Morteza Momayez is held as one of the most influential Iranian graphic designers, illustrators and typographers of the 20th century and has been called the ‘pioneer of graphic design in Iran’. Born in Tehran on August 26, 1935, he acquired a bachelor’s degree in painting from School of Fine Art at University of Tehran in 1965 and a diploma from Ecole National Superier des Art Deco in Paris, France in 1968.
During his illustrious career, Momayez created excellent visual identities for Iran Art Gallery (1962), Children and Young Adults Organization (1974), Asian Cultural Documentation, Asian Graphic Design Biennial (1977) and National Library of Iran (1989). He was also the president of Tehran International Poster Biennial. Momayez was granted the Art & Culture Award a year before his death in 2004.
Interview with Neshan Magazine
Saed Meshki: Mr. Momayez! You have been praised more than any other artist of visual arts. Much has been also written on your biography and work history. If you agree, let’s start this interview in a different manner.
MortezaMomayez: Let me clarify one point before going on. Of course I want you to delete this from the interview. I lose my patience over big pompous words- at least at this stage of my life. I like to speak plain and straightforward.
S.M.: I know that. I remember once I one of your classes, a student asked you to give a brief and useful definition of MortezaMomayez. Your response was: Straightforward, easygoing and realistic. By a different manner of interview, I mean focusing on your mentality and your way of thinking.
M.M.: For instance?
S.M.: For instance, let’s start from the end. Two nights before your departure, we visited you in the hospital. Quite a few times you said your legs are tired. Tired legs are the result of too much walk.
M.M.: Our legs are strange companions; they can take you places or refuse to take you places which are worlds away from one another.
I favor those artists who act like bulldozers. They pave their way by much work and pressure and initiate tastes. You know of what influential presence are these artists in the history of art. Mankind acts in two ways; one is the natural routine way. When you ask these people how they work and how they live, they get upset cannot think of any answer. This is because, in their view, they have done no important job to deserve being addressed with such a question. They have lived a natural instinctive life, have worked, have produced, have reproduced, and everything has been at place in their life. That’s because a direct line of no turn or knot exists in them that connects their interior to the outside world. In fact, all people in the world like to have such a clear cut relationship with themselves and with everybody and if they don’t, they are categorized under the second group who spend their precious mind and energy on various calculations and fine contemplations to find the right way. At last, they waste their life and get nowhere.
Man has two things in life: One is the approach, i.e. the way of thinking and the other is the goal selected based on the first. So far, I have struggled hard to introduce and make known my profession which was isolated and unknown. In fact, I am reclaiming the rights of this profession which have been always ignored. Today, you can sense that graphics is assumed no less than writing, printing, painting, architecture, cinema, theater and so on. Absolutely no less. It is a very valuable and efficient work because of its collective nature and its responsibility against the daily culture of the society.
S.M.: What do you think would have happened if you had a different profession? And why did you choose graphics?
M.M.: I have always believed firmly that I should shift the common taste forward in any field I work. This is my permanent goal and idea. I have never taken any job insignificant. Any job, as ordinary or trivial as it might seem, is important to me and I perform it accurately in its appropriate framework. I cannot, just cannot steal from my work. This has been my professional habit.It is natural that everybody wants to record his life in one way or another and to feel that he is alive. What remains from mankind is actually a sign of this effort. Even an epitaph on one’s grave wants to say this. Even the society who respects artworks and human crafts is because it sees those works as public remnants of itself and the artist who has created these works enjoys a double joy of immortality; an enjoyment which makes him representative of his society or results from the feeling that God has assigned him and only him with such a lofty mission.
