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Geometric system

December 23, 2007|Orli Low

The essence of Islamic design, which depends on Arabic calligraphy and abstract ornamentation, is not to imitate the natural world but "to distill visually the essence of rhythm and growth it manifests," Daud Sutton writes in "Islamic Design: A Genius for Geometry" (Walker & Co.: 58 pp., $12). Highly stylized plants featuring arabesques and spirals aim to evoke paradise and creation itself.

Another aspect of this ornamentation is an intricate geometry. While the calligraphy and plant forms give a beautiful flowing motion, intricate geometric designs emanate from simple points and overlapping circles to create stars, triangles and hexagons representing the holiness of such phenomena as the phases of the moon. The result resembles the view from a dime-store kaleidoscope: evolving bursts of color and form, infinite variations on a theme.

The way in which the patterns are arranged invoke the idea of infinity, of divine unity. Using simply rendered diagrams, Sutton elegantly deconstructs the designs with their magnificent bursts of color that grace so many structures in the Islamic world -- intricate patterns that dazzle the eye and uplift the senses.

What's missing, though, in the book's black-and-white renderings is the vibrant color that makes these designs so arresting, color that takes the viewer from "immersion in the mundane to serene contemplation." One must really take in these creations in their full glory to appreciate their beauty.

"The world's spiritual traditions are in agreement that what we see of the world rests on an unseen, subtle and meaningful order," Sutton writes. "Likewise, the subgrid and implicit circles of patterns . . . are openly concealed in the finished design, hidden in plain view by the clothing through which they can be perceived."

-- Orli Low

orli.low@latimes.com

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