From Tehran to New York and now Dubai, Iranian artist Shirin Ehya talks to Rima Alsammarae about how jasmine trees and crisp autumn nights inspired her first furniture collection, Isfahan.
Born in Tehran in 1984, it would be 18 years until Shirin Ehya left her country to study in the United States at the renowned Interior Designers Institute in America. Upon graduation, she was offered the opportunity to work with the Design Bureau of Tony Chi & Associates in New York, where she would spend the following several years working on projects around the world from New York, to China, to Australia.
In 2010, Ehya left New York and returned to Iran, where she began working on various retail projects. Upon her return after a long hiatus, she immersed herself in Iranian culture and found herself attracted to the sweet balance between contrasts commonly found in Iranian art.
It wasn’t long until she formed her first furniture collection, which happened organically rather than as a planned step forward.
Isfahan, named after the artistically driven town of its namesake, is a collection of contemporary furniture pieces that infuse subtle elements of Iranian culture. Available at J+A Gallery in Dubai, the Isfahan collection is powerful, dynamic and artistic.
With so many contemporary designers and artists attempting to fuse juxtaposing cultures into their designs, we wondered how Ehya managed to do so seamlessly.
Raised in Iran with a western education provides an interesting backdrop to approaching the designer’s work. And when it comes to Ehya, it seems we must go to the way, way back if we want to know her story, because as she thinks of her childhood, Ehya’s face grows into an undeniable smile. It’s a childhood filled with scents and colourful visions.
“Looking back at my childhood in Iran…reminds me of the smell of jasmine trees throughout the spring, stunning Iranian gardens we used to play in during the summer, sitting by my grandma’s wooden fireplace on a crispy autumn night and the trips to the mountains for a mind-blowing ski day. That’s where I grew up,” she says. “In a country surrounded by so many magical shapes and colours and textures, which essentially became my biggest inspiration.”
Coming from a westernised family, Ehya was encouraged to travel and gain a better perspective of the world at large, as well as of herself. According to the designer: “It’s general consensus in our family that in order to have a well rounded education, one has to broaden one’s views and see and experience the western world. Therefore my sister and I were always encouraged to complete our education abroad.
“To be honest, even though I’d never wanted to leave in the first place, right now I am very happy I did since the experience, in fact, broadened my perspective and made my life richer.”
After her graduation, Ehya signed on to the team at the Design Bureau of Tony Chi & Associates, a position that allowed the designer to flourish in her personal approach to life in general and firmly develop her identity as a designer.
Working at Tony Chi & Associates provided a space for Ehya to develop work ethics and flexibility, and practice team work. She says: “I like to think that in my design practice, these concepts get translated to function, relevance and harmony. And even though at first glance these elements may seem unrelated, they came to form the foundation of my aesthetics, which can be summarised in one word: simplicity.
“Also, constantly working on international projects exposed me to different cultures and their concepts of beauty and design. It trained me to find beauty out of my aesthetic comfort zone. It also taught me that once you design something with passion that element will always have something to say and would connect with people from around the world and even walks of life, even if it may not be to their taste.”
Working out of a New York office offered Ehya a world of opportunity and experience, and though she valued both, she found herself thinking of the jasmine scents and colourful patterns that helped build the first half of her life. In 2010, Ehya decided to return to her home country and start once again to connect to her heritage.
She says: “Whatever I’ve done and wherever I’ve gone, my heart has always been in Iran. But I never doubted that should the opportunity to live and work in Iran ever arise, I’d give it my best try.
Therefore, on a personal and emotional level, it was very easy to settle back into the art and design scene in Iran.
“However, professionally speaking, after getting involved with the whole production process, unfortunately I experienced a new work ethic in Iran that is different to other parts of the world. I had a few surprises along the way, but I did adjust and find my footing in the end.”
While returning to her homeland presented some unexpected challenges, perhaps more on the administrative side, living and breathing Iranian art jumpstarted a brainwave for the designer. The reconnection to her Iranian history didn’t mean that pulling inspiration from the country was a new exploration, but rather, it provided a new understanding from someone that had been on the outside for a long time.
And now with fresh eyes, she absorbed the beauty of her country once again, as well as its rich and historic culture.
“In the past few years, I kept being drawn to pure clean outlines for my furniture, but when Iranian elements kept weaving their way seamlessly along the planes and lines of my drafts, I realised something—for me, the structures and forms that hold up the whole come from my western side, but the soul comes from my Iranian heritage.
“What I wish to convey is the unforced balance that can be achieved between the two, and the sense of peaceful harmony that may be established when each contrasting extremity is in its purest, truest form,” explains Ehya.
Having recently launched her first collection Isfahan with J+A Gallery at Design Days Dubai 2014, Ehya has shown a fresh new promise that represents a growing aspect of Iran’s design scene.
A crafted tribute to the growing face of the “modern Middle East”, the Isfahan collection is a series of furniture pieces that balance a dual identity. With one side contemporary and simple, and the second half ornate and patterned, each piece is a statement of maturity and harmony—a sophisticated coming together of seemingly opposite aesthetics.
At the moment Ehya is juggling new ideas, colours and forms. While she works on her new collection that contains collaborations with international designers, it’s clear that even though she broadened her horizons through her travels and work, there remains a poet inside of Ehya—one that’s been there since the beginning.
“When I was in the first grade, way before I decided to go to design school, I remember the first thing I did right after I completed learning the alphabet was write a poem. Obviously, it was a very basic and simple one that probably made everybody laugh at the time.
But now, when I look back, I can see that was my first step towards design. Designing a meaningful piece by putting random words together, giving life to an idea and making it happen…that’s what design means to me: endless ideas with endless results.”