Paper chase

Designers have always used paper, but now the medium really is becoming the message as the humble sheet takes centre stage. Dom Hall meets the illustrators at the cutting edge.

What's your favourite kind of paper? A classy 250 gsm uncoated stock? A smooth 180 gsm gloss? Or is it something more unusual like a revive 50:50 silk? To some people, it might just be a roll of compressed, moistened cellulose pulp, but to designers, paper is a subject worth getting worked up about.

The choice of paper stock for any creative job is important, but for a new breed of illustrators and designers paper has become even more central to the creative process. In fact, it's become the central creative process. As the software industry struggles in the face of the ongoing recession, and design agencies look for ways to scale down, save money and get back to a more authentic way of working, hands-on creativity has never been as important. And nowhere has that hands-on design aesthetic been as pure, innovative and downright charming as in the work of designers re-exploring the simple medium of folding and cutting paper. From magazine design to mainstream advertising, uptown art galleries to street level character creation, designers who can flex skills using paper folds, scalpels and glue are much in demand. You may remember this as origami; now it's called paper engineering.

Why the name change? "We don't call it origami - this is different," says Michigan-based paper sculptor and blogger Matt Shlian. "Traditional origami uses a square sheet of paper, no cuts, no gluing; all folds. Though we both share paper as a primary medium, paper engineers use glue, knives, plotters and laser cutters," he explains.

Operating very much at the street level of the movement, Shlian and his work represents the real hands-on, grass roots of paper engineering, spreading word of his intricate paper work on design blogs and his own website. Shlian creates work for his army of blog followers, enthusiasts and clients who look to him for his unique approach. He's a passionate cheerleader for the paper engineering movement, and both charts and has contributed to its move into the mainstream through work featured in contemporary books on the subject, such as Gestalten's recent Papercraft tome.

"Paper is an immediate material; you can simply take a sheet and begin folding. There's a direct reward to working with it," Shlian says. "It's also a material that allows a dialogue. You can work with it and discover new ways of manipulating paper. There's always a curiosity driving my work - I always wonder, what would happen if I do this?' Paper reacts, and I feel like I'm collaborating with the material more than directing it," he adds.

While artists like Shlian are fascinated by the endless creative opportunities that paper can present, others have noticed that commercial clients are also keen to buy into its charm. Emma Rios is a Spanish designer based in New Jersey, USA, who has turned her illustration skills towards creating fantasy-tinged, 2D set designs and cutouts to dress fashion and lifestyle photoshoots. Her work has appeared in magazines and newspapers all over the world including Tatler, Harper's Bazaar and the Observer.

For Rios, the clients currently beating a path to her door are looking for something more authentic than the work churned out by the millions of identikit illustrators all using the same creative software packages. "People love hand-created work now because, like fashion, different illustration styles become more and less popular over time. Now everyone is realising the weird messy kid in the class is more fun than the popular, perfect head girl. It has more character," she says.

Rios says the genesis of her own '50s French magazine-meets-Emily the Strange' style grew from a love of fairy stories and, more incongruously, from 70s British children's TV programmes. But she points out that her curious style has certainly been keeping her busy.

"Since I started making 2D sets and working with photographers, it's put a different edge on my style," she explains. "My clients like my work to look na¯ve and fun. It's more charming and strikes resonance with us. Remember the Paddington bear animations? The sets were simply black and white. The shadows and the photograph add a lot of the atmosphere to the image."

Typifying her work are recent pieces created for the 300th edition of upmarket women's glossy, Tatler. Featured over 18 pages, Rios recreated the fronts of 17 jewellery stores located in London's Bond Street using foam board as a base. Does working in such a simple way make the design process any easier than it would be using software and a Mac?

"If I'm cutting out, I use an old-school scalpel and paper, and paint with black ink as it flows really well. The only problem is I have cuts on my hands, and it's confusing as you have to swoop from negative to positive in your head to work out what you're doing," she says.