The reason for my inclination to graphics was that I noticed graphics helps to accomplish works better. I saw that illustrating a piece of writing makes that piece more conspicuous and more readable. In other words, saves the piece from isolation; brings it to daylight, adds other dimensions to it. Graphics is the art which encourages people to think of their needs in any conditions of life. As I said another time, the same as architecture, graphics is not the art of leisure time and it even moves ahead of architecture. When graphics appears, mind immediately starts working and thinking begins, while architecture is used to respond a material need. House has its special function and when seen too much, the mind has no reaction to it. But graphic manifests one of its representations every moment. Newspaper, layout, illustration, motif, advertisement, sign, color, packaging and so on, are all manifestations of graphics. In my view, painting lacks such a characteristic. Not even writing and many other arts which are the product of leisure time and man indulges himself with them after his endeavors for earning his bread. To me, it is important to be able to do a job in areas where a need is left unattended. That’s why I have worked in different areas of graphics. While it was more natural if I took one part of the job and accomplished myself in that special part. Wherever I worked, one of my aims was to introduce that area and to identify the various potentialities of graphics in that area. I just intended to show the correct graphic approach, that’s all.
When a man wakes up in the morning, he wakes up with graphics, with the clock, with design of numbers and letters which is a graphic work. He is in full contact with graphic works all the time. Publications, advertisements, carpet designs, floorings, traffic signs and many other elements are all of a graphic nature. Wherever you look, you can see the presence of graphics.
S.M.: Now that we came to talk about your professional works in graphic design, I think it would be a good idea if you speak about the specifications of your work. What are the most specific characteristic of your works?
M.M.: My works usually have a specific structure founded on an empty blank ground. I use this blank ground as a space intensifying the presence of visual elements and introduces them in a clearer and more straightforward manner. This I think originates from my straightforward and to the point character. The arrangement of elements on this blank space has an architectural structure and I always adjust their base in a manner to give full stability to the collection of elements. Although I have, in occasions, tried to use combinations and structures making the elements appear floating, at the end I have seen that they are firmly attached somewhere and have found a firm stability.
The other characteristic of my works is the flat and homogeneous surfaces. These leveled surfaces have been created unintentional. Without any forethought, I work flat. I cannot see things in perspective. Perspective does not belong to me. I see everything naturally- as in our own paintings- in surfaces and I think I am unconsciously under the influence of our own painting and our own visual arts. Man is influenced when he has a mental inclination toward the influencing agent, but in me, this influence is combined with modern contemporary identity.
And finally, my main technique is my skillful use of contrasts; contrasts of colors, shapes, plans and so on. You know that contrast rapidly attracts the attention. In order to be able to create artful contrasts, you should know how to divide the spaces in a manner to make viewers notice your idea sooner. You should know how to arrange the colors in a manner that the attention is attracted to the main idea first and so on. These are the characteristics of my work that are seen in all my work samples such as in signs, posters, cover design, layout and others in various forms and versatile compositions.
The main point is the frankness and straightforwardness I have in my personal expression. It is the same specification reflected in my works which makes them straightforward, to the point and free from unjustified compliments. Compliment is not a sign of intimacy. It is more an indication of respect. If my frankness is pleasant it is because of the innate modesty and decency expected from every human being. It is natural that frankness may sometimes result in harsh and strict behaviors towards others. Nevertheless, I have always tried to express my views sincerely and candidly. Therefore, everything has been expressed, whether good or bad.
I have my own special approach to the work of graphics and I won’t allow any sacrifice of this approach for any order I might get. In my works, there is a tendency toward plain and simple color surfaces and summarized abstract forms. If you observe them closely, you can see the influence of our decorative art in al. Decorativeness is a characteristic of all our visual arts and, contrary to those who don’t approve of decorative work, you see that all ritual and ancient arts relying on a thought and philosophy have a decorative shape. Perspective is always deceitful and hides the reality. Plainness, if achievable at all, is the core of the issue, the essence, the main body without margins and introductions. This is what I am enchanted with and my personal candidness requires my work to be candid and plain. If you look at the uniform I have designed for difference publishers, you see them all different in form, yet all bear the signs of my special taste. My taste is inspired by our own decorative art or influenced by one of my own working periods. All Iranian visual samples are the same. Look at the tile works. See the rugs. Watch the gildings and poem inscriptions. In all of them, a unity of form, color surface and outlook can be seen. Therefore, one cannot say that the Iranian art has remained unchanged form the outset. According to Hafiz: “the one who has no art, looks at the defects”.
