Photography by Larry Kuzniewski
Palm Island, Dubai looks exactly like it should look: a man-made island built in the shape of a thin, Arabian palm leaf. The island houses expensive vacation properties on white sand beaches that splay excessively over the Persian Gulf, a short distance from a bevy of private islands shaped to look like all the countries of the world, and not too far from the tallest building on earth.
Geographically, Palm Island is an impossible landform, a kind of human interference in the natural that seems so drastic as to be surreal. The island’s crowning gem is its equally surreal Atlantis Hotel and Resort, a glittering and monolithic castle stationed on the far side of the Island. The Atlantis Hotel advertises in-room aquariums, helicopter tours, a Dolphin Bay and something called N’Dulge Nightclub.
The Atlantis opened in 2008. Sometime during its development in the early 2000s, the hotel’s proprietors considered adding a casino to the property’s massive design. The proposed casino featured a crème and coral color scheme applied to a gently sloped dome. Two shallow, marble staircases were designed to descend into a heart-shaped courtyard. A bouquet of crystalline lights was planned to emerge from a midnight blue casino floor.
The early plans for the Great Hall of Light Atlantis Casino were modified or renamed, or else abandoned in favor of greater designs. In any case, no proof of the planned building exists in glossy online photographs of the current property. But, oddly enough, a 28-inch-tall version of the Great Hall of Light can still be found a block west and three stories up from South Main Street, in Kamran Kiani’s dusty workshop. The model sits, in somewhat diminished glory, alongside a five-foot-tall skyscraper and a miniature foam mountain range.
Kiani, an owner and founder of Scale Models Unlimited, has accumulated a collection of retired or excess models: projects sent back to the company by developers who no longer needed them, or, on a few occasions, models never collected by the companies that commissioned them. These include a satellite called the Loval Telstar 7, a mock-up plastic sailboat made for a sailing award and an illustrated guide to the Moscow Kremlin. Kiani uses these models as optimistic examples of what his company can create for customers, but there is also a cautionary note to the display— half-dreamt ideas for development projects might remain in dusty miniature, consigned to sit at Scale Models Unlimited next to the other plastic skeletons.
In the 25 years that Scale Models Unlimited has existed in Memphis, Kiani and a rotating team of architectural students, model-making nerds and computer-savvy engineers have constructed scaled-down versions of Biblical temples, Japanese golf courses, universities, old-timey river boats, the downtown Memphis skyline, Victorian homes and autumnal landscapes. Iranian by birth, Kiani runs the business with longtime friend and collaborator Dan Oppenheimer, whose property houses Scale Models above Rainbow Studios (for decades now Memphis’ premier stained glass shop), and the well-known Jack Robinson Gallery.
Oppenheimer is a model enthusiast and skilled businessman, but Kiani is Scale Models’ virtuoso. Kiani has been making models professionally since he was in his thirties, when he immigrated to America by way of Italy, Kuwait and of course Iran. He began his career in Palo Alto, California, and moved to Memphis in 1991, as much by chance as by intention. His work has always been a combination of happenstance and purpose, and is characterized by slow, methodical processes, matched with a kind of speculative ingenuity.
Kiani is a slight man in his seventies with olive skin and white hair. He is small without seeming frail. He has a quiet and focused presence, and is often absorbed in his work for long hours that he punctuates with cigarette breaks. He speaks with a hard-to-identify accent, one drawn from a life spent across three continents. His parents were wealthy Russians who immigrated to Tehran around the time of the Russian Revolution, who, according to Kiani, brought only their gold and a few personal items across the border. Kiani left Iran when he was a young man to study architecture in Florence, after which he secured a job working in a developing Kuwait.
In Kuwait in the 1950s, he was employed to design permanent homes in which to house the nation’s nomadic Bedouin population. This work demanded him to be economical and responsive. After some research, he came up with an open floor-plan design that included room for homeowners’ camels. Kiani says that his designs were successful and that, in light of his success, the firm proposed that he work between Dubai and Kuwait. Kiani initially accepted the job but soon realized that work and life in then-traditionalist Dubai offered little in the way of enjoyment. “I thought,” says Kiana, “this is not life. I want to have a good time working and have evenings and weekends.”
