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Key Stage 3, 4 and 5 - Art and Design

Key Stage 3 and 4 - Design and Technology

At the Jameel Gallery of Islamic Art at the V&A, students will find plenty of inspiration for their projects and discover more about Islamic art, design and culture. This resource provides an introduction to a very popular and important element of Islamic art: plant-based design motifs.

Tiles with repeat pattern, 1580. Museum no. 401-1900

Tiles with repeat pattern, 1580. Museum no. 401-1900

Why look at plant-based motifs in Islamic Art & Design?

A great number and variety of plant-based motifs and patterns appear in Islamic art across different mediums and historical periods. There are many outstanding examples on display in the Jameel Gallery of Islamic Art at the V&A.

Islamic designs inspired by plants range from the natural to the highly stylised and patterns are created in a variety of techniques and materials. These ingenious designs have not only been popular in the Middle East for centuries, but also celebrated by artists and designers from the West. William Morris, the renowned Victorian designer, developed many wallpaper and textile designs inspired by colours, patterns and motifs that he admired in Islamic art.

Studying the varied and wide-ranging examples of Islamic plant-based designs at the V&A will give students lots of inspiration for creative projects. They will also learn how art from other cultures has influenced design history and see how designers have used and adapted decorative motifs and techniques from different times and places.

This resource focuses on works on display in the Jameel Gallery of Islamic Art , but you can also make links with historical and contemporary British, Indian and Chinese plant designs, which can be seen in the Museum and found using V&A Search the Collections.

Block-printed cotton, William Morris, 1876. Museum no. T.37-1919

Block-printed cotton, William Morris, 1876. Museum no. T.37-1919

Learning objectives

A visit to the gallery and the activities in this resource will help students to:

  • increase knowledge and understanding
  • develop research and critical thinking skills
  • develop literacy skills
  • develop cross-cultural understanding
  • gain inspiration for assignments, including GCSE, AS, A level and diploma coursework
Students will be able to:
  • understand the role of plant-based design in Islamic art and culture, and how it developed
  • appreciate the range of Islamic artistic production across time and geographical boundaries
  • appreciate the possibilities for using single or multiple motifs to create a design
  • appreciate the difference between naturalistic, stylised and abstract plant-based motifs and designs
  • appreciate the role of symmetry, geometry and grids in helping to create plant-based designs in Islamic art
  • understand that not all Islamic art is religious
  • make comparisons and links between plant-based designs in Islamic art and other artistic traditions
  • identify the most common plant-based motifs in Islamic art 
Velvet fabric with carnations, 1600-50. Museum no. 96-1878

Velvet fabric with carnations, 1600-50. Museum no. 96-1878

National curriculum links

Key Stage 3 Art and Design programmes of study

  • Key concepts: creativity a-c; competence a-b; cultural understanding a-b; critical understanding a-d
  • Key processes: explore and create a-e; understand and evaluate a-f
  • Range and content a-d
  • Curriculum opportunities a, b, d-g

Key Stage 4 GCSE coursework assessment objectives

  • collecting information and recording ideas
  • analysing artifacts/the work of artists, designers and crafts persons
  • developing and modifying ideas/experimenting with media
  • creating a personal response/outcome

Key Stage 3 Design & Technology programmes of study

  • Key concepts: designing and making a-d; cultural understanding a-b; creativity a-c; critical evaluation a-c
  • Key processes a-h
  • Range and content (Note: design and make projects relate to resistant materials and textiles): designing b-e; resistant materials and textiles j-m
  • Curriculum opportunities a-g

Preparation for a visit

We strongly suggest that teachers make a preliminary visit to the V&A and undertake the activities themselves before introducing these to students. All school visits must be pre-booked.

If you are also going to visit the Prints & Drawings Room, discuss this with the Bookings Team when you book your visit. Numbers are restricted to 15 at one time. You can book the resource box ‘Botanical Illustration’ or pre-select and request material from the catalogue before your visit.  

Book: an educational visit

Research sheets can also be downloaded for students to complete at the Museum:

Download Fact File: Flowers in Ottoman Art (PDF file, 806 KB)

Download Fact File: Safavid Textiles (PDF file, 579 KB)

Download Fact File: Metalwork (PDF file, 1,001 KB)


Pre-visit activities

This resource introduces students to plant-based motifs in Islamic art and design. Here you can find warm-up activities to complete before a visit to the V&A, and design or art projects to develop during your visit and continue back in the classroom.

Introduce plant-based motifs in Islamic art & design

  1. Introduce the key features of Islamic Art & Design
    Use the style in Islamic art guide or encourage students to do this independently.
    Explore: Style in Islamic Art (Interactive)
  2. Introduce the concept of plant-based design
    Read the article on Plant motifs in Islamic art and use the PowerPoint presentation, which has teacher’s notes below each slide, to introduce the subject and highlight some of the objects that can be viewed at the V&A.

