Eric Broug, originally from the Netherlands and currently living in the United Kingdom, is one of the world’s leading experts in Islamic geometric pattern design. We talk to Eric about specializing in Islamic geometric pattern, his connection to spirituality and keeping the tradition of Islamic geometry alive.
You have been active in Islamic geometric design for over 25 years What inspired you to get into Islamic geometric design?
I was in my twenties, at University in Amsterdam and I was asking myself what my contribution would be to the world, I was looking for something that would allow me to give something. One day, I found a copy of the 19th book by Jules Bourgoin (Arabic Geometrical Pattern and Design). The book is page after page of Islamic geometric patterns, but it only shows the result, not the process. I found it fascinating and started to try and draw the patterns, with a compass and a ruler. I realised quickly that I had found something for which I had a passion. I made a deal with myself that, if I, as a middle class Dutch guy, was going to pursue this obscure subject seriously, then I had to do it with total commitment. I have always kept this deal with myself.
Did you take up any formal education or training in this area?
The first ten years was just me in Amsterdam, with a pair of compasses and a ruler, deconstructing and reconstructing patterns every free moment I had. This was before the internet; I knew no one who shared my interest. After ten years I sold my house in Amsterdam to pay for a formal education at the Prince’s School in London. I left there after one year though, they were too dogmatic for me, and I ultimately did an MA in the history of Islamic architecture at SOAS in London, which suited me much better.
Why do you think Islamic geometry has such a universal appeal?
Everyone marvels at the combination of beauty, precision, profundity and creativity in Islamic geometric design. It speaks to the heart and to the head, at a level that all of us can only partly understand (myself included!)
What inspired you to write books and publications on Islamic geometry and pattern?
I love to explain, to demystify and to make this design heritage accessible. It’s wonderful if you can enthuse and empower people through teaching, this is what I try to do in my books. I have always loved books, I love the challenge of making a book as a physical object, with the optimal interaction between words and images. Both are equally important, perhaps the images are even more important.
Certainly, in my first book, my most popular book (Islamic Geometric Patterns), I have tried to show the step-by-step instructions in such a way that you don’t really need to read the captions. In the last 18 months, I’ve written a new book for my publisher, Thames and Hudson: a big coffeetable book on Islamic Architecture, covering the globe and up to the 21st century. Here the question is also: how can I make it fascinating for a reader? How can I delight and inform? This book is coming out in April 2023, inshallah.
How do you come up with your designs?
I seek the interaction between traditional and contemporary. The artistic appeal of Islamic geometric design has always been the potential to present these centuries-old pattens in such a way that they also look at home in the 21s5 century.
You are also an educator and give workshops around the world, why is it important for you to keep the tradition of Islamic art alive?
There are two aspects to keeping this tradition alive. In my workshops around the world, I have a great mix of people who attend. There is curiosity to learn how to draw these patterns, how to apply them in different art forms. So, in that way, Islamic geometric design is in a good place, there is more interest than there has ever been and people share and support each other social media.
On the other hand, if we consider the state of Islamic geometric design in architecture (its most common environment historically), we see a different picture. Here the design tradition is not being kept alive. Architecture and design students are not being taught how to apply these patterns, how to innovate. Islamic geometric design in contemporary architecture is a story of cut n paste, of designs that would not have passed quality control 500 years ago. It’s a problem that’s not being addressed.
Is there a spiritual element to your work?
Yes, very much so. The opportunities and challenges that come with the life I have dedicated myself to, occur on the path God has set for me, although it took me many years to realise this. To me, it is miraculous that I get to write books that are useful to people. It’s a privilege. My spiritual responsibility in this is to be humble and to never give up.
You have worked on numerous projects and collaborations, which has been the most memorable?
I have loved working on our work of public art in Dewsbury, where we created a 4x9 meter ceramic composition, made of water jet cut tiles.
It was such a huge design, manufacture and installation challenge, it took almost two years but there has been no concession to quality. It turned out exactly as we’d hoped and I have many people to thank for this.
Do you think there has been an increased interest in traditional arts?
I don’t know, it’s hard to judge. Is there more on social media? Yes, it seems so but of course there is a lot happening in the world that doesn’t appear on social media.
What do you think the future of Islamic art looks like and how do you think we can continue to keep the tradition of Islamic geometry alive?
I think the best way to guarantee the future health of Islamic geometric design is to acknowledge that many of the masterpieces we admire and copy, were the product of innovation and curiosity many hundreds of years ago. This generation’s brightest designers should feel that there are creative challenges to be found in Islamic geometric design. Yes, it’s important to learn pattern construction and to copy faithfully but only, in my opinion, as a method of developing skills and insights, not as a goal in itself. The informal educational model for Islamic geometric design is well taken care off; there are plenty of teachers online now offering tutorials etc. Formal educational institutions however, have to get serious about how teach this design heritage to a new generation of students.
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