October 22, 2012

Playing with Paper for a Charitable Cause

Paper Engineer Helen Friel Builds a Better Business Card

Author: Kim Rogala

Helen Friel playing with her paper camera.

Helen Friel playing with her paper camera.

As a paper engineer, Helen Friel plays with paper for a living. She works and lives in London. Here she tells us about her passion for paper and the work she's doing for her favorite charity, Battersea.

So, Helen. Tell us about being a "paper engineer."

(Laughs). People often think I've made it up! The title was first used for people who designed pop-up books but as it's grown and expanded it now describes anyone who works with paper as their primary medium. Some of the best known paper engineers are people like Robert Sabuda and David A. Carter.

How did you get your start?

I loved pop-up books when I was little and when I was at University, the paper trend was just starting. People like Rob Ryan (who does intricate paper cutting) were becoming better known and I was drawn to the precision that's involved in paper engineering. I'm not very good with the hit and miss nature of painting and drawing, whereas with paper you can keep evolving the work until it's exactly as you want it. I did a couple of projects using paper while I was studying which went well and it followed on from there. It wasn't something I planned.

Helen in the process of building one of the 3D models for The Luxe Project collection.

For a recent design grad, you have an enviable client list … from Harrods's to Vanity Fair to Vogue. Besides brilliant work, what do you attribute it to?

I entered a lot of competitions while I was at University and did as many freelance projects as humanly possible before I graduated. I worked full time for a year after graduating, as well as freelancing. The exposure really came from the internet. Initially I just had a blog and was lucky enough to have my work picked up by Grace Bonnie at Design*Sponge when I was still a second year student, which filtered down through the web. Before I was taken on by my agent, clients came both through my website and through Chris Turner, a photographer I work with regularly.

What first attracted you to the Luxe Project by Why did you want to participate?

I've always had my business cards printed by, so I knew of their work already and how good the quality is. When MOO asked me to participate in the Luxe project I jumped at the chance. Partly because I liked the idea of giving back to a charity that means a lot to me, and partly because they gave me free reign on the design. It's really unusual for somebody to say "Do what you'd like to do!" It's really lovely to have somebody say that and mean it! Being able to choose the charity was wonderful too.

100 percent of the proceeds of the sales for this project go to Battersea. Tell us a little bit more about your personal experience with the organization. You volunteer, is that right?

I've been volunteering there on and off since last year. I owned dogs while I was growing up and really miss having pets at my flat in London. It's been great to spend time with the dogs and make their lives a little happier. All they want to do is spend time with people. Battersea has over 800 volunteers and the staff are just incredible. They aim never to turn a dog away and work tirelessly to find them new homes. The dogs are walked in Battersea park and wear little blue coats that say "I need a home." People love seeing the dogs out and about, and they often stop me to ask questions or say hello to the dog I'm walking!

Where did your inspiration for the geometric models on the cards come from?

I'd seen Oliver Byrne's version of The Elements of Euclid a while ago, and made a note of it. When MOO asked me to participate in the Luxe project I thought it would be a great chance to do something with it. They're an absolutely beautiful piece of work and far ahead of their time. The books were published in 1847 but the colors and clean lines could be from today. Byrne also simplified Euclid's proofs by using color instead of letters and numbers. It's a more visual and intriguing way to describe the geometry. I love anything that simplifies. I find it very appealing!

Helen took her cue for these geometric shapes from Oliver Byrne's The Elements of Euclid.

You've been long fascinated by geometry—shapes, color, pattern, order …

Yes! I like order and leave as little to chance as possible! There's order in straight lines and geometry. Although my job is creative, I use as much logical progression as possible in my work. The colors came directly from Byrne's illustrations. The primary colors are really lovely, bright and very reminiscent of Mondrian. Byrne was definitely ahead of his time. He was a bit of an eccentric. I don't think people thought much of him in his day, so it's nice that his work has been recognized in recent years by people like Edward Tufte in his book Envisioning Information.

Helen's collection, "Here's Looking at Euclid."

Let's take a look at the five card "backs" that you designed …

These are my favorite shapes inspired by the proofs. Pythagoras' theorem is probably the best known and my personal favorite. I went through Byrne's books and picked the ones that I found most visually appealing to make 3D models of. They were photographed and retouched by Rob Wilson (Moo's photographer), before I went back in and put vector lines over the top to give the models more definition.

And the models are actually made out of paper?

Yes, each segment was made separately out of colored paper before the segments were glued together on set. They're made out of Colorplan paper by GF Smith and the cards are printed ultimately on Mohawk Superfine paper.

Luxe cards are 32pt and printed on Mohawk Superfine.

So how many shapes did you actually create before you narrowed it down to these five?

I narrowed it down to 10 or 15 before deciding on the final five. Because designing the nets of each shape is quite time consuming I decided on my final choices before making anything.

How much time did it actually take to make each model?

It took about two days to design the nets for all the models (the flat artwork before the model is folded, also known as a dieline). That's done entirely in my head and on the computer. When you make them there's usually one or two things that you haven't accounted for so I go back, adjust the nets and remake the models.

So each of the models probably took anywhere from three to five hours to make, not including the conceptual time.

Yes, gluing some of the curved shapes can be fiddly! All together they took about two days to glue including a few pieces that needed adjusting and recutting.

Helen's special glue syringe is a must-have in her studio.

Any chance you used a glue syringe?

Yes, a glue syringe is probably the best tool I own! They can look a little creepy although they're not medical syringes but are usually used by model railway makers. They're incredibly precise and making the gluing process much quicker.

Who can you imagine using these cards – whether its professionally or personally?

I was thinking of people who might have a similar aesthetic, not necessarily paper engineers. Perhaps people who use precision or mathematics in their work; engineers, architects or product and packaging designers. But it could also be anyone who is attracted to geometry, primary colors and shapes, makers.

Of the four, what's your favorite in-seam color on the Luxe paper?

I'd probably pick blue. I have a lot of things in blue.

All Luxe cards are packaged in this handy little box.

And it's the equivalent of Cyan?

Yes, and to be truthful I didn't really think about it when I was designing the cards, but it turned out that all of the seam colors have an equivalent on the back of the cards, so if you pick the yellow there's a yellow in the images; if you pick a blue, there's blue so it all worked out well, although it wasn't a conscious decision.

To see more of Helen's work, visit her website. The entire Euclid business card collection is available here.

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