    Download: Exploring Plant-based Design presentation (PowerPoint presentation, 41,903 KB)

    Read: Plant motifs in Islamic art (Article)

  3. This online interactive map will help your class to explore the Islamic Middle East further and learn more about the powerful Ottoman Empire and Safavid dynasty.
    Explore: Islamic Middle East Map (Interactive)
While working with this resource encourage your students to keep asking themselves:
  • Is there a single or repeated motif on the object you are looking at?
  • How stylised is the design? How has this been achieved?
  • What is the primary pattern unit? i.e. the main repeated motif.
  • What design techniques have been used to create the pattern?
Warm-up activity

Ask the group to think about where they could find examples of plant-based design in their lives (hint: crockery, fabric at home, clothing, brand advertising). Ask students to collect examples of designs with plant or flower motifs (using their phone to take photographs, cutting out examples from newspaper and magazines; researching on the internet). As a group, consider how the examples are similar and how they are different. Ask each student to select their favourite example and consider:

  • Which plant might have inspired this design?
  • How realistic is the depiction of the plant or flower?
  • How is the design constructed? e.g. does the motif appear just once or is it repeated? If so, how?
Discuss the museum tasks before you visit

A visit to the museum works best if undertaken at the beginning of a scheme of work. Introduce the projects before you visit the museum and explain what students should be looking for at the Museum when they visit. Suggested projects are given below which you could adapt for key stages 3-5. Research sheets for students to use in the Museum can be found in the At the Museum section of this resource.

At the Museum

Visit the Museum to see original examples of Islamic Art & Design and to enhance students learning. The knowledge and inspiration they gain from seeing original objects will give them inspiration for their projects. The activities we have devised focus on the Jameel Gallery of Islamic Art, Room 42.

A one day Exploring Plant-Based Design visit can be divided into two or three sessions with 35 minutes for lunch:
10.30-11.10, 11.15-11.55, 12.00-12.40 and 13.15-14.00.

In the morning, rotate groups between research activities:

Download Fact File: Flowers in Ottoman Art (PDF file, 806 KB)

Download Fact File: Safavid Textiles (PDF file, 579 KB)

Download Fact File: Metalwork (PDF file, 1,001 KB)

The Ardabil Carpet (detail), Iran, 1539-40. Museum no. 272-1893

The Ardabil Carpet (detail), Iran, 1539-40. Museum no. 272-1893

The afternoon can be spent visiting other areas of the museum where other examples of plant-based art and design can be seen:

  • Asia Galleries, Rooms 41, 44, 47a-c;
  • Medieval and Renaissance Galleries, Rooms 8-10, 50, 62-64
  • British Galleries, Room 125 (including works by William Morris inspired by Islamic art).
  • Prints & Drawings Room (discuss with Bookings team as numbers are restricted to 15. ‘Botanical Illustration’ or material from the catalogue can be requested before your visit)


Back at School/College

Drawing plants

Ask students choose a plant and make a series of drawings:

  1. Quick sketch of the whole plant
  2. Detail of one section
  3. Outline of whole plant
  4. Texture of one section
  5. Any striking features about the plant (e.g. thorns, shape of leaves, flowers)

If there is time, place a plant (or a section of the plant) between a bright light source (e.g. table lamp) and a sheet or an A3 or A2 sheet of blank paper. This creates a silhouette of the plant, which students can then photograph, draw freehand or outline in soft pencil on the large sheet of paper itself.

Designing a pattern

Get students to create their own repeating pattern. Ask them to select one of their own drawings from the activity above, or one of the examples they found during their research above.

Each student will need:

  • plant drawing or plant image
  • tracing paper
  • pencil
  • 2-3 sheets of blank paper

Ask students to select a square area in their drawing/example. With tracing paper, trace the main lines or shapes within the square and its outline. This is the motif. Turn the tracing paper over and place it in the centre of a fresh sheet of paper. On the paper beneath, create a grid of further squares of the same size adjoining the original square until the paper is covered. Now create a pattern with this motif using one of the following techniques:

  1. Repetition - Using the tracing paper, repeat the motif in the same position in each square.
  2. Reflective symmetry - Taking the tracing paper flip it over onto an adjoining square so that it is a mirror-image reflection of the original. Repeat for square to the other side, above and below. Continue until the whole sheet is covered.
  3. Rotational symmetry - Move the tracing paper to the adjacent square and rotate it 90 degrees clockwise, without turning it over. Trace pattern. Move tracing paper to the square below the new square and repeat the 90 degree rotation. Repeat for adjacent square so that a new, larger square has been created using the motif repeated four times. Extend over whole sheet of paper.
Coffee cup and saucer, 1700-1800. Museum no. 607 & A-1874

Coffee cup and saucer, 1700-1800.
Museum no. 607 & A-1874

Starting a Design Challenge

Here are some suggestions for projects for either Art & Design or Design & Technology which could be adapted/extended for students across key stages 7-13. These build on research and creative activities undertaken during a museum visit, but can also be undertaken if a museum visit is not possible by using the V&A’s Search the Collections.