Kiani left the Middle East in 1970 and followed his brothers (he is one of four) to California, where they all lived, having left Tehran after their education. In the Bay Area, he tried to find work in architecture but discovered that opportunity was scarce. “They said, ‘Listen, we would like to hire you, but it is a recession and there is no work for anybody,’” recalls Kiani. “I had never heard the word ‘recession’ in my life, and I had to come home and look it up in a dictionary.”
After exhausting the list of Bay Area architecture firms with no success, he resorted to scanning the Yellow Pages, where he discovered a business called Scale Models Unlimited. He applied at the company without knowing quite what they did. In his interview the boss asked Kiani if he had ever made anything by hand, something less technical and more sculptural. Kiani showed him a small and abstract sculpture that Kiani had worked on while bored in Dubai — a weird, lithe object built out of strips of matboard that Kiani still displays. It got him the job.
Kiani worked in the Bay Area for thirty years, both as a successful scale modeler and as a designer. He received his permanent residency and eventually his citizenship, was married and divorced, and grew his skills as a maker. While at Scale Models, he often worked hand-in-hand with architects to improve upon their designs. In the Sixties and Seventies, the company took on thousands of projects, many of which Kiani spearheaded. These included a 16’ x 14’ scale model of the city of San Francisco with the Golden Gate and Bay Bridges.
When he eventually left Scale Models to work for a design firm (work for which he felt he was more naturally qualified) Kiani became peripherally involved in the beginning of the Silicon Valley, designing several early computer monitors. He met and worked with Steve Jobs, then a young “raggedy” man, and later ran into Jobs wearing a three-piece suit at the San Francisco Opera. Jobs reportedly thanked him, though Kiani says he didn’t realize what Apple Computers had become until much later.
Business was good in California, but Kiani longed for creative control of a company. He worried that his experience made him too expensive for the position he held, and that younger employees could fill his job more economically. He felt that he could not survive as an independent designer in the crowded Bay Area market, so Kiani slowly and methodically set about finding an American city with less competition. He ordered the Yellow Pages of all of the major metropolitan areas in the United States and, one by one, investigated design markets. This was how he happened upon Memphis, a city where he had never been and that, in the early 1980s, was still less than booming.
Kiani made several investigative trips to Memphis, but was not set on moving to Tennessee until, by chance, he found himself at a meeting of the Oakland Orchid Society. There, he met a doctor who happened to be moving to Memphis. She told Kiani that she’d been hired by St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital; she had rented a big house in the city but was terrified to live alone. When Kiani told her that he, also, had considered moving to Memphis, she offered that he could live with her until he felt comfortable on his own. In exchange for housing, he could drive her to the hospital at night. He agreed.
Kiani is a long-time plant enthusiast. He is particularly interested in difficult and sensitive plants such as orchids and bonsai, which he keeps in a greenhouse behind his house. As a teenager, he had considered studying agriculture rather than architecture in school but surprisingly found architecture to be the more hands-on field. Kiani laughs when he tells the story of his move to Memphis: “I brought everything that I had — a big truck with bonsai and orchids. The driver of the moving truck was from Nashville, and he said, ‘Why are you taking all these weeds with you? There are plenty of weeds in Tennessee.’”
After several months in Memphis, Kiani was starting to make a name and career for himself as a freelance designer. He met Dan Oppenheimer in 1993 when Oppenheimer employed him to help build a miniature music museum to go in the top of the yet-to-be-built Pyramid. The music museum never made it to the top of the Pyramid, but Oppenheimer and Kiani continued to work together. Years later, when Kiani discovered that his old company, California Scale Models Unlimited, was for sale, Oppenheimer helped him bring the business and its customers to Memphis, where it has remained ever since.
The first time I visited Scale Models Unlimited, in the summer of 2013, it was because I needed a job. I’d heard about the business from an architect friend, and made a trip to Oppenheimer’s building with the hope that my functional knowledge of how to run an old laser cutter and decently steady hands would be enough qualification. I had worked for an architectural sculptor in New York (for whom I mostly pasted together small pieces of fiberboard), and I was expecting the work at Scale Models to be comparatively technical and dry.
