The country of Iran has a history going back seven thousand years, but records of civilization there begin with the immigration of the Aryans. During the first and second millennia BCE, they entered Iran from both sides of the Caspian Sea in successive waves; the name “Iran”is derived from “Aryan”. Some migrated to Khorasan from the upper parts of Transoxiana, east of the Caspian Sea, while others arrived in Azerbaijan via the Caspian and Black Seas. Many settled down, others migrated further into what are today known as the provinces of Fars and Khuzestan north of the Persian Gulf. This two- pronged migration from the northeast and the northwest was the origin of a dual history in two distinct geographical locations.
Throughout its history, Iran has been a crossroads for other civilizations, which the Iranians adopted, transformed and refl ected back to the lands where they arose. Iran is a geographic bridge between the worlds of the Mediterranean, China and India, and also connects central Asia and Arabia.
This land is the birthplace of the Zoroastrian 1 and Manichean religions. It spread the cult of Mithra to Rome and Christianity to China. It exposed the civilization of Islam to Greek learning and Neo-Platonist philosophy, and spread the Persian language throughout Asia Minor and the Far East. It dominated a vast area from Egypt to China.
The Persians gave the world the fi rst charter of human rights during the reign of Cyrus 2 , ruled justly and adopted for their religions the values of monotheism, cultivation, light, clean water and fi re, and good speech, thought and behaviour. They learned writing from the Sumerians, their neighbours to the west and the fi rst civilization by the river Tigris ( now Iraq ). Although writing was at fi rst the sole preserve of rulers and priests and used only for religious purposes and official reports such as records of royal expenditures, it eventually spread to encompass myths, epics, poems and literature.
Cuneiform documents inscribed on stone or clay and the Pahlavi 3 script employed in writing Avesta 4 and other ancient holy texts reveal a widespread uniform civilization that considered justice as the guide for passing through the celestial world and entering immortal heaven to join the clean spirit of AhuraMazda.
After the advent of Islam in Iran, artists and calligraphers started to create new styles of undeniable beauty in writing, styles that are still commonly found today. Because Islam for- bade music, sculpture and painting, Iranian artists replaced sculpture with tile-work in architecture, and instead of painting used calligraphy, illustration and miniatures to carry their visual messages.
For Iranians, calligraphy has always been a ritual and sacred act, for with it they wrote God’s words ( the Koran ), great poems, and the teachings of great orators and sages.
Iranian calligraphers never picked up the pen with unclean hands, just as they performed the ablution before prayers. For them, the pen was holy because God had sworn by it in the Koran.
In a beautiful and poetic metaphor at the beginning of his Masnavi, Molana 5 likens humans to a cane that starts moaning when it is separated from the divine primordial canebrake. The moan of the cane is a poignant song that is esteemed in all parts of Iran. This same cane is used to make the calligrapher’s pen from whose hollow body come all musical sounds and poems by human breath and hand.
Iranian script is written from right to left, which from a psychological standpoint means to move from the conscious to the unconscious.
With its source in both the ancient Iranian religions and Islam, a type of mysticism has become interwoven with Iranian culture, the artistic reflection of which strongly manifests itself in poetry, painting, architecture and handicrafts as well as calligraphy. In both the artist’s approach and the interpretation and hermeneutics of the work of art, ancient and modern Iranian calligraphy is based on definite measures of proportionality.
Calligraphy, in the course of its long life, has encountered few calligraphers
who have boldly challenged the rules to bring about innovation.
It is said that a skilled and reputable calligrapher could write in seven different scripts with skill and grace.
Graphics as defined in Iran today, considered not only as decorative and distinct but also as broadly disseminated and functional, goes back to the printing of the fi rst newspapers under the Qajars 6 We see the emergence of decorative publication and illustration using lithography about one hundred and fi fty years ago, and the fi rst public notices addressed to city dwellers nearly one hundred years ago, around the advent of modernism.
As a way to convey cultural or commercial messages, the first Iranian graphic designers were painters who used linear illustration or high contrast in keeping with the printing techniques of the time.
Formal teaching of graphics in Iran began with the foundation of the Faculty of Decorative Arts in 1960, followed by the offering of graphic arts studies in the Faculty of Fine Arts at Tehran University in 1969.
Graduates worked in the expanding market or became teachers in their turn.
Although during its short life Iranian graphic design ( like all the arts ) has reflected styles from western countries, where graphic design was born, it has always displayed a distinctive national identity and developed styles of its own.
A review of lasting contributions from eminent designers shows that the best have always tried to fi nd new styles to define Iranian graphic Design. They set out on this long journey by observing the customs of traditional decorative arts, and after continuous practice under acknowledged masters they reach the point of having internalized these works in their own production.
At turning points in history, nations generally look back at what they have inherited from the past that contributes to their identity.
The constitutional period7 of a hundred years ago and the Iranian revolution are two of the major turning points when Iranian culture, in addition to struggling with tradition and modernism, felt the need to review its lost but still accessible heritage.
All kinds of artists, including graphic designers, need this retrospective view. Even when movements go through extreme phases as they grow, at some point they achieve a conventional style against which a new wave can sweep aside the reeds and let the limpid water shimmer.
Having worked with lithography and painting as well as styles such as gilding,8 Tashir and arabesque,9 Iranian graphic designers have recently begun working with Persian script. But Iranian painters had already expressed themselves in writing styles during the movement known as “Ghahve Khane”.
Unlike their Roman counterparts, Iranian typefaces are few. If we ignore the decorative or fantasy fonts, the rest can be traced to those derived from Arabic type designs transformed into Iranian with slight changes. The basis for most of these letters is the Naskh or Thulth 11 scripts and to a lesser extent Kufi 12 These are also classifi ed as decorative letters. All Iranian magazines, newspapers and books in the educational, literary, mathematical or scientific fields are printed and circulated in these few typefaces.
The limitations of Iranian graphic design stem from the fact that in graphic productions the designer’s freedom is circumscribed by the requirements of typography. An Iranian designer will inevitably resort to specific logotype designs, handwritten calligraphy or the Nastaligh font to circumvent this shortcoming.
This collection, which covers the period of the past 50 years, juxtaposes outstanding, successful, infl uential or experimental samples of scripted, typographical, and calligraphic design deriving from Persian script. Even without the intention to record history or assess, historical records and assessments follow in its wake.
1 A monotheistic pre-Islamic religion of ancient Persia founded by Zoroaster in the 6th century BCE.
2 Cyrus (died c. 530 BCE), king of Persia 559–530 BCE, founder of the Achaemenid dynasty
and father of Cambyses, known as Cyrus the Great.
3 The written script of Iranians 250 BCE, still used in Iran in the 13th century.
4 The holy book of Zoroastrianism in ancient Iran.
5 Another name for Rumi, the great Iranian poet of the 13th century.
6 Iranian dynasty from 1781 to 1925.
7 The insurrection of Iranians in 1925 against the ruling Qajars resulting in the formation of the fi rst
8 Gilded images.
9 One of the fundamental Iranian decorative arts, with numerous curves and fl ourishes.
10 A style of Iranian painting recalling past and even vulgar arts that was in use for a time.
11 The scripts in use in the early Islamic period in Iran.
12 One of the scripts of the early Islamic period, based on elongated letters and widely used
in Iranian architecture because of its order and wealth of decorations.