Q&A with Sara Shahabi

Graphic designer Sara Shahabi was commissioned by the Walters to create the title wall for Pearls on a String: Artists, Patrons, and Poets at the Great Islamic Courts. We talked to Sara about how the title wall came to be, from concept to execution.

Sara Shahabi’s background in exploring experimental English and Farsi typography made her a perfect fit for executing the evocative title wall that greets visitors at the start of Pearls on a String. Her installation continues a theme in the exhibition that considers how artists, patrons, and poets form a constellation of relationships. In Sara’s work we see a contemporary expression of that theme, to compliment works from the Islamic courts of the sixteenth- and eighteenth-centuries. We talked to Sara about how the title wall came to be, from concept to execution.

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How did you come up with the design and concept of the title wall? Did you collaborate with Amy Landau, curator of Pearls on a String, on this process?

The idea of the title wall came from my thesis project at MICA, Yalda Night. When Amy contacted me to design the title wall, she was looking for a piece that interacts with the audience and has self expression. After I presented several proposals to Amy and her team at the Walters Art Museum, we decided to build the piece around the use of mirrors. The idea behind that was related to the theme of the exhibition, which was about individuality and emphasizes the role of human relationships in inspiring and sustaining artistic creativity. The reflective aspect of the mirrors invites the audience to be part of the work and that connectivity happens throughout the piece and the Farsi text.

We decided to combine the Persian and English title, which for me was a great approach as a bilingual designer. I layered the sculptural Persian title over the English “Pearls on a String”, exploring how Persian and English modern typefaces can complement one another to symbolize a relationship between cultures.

I spray painted Farsi words on the Persian title Reshte Gohar (Pearls on a String) which evoked the feelings and emotions of compassion, love, fear, envy, life, and death. The main idea of this piece is to give a moment to the audience to reflect in themselves.

Pearls on a String title wall installation
The finished title wall for “Pearls on a String”. See it before the exhibition closes on January 31.

What was your process in executing the piece? 

This was my first experience working on a large scale piece, so the execution was harder than I expected. It was tough for me to imagine the whole piece at full scale since I was designing it on my computer. To avoid mistakes I made several small mock-ups and consulted with sculptor Paul Daniel and the exhibition team at the Walters Museum about the design and installation.

Depending on the size of the letters, I used either a laser cutting and a water jet machine to cut them. I laser-cut small Farsi words to create stencils which I spray painted on top of the Farsi title.

The museum team was extremely helpful during the installation. They helped me design an armature that suspended my piece in the air, which was very important to achieve the effect I was going after.

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How does this relate to your body of work? Are there connections that you see in retrospect?

I did several projects based on experimental typography. I always try to examine different kinds of techniques to find a better result to convey my idea. I’m interested in projects that are challenging, inspiring and reside in physical space. It doesn’t matter how daunting these challenges are because all that hard work has given me something to draw from.

What’s next for you? 

My profession is my passion. I love working on projects that drive my creativity to higher levels. The Pearls On A String title wall opened a door for me to work on large scale installations and it was a really fulfilling side project. It led me to feel more confident and to be open to new tools, methods, and technologies.


Graphic designer Sara Shahabi was commissioned by the Walters to create the title wall for Pearls on a String: Artists, Patrons, and Poets at the Great Islamic Courts. She earned her MFA in Graphic Design at  the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) and has over 10 years of experience in her field, working and teaching in Iran, Switzerland, and the U.S. Her work is in several books and exhibitions, like Type on Screen by Ellen Lupton (2014) and the Young Guns Competition awards (2013). She has also curated the Iranian Women Graphic Designers Book – Narrative of Life, Tehran (2012). Sara currently works as the senior designer at Fathom Creative. She also spends a part of her time sharing her experiences with incoming students as an adjunct professor.

Pearls_Insta_650x650See Sara’s title wall for Pearls on a String: Artists, Patrons, and Poets at the Great Islamic Courts, on view until January 31st.

You can also buy scarves Sara created just for the Walters, at the Museum Store.