Pay attention to the fact that all our figures are plain, in other words, stylized. The manner of design in all periods has followed such an approach and method, from the Achaemenid age to the Qajar era. All our designs and colors follow a type of plainness and brevity. Behind this style, there is a philosophy and an approach. You cannot criticize this plainness and accuse it of monotony. Such fault findings are aimed at deceitfully bringing down the artist to the level of popular marketplace art. In spite of all technical and compositional variety, there is a permanent common chapter in all my works and that is a blank space where the design and the color are left to themselves. After more than thirty years in this profession, and in spite of offering works of different visual and literary contents, I have preserved this form of expression. This is my mental framework that prescribes such a framework for my works. At the beginning, the intention to show sentiment was behind this plain and empty ground.
S.M.: In our talk we discovered two important points. One is your interest to stable and firm works and the second is Iranian art. What do you think derives you to create so stable and firm works?
M.M.: I have frequently thought about my interest which is creating a doubtless confident stability. I have even intentionally tried to design a dangling work suspending in space. But as I told earlier, at the end I found them firmly attached or connected somewhere.
As usual, when I was looking back at my past, I found that the never-ending unemployment of my father has a deep effect in this story. Whenever my father entered the house, we used to look at him with much worries whether he has again become jobless or continues with his job. The actual reason originates from a lack of confidence and fear of instability which I experienced in my life and which I see in the society in one way or another. This has dragged my unconscious mind to this type of structure and composition in my work and has made me wanting to found everything firm and stable. Not only once, but times and again and this is the main factor behind the fact that whatever I create is exactly the opposite to what has happened in the real environment and in the real life.
Of course, I have shown various forms of this visual firmness and have provided a versatile study which reflects my love of creating durable works.
S.M.: I have extracted some statistics from your works which show that about 60% of your signs are in square form, 30% in circular form and 10% in triangular form. The symmetry of writings in posters and the rhythms created by repeating a single form in the signs and occasionally in your posters confirm this outlook. But you spoke of Iranian works, being Iranian and the relationship between your works and your identity as an Iranian artist. What do you think of the Iranian approach to graphic art and what is the outcome of your experiences during many year of being in touch with the customers especially the cultural customers?
M.M. Iranian attitude and character is hidden and implicit. It is wrapped in a mode of humbleness and modesty which does not attract the attentions at fist and is usually underestimated or appear ordinary. At the beginning, the Iranian character does not attract views; rather, it penetrates slowly, causes a change in the environment and suddenly, you find out that you are enchanted by it, you are solved therein. May be, the Iranian character is full of a mysticism above all other types of mysticisms. A desert scenery under the sun and covered with soil, the ancient silent mountains, humble trees of thousands of years old here and there in Iran all look so ordinary and all are placed at the margin of routine views in a manner that you can not believe what an antiquity, what a power and what a culture is hidden therein and what stories and changes they have witnessed in the course of history. The silent sceneries of Iran are the representatives of never-ending enthusiastic but apparently unknown stories. Varied brilliant colors may look monotonous and do not attract superficial viewers; they demand and allow in only profound look of deep observers.
On the other hand, we like cleverness. We, Iranians, call the faculty of intelligence and sharpness combined with innocence as cleverness. When the sincerity lacks, we face with another level of cleverness which thinks on one’s own interests only. This is called diplomacy. We lose our trust to those who are less sincerity and innocence.
