Eric Broug discovered Islamic geometry in the late 1980s, while he was studying international relations and Middle Eastern politics in his native Holland. Here he talks to Nick Leech about his passion for Islamic geometrical design and his forthcoming book.
By chance, Broug came across a book on Islamic geometrical design. The intricate patterns and combination of science and artistry immediately captured his imagination and he soon felt compelled to recreate their apparent complexity. “I started to try and draw the patterns in the book and realised that I found it fascinating,” he says.
Broug was, he admits, “looking for something that I could be passionate about for the rest of my life”, and it wasn’t long before he realised he’d found it. “There’s a creative component that allows you to develop patterns and embellish them in a certain way, and a scientific aspect that has to do with geometry, rules and with history,” he says.
It was the start of an unwavering obsession that continues to this day – one that led Broug to sell his home and relocate to England. One that has brought him internet fame and resulted in the creation of Broug Ateliers, a company that creates bespoke Islamic geometry for domestic and commercial clients around the world.
Broug is a busy man, dividing his time between the atelier, his job as the Middle East and North Africa region manager for an academic publishing house in the UK and the manuscript for his latest book – a sumptuously illustrated, 300-page coffee table book on Islamic geometrical design. It’s the first of its type, and is due to be published by Thames & Hudson next year.
A looming deadline means Broug spends his lunch hours working to get the book’s manuscript completed in time for the various editors who need to prepare it for its international launch. This is a long way from Broug’s early hobbyist days, when he used a ruler and a pair of compasses to produce watercolour compositions of Islamic geometrical design in his spare time.
Now he uses professional architectural drafting and modelling software to create his clients’ designs. The finished products include stained glass windows, interior and exterior ornamental screens, mashrabiya, shutters and gates, as well as smaller decorative objects and conversation pieces.
The choice of construction materials and techniques is determined by the project and its budget. External security panels can be made in laser-cut mild steel, or interior panels in computer-numerical-control-routered, medium-density fibreboard, while finer pieces meant to be seen close-up are handmade by master craftsmen using fine woods and traditional joinery techniques. Broug actually discovered one of his craftsman collaborators after he uploaded photos of his work onto the Broug Ateliers Facebook page.
“Most of the people who joined were people who had read my first book and wanted to share photos of the things they’d made using the patterns from it. The quality of one gentleman’s work in particular was so fantastic that I started working with him for clients who wanted something special.”
Broug’s first book was a how-to guide complete with a CD-Rom called Islamic Geometric Patterns. “When I started, there were no books that showed you how to make the patterns. They only showed the end result. This just makes it all the more difficult when you see these wonderful patterns but [don’t know] how to make them. I thought I would make a book that shows you how to do it in six to eight steps using a compass and a ruler. I still get quite a bit of fan mail,” Broug says, with an awkward mixture of embarrassment and pride. But he’s clearly not alone in his obsession since the book has been published in Dutch, English, Farsi and even Turkish. Given the source of so much of his inspiration, Broug would also like there to be an Arabic translation.
To make the leap from watercolourist to designer and author, Broug decided to leave the Netherlands, using the proceeds from the sale of his house to fund further study in Islamic architecture and design in the UK. It was a huge risk. “I felt I was at a stage where I wanted my work to be critically assessed. I felt that if I wanted to get better at it I needed to make that move.”
Broug spent a year studying the history of Islamic architecture and design at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies and another year at the Prince’s School of Traditional Arts, part of the foundation established by Prince Charles for the teaching of practical skills associated with the traditional arts, especially of Islam. “It was good because I had one year of academic rigour and another of making things with my hands,” Broug says.
Despite all his studying, the success of his book and the foundation of his atelier, Broug enjoys nothing more than sharing his passion for Islamic geometrical design by showing people how to create the patterns for themselves in public workshops. Broug claims “there’s no substitute” for using a pair of compasses and a ruler to produce the beautiful and seemingly complex patterns in six to eight steps.
Ultimately, for Broug, the real excitement about Islamic geometric design lies in its future, not in its past, and in the variety of contemporary uses to which it can be applied, “not just as something that is historically interesting but as something that appeals to people who are interested in modern homes”.
His other ambition is to expand the repertoire of patterns that are currently in use, particularly in architecture. “I would be delighted if people would be able to use my books to make a greater variety of geometrical patterns. Quite often you just see the usual suspects, a handful of patterns. Typically only 10 to 20 per cent of available patterns are being used and the rest are being consigned to history. They don’t need to be.”
A version of this article originally appeared in The National, Abu Dhabi