In contemporary globalized design practice, the concept of bridging cultures is commonplace. Few designers have done as much as Samina Quraeshi to integrate design, education, research, cultural ambassadorship and authorship to help communities express their unique cultural voices. With special attention to places and how social and cultural factors shape identity, her multidisciplinary practice has stretched from South Asia to South Florida, working directly with local citizens, institutions and corporations to create positive change that is lasting and concrete.
Yet despite her devotion to this multilevel altruism, she has retained a personal creative vision that abides by an ethic of cultural communication, tirelessly articulating her personal heritage to a global audience. Samina Quraeshi was born to a Muslim family in Bombay (now Mumbai) during the turbulent years of the partition of India. The Quraeshi family was part of Bombay's professional class of doctors and lawyers, and therefore was reluctant to embrace her pursuit of art and design. “I received condolences daily,” she says, acknowledging that this family pressure formed her ambition to excel in her studies and achieve the numerous titles and awards that characterize her career. Her family relocated to Karachi, Pakistan, in 1948; in secondary school she joined a student exchange program through the American Field Service and studied for a year in Manhattan, Kansas. She returned to study in Karachi, but eventually came back to the Kansas City Art Institute (KCAI) to complete her university studies.
Quraeshi's distinguished design career, which was shaped early on by some of the great figures in modern design, almost did not materialize. She studied fine art at KCAI, but just before her thesis exhibition, a major fire destroyed part of the art building—including all her paintings. The devastating loss left her sapped of inspiration, until she met the charismatic typographer and historian Rob Roy Kelly and decided to study with him. “He fired my imagination,” recalls Quraeshi. She changed her focus to design, excited to discover its potential for positive social change. “Design offered photography, new ways of understanding signs and symbols, and new techniques of image making,” she says, noting her plans to return eventually to Pakistan with these tools at her disposal. “Creative people have the gift of seeing with feeling. It is the path with heart. We see what is missing; we sense what will work, what will make life flow. I knew this to be a great value, and I wanted to find ways to share it with others, to help communities heal through self-expression.”
On becoming a designer:
I felt that human imagination, art and design, and certainly my career must move out from the studio, the agency, the company and university, and into the community. I felt it was needed to help bring people together, warm things up, make life livable.
Quraeshi pursued her master's studies at Yale, where Paul Rand's incisive critiques and inspiration pushed her toward a rigorous professional route. In 1970 she moved to London, where she found her first job, working with Colin Forbes at Crosby/Fletcher/Forbes, later Pentagram. There were less glamorous encounters with greatness as well; Quraeshi recounts a summer job during her Yale studies as “pencil sharpener” with Vignelli Associates. This sounds like a euphemism for the thankless tasks that designers must do when starting out, but quite literally it was Quraeshi's tactic to get the most out of her experience there. “Massimo sketched with a 6B pencil and he was always looking for one when he came by our desks to see what we were doing. Having several sharp 6B pencils on hand ensured that he spent time with me, so it was my lure to him!”
Quraeshi went back to Pakistan in 1972 and art directed a new quarterly journal for the Pakistan Tourism Development Corporation, Focus on Pakistan, for which she traveled the country, taking pictures and working with writers and other artists. She enacted her trademark practice of fusing the local tradition with a plan of practical self-sufficiency when she launched a women's cooperative for textile arts, which went on to export their work globally. Around that time she also produced her first book, Legacy of the Indus: A Discovery of Pakistan.
The struggle for identity and faith has been central to Quraeshi's work, and books have been a primary medium towards addressing it. They are the main exponent in exploring and sharing her devotion to the Indus Valley region, the cradle of South Asian culture and now the dividing line between Pakistan and western India. Through her books she aims to bridge segmented and even antagonistic populations. Her 1988 book Lahore: The City Within has received numerous design awards for its illustrative depiction of the ancient city and will soon be republished due to continuing interest.
On the importance of design:
It is imperative, now more than ever, that we design a better world, one in which we act thoughtfully, with greater love and compassion, and work for an end to violence so that we can have what all people desire: a sense of achievement, solidarity, participation, justice and equity.
Quraeshi's fifth book, Sacred Spaces: A Journey with the Sufis of the Indus, has been her most ambitious and personal, highlighting the ecstatic practice of Sufism. A heterogeneous belief system within Islam, Sufism is a mystical strain whose tenets of love and tolerance counter what Quraeshi views as the troubling connotations of violence and radicalism that have become broadly associated with the Muslim world. Sufism also has a strong numerological and geometrical tradition that can be found in its architecture and integrated tilework and calligraphy. She was inspired by these graphic and calligraphic traditions to create contemplative mixed-media art, which was exhibited at Harvard's Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology in late 2009 and will travel to Islamabad's Lok Virsa national folk heritage museum in fall 2010.
In continuation of her Sacred Spaces work, Quraeshi is using the power of film—along with photography and print—to document the stories of women in Pakistan. Voices of the Shadows is both personal and political for Quraeshi, who plans to unveil the project in spring 2011. By capturing the “little understood” feminine perspective, she is turning “the lens of art and culture against terrorism” to explore what other possibilities there are for her homeland.
Back in her other home, the United States, Quraeshi operates S/Q Design Associates with her husband and partner Richard Shepard, an architect known for doing socially responsible work aimed at alleviating poverty. The pair met at Yale and established their multidisciplinary practice in 1981. With offices in South Dartmouth, Massachusetts, and Miami, S/Q Design integrates Quraeshi's graphic and identity work with Shepard's architecture, environmental planning and wayfinding expertise. They have executed several planning projects on the municipal level in California, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Utah, Colorado and Florida. Essential to their approach is the synthesis of cultural and location-based research to effect changes in zoning, traffic flow and public space allocation to benefit the local community. These planning efforts customarily involve design charettes with the local community and enlist student and faculty research and outreach.
On multidisciplinary practice:
What is our obligation as members of the design profession? There is no single answer, but among the greatest skills that designers bring to all communities in this country and in the world, is the power to envision ideas from different perspectives while drawing inspiration from multiple disciplines.
The most successful and long-lived of these is an initiative for West Coconut Grove, one of Miami's oldest and most economically challenged neighborhoods. With its proximity to the University of Miami, it became a focus of Shepard's attention in the 1990s, when he was director of the Center for Urban and Community Design (CUCD) at the university's School of Architecture. Under Shepard and Quraeshi's oversight, the project brought together hundreds of students and dozens of faculty members from across numerous departments and disciplines to propose and implement projects from affordable housing to establishing a community medical clinic.
For Quraeshi, design is the guiding instrument to analyze and resolve large, systemic issues, fulfilling her belief in the value of a “holistic” practice. “These works are part of an effort to build bridges of understanding between cultures, to celebrate our common humanity,” she says.
Though this approach reflects her regard for the personal, cultural and spiritual qualities that in combination create the profile of a community, the increasingly complex cultural dynamic in the wake of globalization will only make Samina Quraeshi's multifaceted practice an exemplary model for the future.