UK-based illustrator Gail Armstrong also describes herself as a "paper sculptor" and creates work for children's books, magazine editorial, advertising and commercial clients including Rotary Watches, Virgin Travel and Nestl. Like Rios, her work has a child-like simplicity and earthy authenticity, which appeals to clients looking to target certain audiences. Unlike Rios, though, she admits to using the kind of design tools that might be more familiar to a typical 21st century designer.

"I lean quite heavily on my scanner and Photoshop," she confesses. "I use them for helping to create the original composition from drawings, which I can then layer and use as templates. I often create my own papers from scanning in objects or textures to create patterns, and some of my images are created by scanning the 3D elements and then "collaging" them together in Photoshop. Apart from that, everything is glue, scalpel and cutting mat," she says.

For Armstrong, working with paper is satisfying, versatile and adaptive, though she says the skills needed to develop interesting work in this area are very much based around illustration. "My style is constantly developing with each brief, as I am constantly discovering new ways to work with paper," she explains. "One key thing I have realised over the years, though, is how crucial the drawing stage is - that's when I do most of my planning of how to make the piece - and therefore how important it is to keep my drawing skills fresh."

Los Angeles-based paper sculptor Megan Brain picked up her love of illustration from her father, who worked in animation and passed on a love of classic American UPS cartoons such as Mr Magoo. Brain's intricate paper cutout style has earned her briefs from the likes of United Airways, and she recently did some end-credits work for DreamWorks' kids' animated animal flick Madagascar II.

"I was very fortunate and had a lot of creative freedom with the Madagascar puppets. The only direction I was given by the client was to use African mask designs as an inspiration," she recalls. "Most of my clients find me because they need an artist who specifically works with paper, or they like the way I design. Paper has a unique quality and light responds to the plans in really beautiful ways. Also, hand-crafted work tends to have imperfections, which maybe gives it a certain charm that my clients find appealing," she explains.

Brain says that the Madagascar work, as with all of her projects, started with a simple sketch that was developed in terms of shapes and proportions, before a scalpel was finally put to paper.

"During the first phase I also think about the mood or effect I would like to create. I figure out my colour scheme, and decide if it will have predominately cool or warm colours. I also ask myself if I want it to be pretty, funny, elegant or graphic. I recommend using Bristol paper or scrapbook paper. My favourite cutting tool is the No-Roll Rubber Barrel X-Acto knife with #11 blade," she explains.

While Rios, Armstrong and Brain represent the commercial end of the growth in paper engineering, other creatives have taken the artform into a purer aesthetic direction. Brooklyn-based Mia Pearlman graduated from Cornell University with a BFA in painting, and has worked in a number of fields including web design.

Over the past few years, however, the work that has really earned her a reputation are the large-scale site-specific installations made of cut paper, which take their inspiration from events such as natural disasters and weather patterns.

Pearlman's high concept paper sculptures are stunning to look at, and she's recently worked at taking them away from art spaces and into people's homes through a limited edition laser-cut sculpture made from high-impact polystyrene called Voluta. "I worked with an industrial designer named Rodrigo de Salvo in Buenos Aires to create the prototype," she recalls.

"He scanned in my original paper cutout and traced all of my cutouts in Rhino," Pearlman continues. "This file was used to tell the machine what to cut out. After I returned to the States, I used Illustrator to make changes to the file until it was ready for production," she explains.

Similarly, Los Angeles-based Jeff Nishinaka's breathtaking sculptures also cover the worlds of commercial work and commissioned pieces for private collectors. "There are so very few of us working in paper sculpture, so the good news for me is that it has made my work stand out against the multitudes of designers out there working digitally," he says. "I think that after the initial impact and fascination with computers providing instant gratification, we're now going back to design and illustration that requires the human touch. Computers are great - I love computers and all that they can do - but I think they lack the warmth and tangibility that only the hand can create."

Paper engineering is a growing movement, straddling mainstream design and the loftier world of commercial art. And you'll be seeing a lot more of it. Just don't mention origami.