamic geometric design for over 30 years. I started when I was a student at the University of Amsterdam. I was studying Middle Eastern Politics. At some point in my third year, I realised that it was interesting but not that interesting. I wanted a bigger challenge, something that would allow me to give something and that would make my life interesting.
So, I dropped out in search of something else. I soon thereafter found a book on Islamic geometric design (a 19th century book by Jules Bourgoin). I was intrigued and captivated: it was art, science, history, creativity, and under-researched. So I made deal with myself: If I was going to pursue something so obscure, I had to do it properly, not as a hobby but as a calling. And this is the deal I kept with myself. I started by deconstructing the patterns in this 19th century book, with a pair of compasses and a ruler. This is how I taught myself.
Islamic geometric design bears the weight of its name with regards the religion of Islam. How is it tied to Islam?
It’s a complex question. Over the last 150 years, many different names have been used: Saracenic, Mohammedan, Arabic. None of these are adequate.
The term Islamic geometric design is not the best term but it is the least bad term.
It would be more accurate to call it, for example Mamluk geometric art, Timurd geometric art, Seljuk geometric art etc.
I’ve always been happy to use the term Islamic geometric design because at least everyone knows what I’m talking about. I use it as a cultural descriptor, not a religious one.
We sometimes see your social media posts pointing out how this or that design has been executed 'wrongly'. Could you give us examples how Islamic geometric design could be executed wrongly, and what, in your opinion, is the level of knowledge of the art form by the people who choose to use it?
Nowadays in architecture, there is a trend to use these patterns to make a connection to this ancient design heritage. One of the miracles of Islamic geometric design is that there has been over a millennium of uninterrupted design excellence, except for the last 60 years or so.
You can look at buildings from the 11th century or 17th century, in Iran or Afghanistan or Morocco and you can see that these patterns are applied in specific ways.
There is an undocumented tradition of best practice, the evidence is all around us. This also applies to Islamic geometric design in art, for example in Quran pages.
Because of economic and social changes in the 20th century, this awareness of best practice in Islamic geometric design has disappeared to a large extent. Architecture schools have not responded to this and in essence, the contemporary use of these patterns has become disconnected from the 12 centuries of excellence.
It’s a sad situation. I try to draw attention to the issues, and to educate. I have written an e-book manual called Best Practice in Islamic Geometric Design in which I have codified five principles. If you look up my hashtag on Instagram #cpigd (common problems in Islamic geometric design), you will find quite a few educational posts and analyses on this subject.
What are other key challenges facing Islamic geometric design today and how do you propose they could be resolved?
It’s up to architecture schools to start offering a practical curriculum on Islamic geometric design. I receive so many emails from architecture students across the world who want to learn how to use this design heritage but they are not getting the guidance they need from their own educational institute. There is also an opportunity for architects and city planning departments to set quality standards as a way to turn away from this trend of poor quality Islamic geometric design.
Islamic geometric design has a deep and wide heritage but that doesn't mean it can't be used or adapted for use in contemporary architecture and design for a wide range of products. Could you give us a couple of best examples of its contemporary use that you have seen?
Nowadays, Islamic geometric patterns are more popular and mainstream than ever before. Fashion houses use them, online games use them. On my Instagram profile (@ericbroug) I try to capture the best (and worst examples).
Every art form has its own specificities. With regards Islamic geometric design, are there cultural-geographic distinctions? For example, Southeast Asian Islamic geometric design versus North African Islamic geometric design?
Yes, there are regional distinctions and distinctions by era.
When we see the patterns as merely black lines on a white background, we only see half the story. Quite often the embellishment gives the clues as to where a composition is from.
There are some patterns that are ubiquitous across the centuries and across the Islamic world. But, for example, in India they have different materials and pigments than in Egypt or Morocco so therefore the compositions will look different.
There are certain preferences for patterns per region and per era. In Marnid Morocco, they were very content to keep pursuing increasingly complex patterns in the family of fourfold patterns (i.e. patterns based on a division of a circle into eight equal segments). In Ottoman Turkey, you see a lot of fivefold compositions (i.e. patterns based on a division of a circle into five equal segments). It’s a bit more nuanced than I am describing here but for the keen observer and student, you can readily see these regional ad era-specific preferences.
Is there, then, a "standard" form of Islamic geometric design "spoken" by a wide cross-section of the world?
Not really. What is standard is that Islamic geometric design is a visual language.
The shapes are the words and the composition is the sentence. A citizen from 15th century Cairo could travel to Anatolia and he or she would be able to recognise the words but perhaps the sentence they created, would have been new.
(Questions by Emmy Abdul Alim)
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