Art & Design
  • Design a set of plates and/or mugs that incorporate naturalistic and/or stylised plant designs (ceramics)
  • Design and print a textile or wallpaper inspired by plants that you have developed into a repeat pattern (textile design)
  1. Introduce the design challenge.
  2. Research and record a variety of sources of inspiration and ideas for individual designs/objects
  3. Part of hanging or quilt-cover, 1600-1700. Museum no. Circ.92-1953

    Part of hanging or quilt-cover, 1600-
    1700. Museum no. Circ.92-1953

    Research examples of Islamic Art and different design techniques at the Museum, or by using Search the Collections.
  4. Develop individual ideas for motifs and/or patterns, trying different styles and ways of creating a repeating pattern.
  5. Create a working drawing of pattern as applied to object/design and modify it if necessary.
  6. Create the final ceramic or textile design.
Design & Technology
  • Create a range of contemporary clothing inspired by Islamic plant designs (textiles)
  • Design and make household object with plant-based motif decoration (resistant materials)
  1. Introduce the Design Challenge.
  2. Ceramic coffee pot, Turkey, 1700-1800. Museum no. C.73 & A-1944

    Ceramic coffee pot, Turkey, 1700-1800.
    Museum no. C.73 & A-1944

    Research and record a variety of sources of inspiration and ideas for design/object
  3. Develop ideas for motifs and/or patterns, trying different styles and ways of creating a repeating pattern (see pages 15-22 of the PowerPoint presentation, and notes, for more on these steps in relation to plant-based design).
  4. Research materials and techniques, including the kind of fabric and printing to be used (textiles) and the means by which the plant-motif will be transferred or incorporated into the product (for example wood or metal cutter to create piercings in a solid material).
  5. Make drawings of possible design solutions and select a final design.
  6. Create a sample of the textile or a prototype of the product.
  7. Evaluate sample or prototype, and modify if necessary.
  8. Create item of clothing/ household object.

Further Reading

Tim Stanley et al. Palace and Mosque: Islamic Art from the Middle East, London: Victoria and Albert Museum, 2004

Islamic art glossary

arabesque French for 'in the Arab fashion', the term was coined by European collectors and art historians to describe the stylised and extensive plant decoration characteristic of Islamic art (few scholars of Islamic art use the term today).

Arts and Crafts Movement an international art movement, with origins in Britain, where it flourished from about 1880. Inspired by the ideas of art critic John Ruskin and designer William Morris, it advocated a revival of traditional handicrafts and a concern for the role of the craftsman, a return to a simpler way of life and an improvement in the design of ordinary domestic objects.

block printing a form of printing in which fabric or paper is printed with an inked block (often wood) cut with a design; this method lends itself well to repeat pattern.

chinoiserie a decorative motif that is inspired by Chinese sources.

composite flower a flower motif that combines the characteristics of several different real flowers.

freehand drawing by hand using no grid.

interlace in plant-based or geometric designs, a technique of weaving the lines of the pattern under and over each other, giving the pattern an illusion of three-dimensionality.

Iznik a city in western Turkey that was the centre of ceramic production in the later 15th and 16th centuries, and which lent its name to the wares that were initially characterised by their blue-and-white underglaze-painted designs and later by the addition of green, red, turquoise and purple. Tablewares and tiles were produced both officially for the Ottoman Court and the open market where they were traded at home and abroad.

motif in a pattern, the key element (plant image, shape or figure) of the design, which is usually repeated; there may be one motif or more motifs in any pattern and they can range from the simple to the complex.

natural or naturalistic relating to pattern, where the appearance of the motif or design obviously depicts, or relates to, a plant form in the natural world.

Ottoman a Turkish dynasty whose great empire covered Turkey, large areas of North Africa, Eastern Europe and West Asia from 1281 to 1924. From 1453, their capital was Istanbul. As well as much religious and courtly architecture, court workshops produced manuscripts, ceramics and textiles, many of which were decorated with the distinctive floral motifs (in which the tulip featured regularly) of imperial Ottoman design.

Safavid a Shi'ite dynasty which ruled Iran from 1501 to 1722, with capitals at Tabriz, and Qazwin in the 16th century, and then Isfahan from 1598. Safavid art production included silk textiles and some of the world’s finest illustrated manuscripts. They also built lavish mosques, palaces and commercial complexes.

scrollwork the name given to type of ornamentation very common in Islamic design in which the stems and tendrils of plants and flowers are arranged in a rolling spiral.

stylised relating to pattern, where the designer has taken a motif or design and modified its appearance.

symmetry exact correspondence of parts on either side of a line or plane, or about a centre of axis.

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