- Give Me Shelter---
This is a reprint of an article that originally
appeared in Rolling Stone. It was reprinted
in Shelter, a hastily organized soft cover
large format design idea book and intro to
vernacular architecture printed in 1973-and now suddenly
back in print.
During the 70's, it seemed that Shelter was
on the coffee tables of virtually every hippie
community in America
there is an attached diagram that shows how
magic squares convert to patterns. if you have
never seen how this works. check it out
Decoding Arabic Design
By David Saltzman
The codes and exact methods of making these designs
are jealously guarded. They stay within the family.
You may be interested to know that one of the largest
sects of Sufis, commonly called the "Naqshbandi School",
is also called, among the Arabs, "The Designers." They
are particularly occupied with this business of encoding
information into rugs, calligraphy and architecture.
I'm told that there is a certain mosque, in Central Asia,
where anyone who enters, irrespective of race or culture,
immediately bursts out crying! It has something to do
with the architectural dimensions of the place, and their
relationship to human physiology.
The Sufis tell a story about a metal smith who was unjustly thrown into
He pleaded with his captors, and they finally allowed him to receive a rug
by his wife.
Day after day the man said his prayers on the rug, prostrating himself in the
direction of Mecca. After a time, he said to his jailers.
"I am poor, and I have no chance in life any more. You yourselves are paid
But I happen to be a metalworker. If you bring me some tin and some tools,
I can build some small trinkets which you can sell in the marketplace.
In this way we may both benefit."
The guards agreed, and pretty soon both the tinsmith and the jailers were
a profit. They used the extra money to buy food and luxuries for themselves.
But one day, when the guards went to the cell in their usual way, they found
the door open. The man was gone.
Many years later, the man's innocence was established. He happened to run
one of the men who had imprisoned him. This man was burning with curiosity,
and he asked the metalworker how he had managed to escape - what magic he
The tinsmith answered: "It is a matter of design, and the design within
My wife had found the man who designed the jail locks. She wormed the design
out of him. Since she is a weaver, she skillfully wove the design into the
at the very spot my head touched five times a day when I was praying.
"You know that I am a metalworker, and to me this design looked like the
of a lock. So I designed the plan of the trinkets to allow me to store up
necessary material to make the key - and I escaped!"
THE PASSERELLE OF THE WEAVERS
Imagine a narrow North African passerelle, salmon-red walls and tall green
swimming in the blue-blackness of twilight. We pass a peaked archway,
a door into ancient magic. Inside, by the light of silver gas lamps,
dozens of small
children are assiduously hlding slender black threads looped around their
The threads stretch in an intricate pattern from one cousin to another
In one corner a wrinkled old grandmother works at a spinning wheel, and a
girl is waiting to take her freshly spun yarn to the dye market.
The men are performing an ancient dance, the dance of the rug makers, by
in and out among the little children while knotting the warp threads. They
according to a cadence which is sung by the women, who are sitting around the
walls paying out measured lengths of colored wool, in a ritual drawn up
from the deep well of time.
Each district, each family has its own special song, and this gives each
rug its unique
design. With each change in rhythm comes a change in color; a new harmony
makes a new pattern.
There is a legend still very strong in the Middle East and North Africa
rug designs were all, at one time, carefully constructed by the members of a
learned society for the purpose of preserving certain fragments of esoteric
The secret of the rug is hidden in the music. I remember one rug shop in
where 16 blind girls worked at wooden looms, while a lively old woman sang to
them and they hummed along with their fingers. I came in with a professional
storyteller who regaled them with tales of Malta. The 16 girls all laughed
like a moonlight minuet of mountain bells.
As we leave the family rug shop and continue down the passarelle we come upon
another lighted archway. We look in and see an old man with young eyes, bent
over pages of calculations and peculiar diagrams. As we look in wonder, he
beckons us in.
He is not a scribe, it turns out, and not a scholar. He is a "designer"
and is busy
with the plans for the grillwork on a certain archway that will adorn the
We inquire about the designs.
"You know," he says finally, "that it is forbidden for a servant of Allah
to make images."
He takes up a drawing which looks like a very ornate stencil of leaves and
"This," he says dramatically, "is the first sura from the Koran, in which
the Prophet: 'Read!' Mohammed protests that he does not know how to read.
But Allah commands him again: 'Read!' "
It dawns on us that he is telling the literal truth: That leafy pattern is
exquisitely ornate Arabic calligraphy. Those "gaudy" designs on the walls
are actually lifelines from the inner nucleus of the Moslem world: This is
which even illiterates know by heart.
"The Koran is a code, a mystery," he says in a voice full of emotion. "To
solve it is to
become enlightened." He takes us over to this table littered with number
geometric designs and the ropework patterns of Islamic art.
He shows us a piece of paper ruled off into small squares. In each square
is a number.
"This is a unique kind of 'magic square,' " he explains, "and it is the key
to my work
of designing. I have the task of designing this archway to transmit certain
information and to give a certain feeling," he says with a gleam in his
"Let us call the information and the feeling 'six.' "
We watch closely as he abstracts from the magic square all the rows and
which contain a "six." He comes up with a kind of number grid, which
"six" and nothing else.
Then he takes a fine pen and skillfully joins all the points of the squares
"number six grid," forming a kind of net.
He overlays several "number six nets" at different angles to one another,
simplifies the design, and comes up with this:
He looks at us triumphantly. 'And now, you see, it is a matter of building.
I put one net onto another, until the lines grown thick and Allah willing,
we will end up with Alhambra Palace!"
Depending on the particular code the designer is using, you could get
within hexagons, octagons within octagons, or whatever.
The method of simplification is really elegant, in my opinion. When you
do this business of laying the nets over one another, you find that many of
lines just coalesce into a black blob. The blobs stay in the final design.
get the effect where a 20-sided figure. Sometimes everything withing one
circles is erased, and the line segments left over are connected with one
according to yet another numerical code, there are also certain geometric
which are simply not used, for whatever esoteric reasons, and when one of
turns up, the crucial lines are erased and the segments connected in some
way. In this what they call "lawful otherwise", according to the legends,
the real secret information these designs are supposed to convey.
I had seen this kind of Islamic pattern often, but had found it impossible
You trace out one line and it seems to meander and sashay along, like a
dervish, with no particular order or meaning. But taken as a whole, all
random lines somehow work together. The result is startling, and a perfect
the Arab mind.
As I stood there in the Arabian twilight watching this designer work I got
definite feeling that a message was being delivered, to us personally,
thick fog of the past. This man was a codemaster, a telegrapher, an artist
artificial language. "It is a matter of design, and design within design. "
If you are interested in buying an Oriental rug from the source - and
thousand dollars - it would be worthwhile to learn how to count in Arabic.
In fact, the more Arabic or Persian you know, the cheaper your rug will be.
The best introductory book on Arabic is called Arabic Made Easy by Mouncef
The publisher is Mckay. All the other books on Arabic that I've seen are
impossible to understand.
An excellent introduction to Oriental rugs of all kinds is a little book
Oriental Rugs in Colour by Preben Liebetrau.