We like to be clever, because cleverness is the protective device of our unsafe nation. We have managed to protect ourselves by the use of this device. We have combated our enemies with our cleverness and have even made them praise us and dissolve in our culture. Our history is full of such experiences. Our history is also full of clever people who had no sword or gun. They had thin arms, very narrow necks and sweet red tongues. They made people laugh at power and even made those in power laugh at themselves. We like more to smile, because smiling has a meaning. Smiling is clever while laughing is a simple physical act of no cute meaning.
The words of Ubeid Zakani make nobody giggle. It is true of Mulla Nasreddin as well. Karim Shirayi could only make Nasereddin Shah laugh to extreme. Our nation likes smiling more. This nation is not used to laughing loud.
The other point is the geographical framework. Before my first trip overseas, I didn’t know what it meant to be an Iranian. In my first trip, I compared the cultures of people and found out that I enjoy some special cultural qualities which are called “Iranian”.
I personally think that any work represents an identity because it responds to a need. Therefore, lack of identity is not specific of a special group. It is a general problem and even the problem of those who criticize it. Today, we have the identity of our own time. This identity is different even if compared with that of five years ago. It is natural that it should differ.
We are Iranian and will remain Iranian forever, because we grow under a special heritage. Of course, our heritage is influenced by the time and the world and changes into our present identity. Therefore, we should know how to make proper use of our heritage under the present conditions of the time; a thoughtful and prudent use.
When I came to appreciate calligraphy, I felt our literature as well. I established relationship with our poets, writers and architects, with our music and finally, with our own culture. I felt their breeze over my face and that refreshing breeze moved away my fatigue. I saw that Nastaligh is the exact picture of Iranian national culture.Nastaligh means Persian culture. It is the visual bearer of our beautiful, yet rebellious, language, our entire character and spirit. Wherever I missed the Persian language and the Iranian character due to the current global communications, I used to look at Persian Nastaligh and Shekasteh scripts which brought our entire past and present before our eyes like a mirror and like a movie. Calligraphy could revive all nostalgias of the past and refresh my soul and my heart.
S.M.: I think Nastaligh is the Aryan part of our civilization. The part which we had better call our Sanskrit treasury. As you remarked, all delicacies, firmness, sincerity, poeticism, and in short, all virtues of Iranian civilization can be seen in Nastaligh. It is certainly for this same reason that it is only written in Iran in this form and if used in other countries, it is of a very primitive form.
M.M.: More interesting and strange that we, Iranians, although read everything in newspaper Naskh script which is an Arabic script day and night and we write our books in this script, when writing personally, follow theNastaligh style. Unconsciously, all learn “Nastaligh” and “Shekasteh Nastaligh” and use it for personal and private, not formal, communication. Even though the young generation today, learn reading and writing from books written in Naskh script and learn the combination of letters in a word based on the Naskh style, when they get mature, they find themselves using “Nastaligh” and “Shekasteh Nastaligh” as their personal writing style. That’s why “Nastaligh” is a major secret. It is a master key for knowing our identity and our culture.
S.M.: In this interview, you indicated professional ethics and code of conduct. I remember you used to emphasize on this issue too much in your classrooms as well. At that time, I thought there should be an oriental spirit behind all this which originates from the inclination to give advice and preach religious sermons, but now…
M.M.: All people of the world are religious, but the religions vary in appearance. In all religions, the main objective is to train good people. All instructions of God in divine religions pursue the same goal. God wants to reproduce a sign of Himself but mankind is usually a revolt. I try to be that kind of man who is intended and favored by God.
I firmly believe that man can remain healthy and come clean. But he should trust in God and should also know his financial and intellectual expectations. Furthermore, he should have the ability to recognize his goal and his destination from afar.
Such a person cannot be called religious in its popular concept. It is better to say that he is a person who should be positively reproduced.
S.M.: What is your feeling at this juncture of time?
M.M.: The technical capabilities and knowledge of no one is ever enough. In any stage of your career, you have a different understanding of issues and problems. Therefore, a graphic designer should permanently add to and revise his knowledge and keep himself update.