with Monir Farmanfarmaian
It’s amazing but it’s true: the handy first name of Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian means “bright” or “lustrous” in the artist’s first language, Farsi. How very appropriate, then, that Monir should have built her mighty reputation by arranging countless shiny shards of mirrored glass into enormous jewel-like installations that pop up in all the most prestigious private and public collections around the globe. Monir’s signature works call to mind both the geometry of Iran’s architectural monuments and the dazzling disco balls of the dance floor. Indeed, it was amid the social whirlwind of mid-century Manhattan that Monir would encounter a young Andy Warhol. He became a fervent champion of Monir’s work and kept one of her mirror mosaic baubles on his desk as a constant reminder of their friendship.
Located behind the deposed shah’s palace in Tehran, Monir’s small studio is filled floor to ceiling with her mirror mosaics. Accompanied by three craftsmen, who seem more like family members than co-workers, Monir is as eye-catching and elegant as her chosen material, and her playfulness is remarkable for a working artist of 93. Over a glass of fresh pomegranate juice, she explains her evolving relationship with a medium that has dominated her oeuvre and her life.
“When the conceptual artist Robert Morris came to visit Iran in the 1970s, I took him to Shah Cheragh, the religious shrine in Shiraz. It was the first time I’d ever been inside. When I saw the mirror mosaics, I was so moved I burst into tears. All I could see was the movement and reflections of people and things as if they were suspended in the sky, constantly changing. That’s when I thought, why shouldn’t we have this experience every day? I decided I needed to bring this material into people’s lives.
Even as a child in the province of Qazvin, I was like a human magnifying glass. We would go to a village in the mountains for a picnic and I would find a tiny flower growing between two rocks in the river, take it out and examine it carefully. Later, at Parsons School of Design, we were encouraged to look for design in unexpected places. Look at the tops of the buildings, the decorative features: they all mean something. Look at the details on clothes: they have meaning. It was all zoom in, zoom in, zoom in.
I first went to America by water, on a warship in the middle of the Second World War. It was 1944 and I had already studied art in Iran. I wanted to continue my studies in Paris, but because of the war I went to New York. My fiancé at the time was a painter, and we had been advised that two artists would never make enough money to live on, so I went to Parsons with the hope of acquiring the skills to practice a commercial art form. The school wasn’t at all famous at the time, just the top three floors of a building. Nowadays you hit anyone in the art world with a stick and they will say they went to Parsons. All my friends at Parsons were using browns and greys, and their work looked more like design. My drawings were full of colour. I used to think being colourful was cheap and tacky then. I told a teacher about my concern and she told me to shut up. According to her, all the teachers were passing my work around because they found my use of lively colours, my different sensibility and my cultural perspective exciting.
I separated from my husband after three years and began to work for a department store, Bonwit Teller,* as a layout artist. I was responsible for commissioning fashion illustrations from artists. Andy Warhol was very shy and quiet. He hardly ever spoke, but he could draw beautiful flowers, shoes and perfume bottles. He’d get $25 for each drawing. That was a lot of money back then.
It was following my return to Iran after twelve years in New York that mirror became my material. Mirrors have always captivated the Iranian psyche. Mirrors are like water, in the sense that they reflect nature. Water in ancient Persian tradition is seen as blessed because it represents light and purity. Mirrors do the same.
Reza Fallah, the head of an oil company, was building a house in northern Tehran, so he called me and asked if I would go and help with the design. Honestly, they needed help. They had come up with this half-baked idea of building a dome in a square room and covering the dome in mirror mosaics. Then they hung a huge antique chandelier in the middle of the dome. I hated it. Why would anyone make a traditional dome in a square, modern house? Still, the master mirror worker, Hajji Navid, was terrific. I was mesmerised by the way he could cut a mirror as if he was cutting through butter. When the house job was finished I asked if Hajji would come and work with me. He was very religious and against the idea of working with a woman on principle, but Reza persuaded him, and I paid him a good salary, higher than that of a senior office worker. He never once looked me in the eye in all of the six years that we worked together. Mirror mosaic has existed in Iran for centuries. It was originally a way to recycle pieces of mirrors that had not survived the journey from Venice.** Craftspeople would arrange the pieces into patterns and paint the reverse of the glass with traditional motifs like the nightingale. These were skills passed exclusively from father to son. I simply took these techniques and abstracted them, using glitter and spray paint.
At first I was working on iron frames, which made the pieces very heavy. Then one day I took some resin mixture from a friend who was designing plastic furniture. We spread the mixture onto wood before realising that we needed the surface to be rougher for the mirrors to stick better. So I asked the gardener to bring in some sand from the garden and throw it onto the mixture. Then it worked like a charm.
Hajji is the one who taught me all the principles of mirror mosaics, of course. He taught me about the ten knots, the basic geometric shapes used in mirror and tile mosaics, that fit into one another to create the larger pattern. He also introduced me to the magic of the hexagon that can link to all the other shapes. Slowly, he started to respect my ideas too, particularly once I had found us galleries in Paris and New York. We exhibited in Tehran, too. Hajji was so proud of me by the end. He brought me a box of cakes every time he came to visit my workshop.
My second husband and I were on holiday in New York when the 1979 revolution happened. Our bank accounts were shut down overnight, and we were stranded with literally no money in the world.
In New York, I started to do commercial work so we could survive. I discovered that there was 2mm thick mirror used in frame shops. I found an Austrian frame-maker who was willing to work with me. I would give him an order to cut 200 strips of 2.5 × 30.5cm, then I would take these to my studio and make the mosaics myself. I loved the designs of the metal manhole covers used for city utilities like the water and sewerage system, so I had a photographer friend take pictures of them so that I could collage them together and make something new. That was a difficult period at first, but I was happy because I had my mirror work.
Now that I’ve returned to Iran, I’ve begun to work with real specialists again. One of my latest commissions is going to be made in Bruges, in Belgium. It will be five metres high: a nine-sided polygon that ends in a triangle. Mirror continues to satisfy my desire for light and colour, and I am still learning, even at 93.”
*) Bonwit Teller on Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue cultivated an extraordinary tradition of working with artists, beginning in earnest when Salvador Dalí designed two surrealist windows for the store in 1939, themed “Day” and “Night.” Jasper Johns’ very first American flag painting, White Flag on Orange Field, began life as a window dressing for the shop’s window in 1957. The store was demolished in 1980 to make way for Trump Tower.
**) In the early 16th century, guildsmen on the Venetian island of Murano perfected a technique of mirror-making that involved applying an amalgam of tin and mercury to the back of a perfectly smooth sheet of glass. Hundreds of years of commercial espionage would ensue, as rival glass houses from abroad tried and failed to acquire Venice’s closely guarded mirror-making secrets. To counter their efforts, Murano’s expert mirror makers, or artigiani di specchi, were strictly forbidden from leaving the island without express permission.