I was surprised to learn, once I was hired, that though the work is exacting, it is anything but dry. There is no prescribed method of scale modeling. It is not a simple matter of gluing together prefab parts, nor is it always an issue of executing someone else’s pre-formed design plans. People want scale models for a variety of reasons — because they want to imagine something that could be, because they want to explain something that already is, or because they want to replicate something that used to exist and has been lost to time. Modeling, like drawing, is an art that is as old as written history. There is no one clear way to go about it.
The Scale Models shop off South Front is set up in a way that is indicative of the business’ open-ended nature. In one corner, a large display case houses colors of ground-up foam, all of which were invented by the company for different projects. The colors are labeled Cornflakes, Pea Green, Straw, Excellent Outside Medium, Army, Olive Oil, Carrot Cake, Clump Foliage, Screaming Pea, and Split Pea Soup (to name a few). The foam is ground by something called the “varispeed motodrive,” a grey, industrial-looking machine originally purposed to manufacture wheat and coffee. Nearby, a two-sided buffer with ruffled wheels appears almost decorative. Cases of plastic lettering sit near rows of variously sized tubing and a filing cabinet full of miniature styrene I-beams. During the time I worked there, I became particularly fond of the bookshelf entirely devoted to tiny trees; miniature palms and evergreens that seem to grow in identical rows out of foam blocks.
I assisted in building a miniature nuclear power plant, a project with lots of exacting aspects and (as Kiani puts it) “bells and whistles.” But Scale Models is often offered projects with absolutely no hard guidelines, such as when the company was commissioned to build a riverboat for the Davenport River Music Experience Museum, in Iowa. Kiani asked the museum whether they had any drawings or plans for the boat that he could work from. The museum told him no, that there were only descriptions. Kiani says that he told them, “Well, I cannot make something out of nothing.”
But making something out of nothing turned out to be exactly what he did. With the help of the museum, he tracked down an elderly woman who collected period postcards, one of which depicted a boat similar to the museum’s ideas. Kiani then took those postcards to a shipbuilder, William Ellis, in downtown Memphis, who helped him to thresh out technical details. Emissaries from the River Museum checked in on the project’s progress frequently. When the 11-foot-long project was finally revealed, Kiani told me, the results were so unexpected and the curator so pleased that she was left speechless.
On another occasion, Kiani was commissioned by Christ United Methodist Church to build a model of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, a religious site for which the only descriptions can be found in Biblical text. This seems straightforward enough, except that the building is described in cubits, an antique measurement that is roughly equivalent to the length of a forearm. Scale Models was challenged to make something visually consistent and historically accurate. Each detail of the architecture had to first be sculpted, then molded in rubber; only after all that could it be cast. Kiani laughs and says, “I was very pleased, but this was a historical thing you could never have actually put your hands on. You don’t know what the heck you are doing.”
The sign on the door that leads to Scale Models reads: “Good. Fast. Cheap. Pick Any Two.” Though the firm is used to deadlines, Kiani’s personal preference seems to fall in the categories of “Good” and “Cheap.” He devotes his spare time to cultivating his orchids and then creating laborious and aesthetically perfect sculptures of the orchids out of wood. He spends nearly 400 hours on these sculptures, after which he sells them for a reasonable, and perhaps undervalued, price. Orchids are a sensitive and hard-won flower, difficult for commercial growers to propagate. They are valued by a set of enthusiasts that simply are in it for the love, not the money. It makes sense, then, that Kiani, a sculptor and designer before he is a businessman, would create equally hard-won works of art.
People love to say that scale modeling, as a business, is on the way out. Surely, the narrative goes, it has been bettered by the advent of 3-D printing and digital imaging technologies. There are cheaper and easier ways to demonstrate ideas and explanations for buildings or landscapes. Businesses like Scale Models Unlimited are superfluous in a world where museums are navigated with phone apps and architectural development is valued for speed over beauty. In a digitally streamlined economy, functional crafts are turned into rarified and market-alienated arts. It’s entirely possible that Scale Models Unlimited won’t escape this dubious fate.
But consider Scale Models Unlimited’s decades-long success as a Memphis business, one that grew alongside a photography gallery and a stained glass studio, a business that provided Kiani, a committed craftsman, with the space to exercise his meticulous craft. It seems as if modeling may always have been more art than pure business, and better for it. Memphis is certainly better for Kiani’s, and Scale Models’, presence.
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