Born in Qazvin, Farmanfarmaian spent her childhood amid traditional Iranian arts and crafts. After attending the Faculty of Fine Arts at the University of Tehran, she moved to the United States in 1945 to study at Cornell University and later Parsons School of Design. Working as a commercial illustrator in New York in the 1950s, she designed the famous logo featuring “Iranian violets,” in her words, for Bonwit Teller department store. At a summer artists’ colony in Woodstock, New York, she learned from Milton Avery how to create monotypes by making paintings on linoleum and pressing them onto canvas.
In 1957, Farmanfarmaian returned to Iran. Traveling around the country, she found—on the walls and ceilings of old palaces and shrines—inspiration for the mirrored mosaics for which she is now best known. An avid gardener, she maintained a large in-ground plot at her house in Iran (which Abby Grey visited), as well as a hanging garden in her Manhattan apartment—both of which supplied her with flowers to paint. Her first exhibition, in Tehran in 1963, featured floral monotypes.
At the onset of the Iranian Revolution in 1979, Farmanfarmaian returned to New York, remaining there for 26 years. Abandoning her mosaic practice, she focused instead on textile design and drawings. Her social circle included artists such as Louise Nevelson, Frank Stella, and Andy Warhol. In 2004 she returned to Iran and resumed her mosaic practice, continuing to make art until her death at the age of 96 in 2019.