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t’s difficult to classify Samina Quraeshi’s profession into a neat little box—and she’ll be the first to admit it. “I consider myself to be person who crosses boundaries,” she says. As a designer, artist, educator, arts consultant and writer, Quraeshi certainly does just that. Common to all of her pursuits, however, is her devotion to propagating the importance of arts and cultural exchange in improving the world. This passion is visible in everything she does, and it has been the foundation for her success.

Quraeshi has authored several books, worked as a cultural entrepreneur in inner-city Miami, lectured and mentored students around the world, helmed her own design firm and much more. From 1994 to 1997, she served as the director of design at the National Endowment for the Arts. Quraeshi designed Salt Lake City’s cultural plan for the 2002 Olympics, and she has received countless awards and honors for her efforts in promoting progressive art and design.

Through it all, Quraeshi has continued to demonstrate a deep devotion to the land of her birth, Pakistan. She is a frequent speaker on the cultural aspects of Pakistan, Islam and the role of women. Her latest book, Legends of the Indus, chronicles the folk tales that have sustained that region for generations.

Nirali caught up with this fascinating and accomplished woman to learn what drives her and how.

Can you classify what you do?
I consider myself to be a person who crosses boundaries. I use art and design as the catalyst—it is the central tenet of my life. Then I apply that to teaching, as a design practitioner to solve issues, to address the environment. I’m very interested in culture as the medium for peace. I really believe we are in a culture war right now, all over the world. It’s based on a lack of understanding of people’s belief systems. Those of us who can mediate between those boundaries should do so.

Tell us about your work with urban communities. How have you translated your art into this field?
I really feel that design and art and architecture are civic arts, but they also come with a social responsibility. I practice socially responsible design. If I make beautiful books, they are really trying to illustrate some principle. I try to eliminate poverty by designing an environment that inculcates pride. Poor people have [housing] projects—they are one of the most depressing things. You work with people to help them take pride in their neighborhoods and situations; you can help them with pride. Good lighting reduces crime on streets, planting gardens and vegetables helps people pay attention to the land. When you live in a place that you’re proud of, you also act differently. Human behavior is influenced by the environment, and you have to make the environment conducive to civil living. Though it sounds disparate, art and design is the mirror of the soul. You give a person dignity, and she lives better.

What other projects keep you busy?
I’m also involved with branding, image making, layout, photography. I learned all these things in art school and then at the Yale School of Art and Architecture. I was very lucky, because I had a very broad selection of curriculum choices. I did a lot of printing and printmaking and graphic design.

A lot of people take design for granted or feel intimidated by it. How do you get around that?
I just think it’s a way of living. Imagine that you are in a room right now. That means that somebody designed the chair you’re sitting in, somebody designed that room, the table, the clothes. Design is everywhere. It’s ubiquitous and therefore not noticed. But that design can have a great impact on your life. Everything is designed. The grandness of all design is god and the universe.

We have to de-mystify design. I think design education and designers have made it a very elite subject, and people don’t understand. I try to ask the question, not what design can do for the world, but what can you do for design. For example, Target stores have started employing really good designers, and the stuff is flying off the shelves. Here in America, because it’s been a very practical country, or in Pakistan or India, where craftsmanship is revered, anything goes. I don’t think people are necessarily able to differentiate between art and craft, between good design and what is normally available.

How do you characterize good design?
To me, good design is timeless. It is appropriate. It is environmentally correct. It is socially responsible. It is affordable or accessible, and it usually enhances quality of life. That is a very important goal. Otherwise it’s superfluous, so why have it?

Has being a woman or a minority hindered your career in any way?
No. I was so unaware of that notion of discrimination, because I’ve always lived my life according to the principles of excellence. When you do something well, people respect you. You have to earn that respect. People respect me because they like my work or because they’ve found my achievements are worth noticing. I’ve always worn South Asian dress because I look terrible in western clothes. I’ve always subscribed to that notion—that design suits me.

I have encountered obstacles being a woman. In the boardroom and at Fortune 100 companies, it’s a little bit of a handicap. But once they see your work and you can talk the talk and walk the walk, things change.n

Ismat Sarah Mangla loves good design.
Published on May 2, 2005.
Photography: Courtesy of Samina Quraeshi.

More Information

Legends of the Indus

Comments are closed.
  1. July 25, 2008, 8:20 am Sara

    Salam.
    I know this is kind of late but, do you have any contact information on Samina Quraeshi. I would be intrested in being a part of any muslim modeling careers.

  2. August 29, 2008, 8:26 pm shaman afroz

    I AM IMPRESSED /.THANKS FOR BEING A WOMAN THE WAY UR.ALLAH I AM SO HAPPY. IS IT POSSIBLE TO TALK TO U?
    AS I NEED TON DO SOMETHING FOR EVERYBODY.ACTUALLY FINANCIALLY I AM NOT SUCCESSFUL LIKE U BUT U CAN HELP ME TO BRING MY VOICE AND WE CAN CHANGE THIS REGID WORLD. ALLAH MAY GIVE U MORE FAME.