Artist Helen Friel on designing paper models for everyone to make

The paper engineer and illustrator tells us about designing a series of beautifully simple paper models for a book aimed at both adults and children.

Helen Friel has created papercut illustrations both simple and intricate for brands from Vanity Fair to Fanta – as well as designing stop motion animations using paper for Google. Last year we wrote about her innovative pop-up book, Midnight Creatures, which revealed shadow creatures when you shone a torch through its cutouts.

For her follow-up, Paper World, Helen is getting readers to build models themselves – but they don't need anywhere near the same skill level as Helen to build these models. The 10 models are simply pressed out, then glued in the order shown by numbers on the tabs.

I caught up with Helen to find out more about how she conceived the book and designed the models.

Neil Bennett: How did you come to work on the book?

Helen Friel: "It started as a collaboration with the lovely people at Michael O’Mara. They contacted me to suggest a book of paper models. I took in some of the models I had in my studio and it went from there. Essentially it’s a book for anyone who likes bright, colourful objects in their space."

NB: Who was the target audience and how did that affect the complexity of the models you designed?

HF: "I wanted to make the models accessible for as wide a range of ages as possible. We decided early on that the most complex model would be the armadillo.

"I wanted to create a gluing system that could be followed intuitively without instructions. The first idea was to colour code the glue tabs but it was a little confusing so eventually we settled on a numbered system; following the numbers helps you put the model together in the simplest way possible."

NB: How did you decide on what to make models of?

HF: "I already had a prototype of the armadillo and piranha that I’d made for personal projects and those models really set the tone for the others. We wanted to create a group of objects that had an eccentric charm to them. There were a few that didn’t make the book including a cake and a gramophone – several of my friends had paper cakes for their birthdays this year."

NB: Take us through the design process for your favourite model.

HF: "I think my favourite is the piñata. All of the designs start with a drawing in Illustrator of the side and front of what I want to make. Then I put these together to create the net and flatten out the shape.

"I usually make a prototype to check I have all my measurements correct – there’s almost always something I’ve misjudged. Once the model works I add the glue tabs and make a final version before going back into illustrator and adding any graphics."

NB: What’s next?

"My next book, Hoakes Island, is out in May. It’s an immersive kids’ puzzle adventure, co-authored with my Dad, [historian] Ian Friel and published by Laurence King. It comes with a fold-out map of Hoakes Island and a special red lens to discover secret messages and clues."

Paper World is published by Michael O'Mara and is available from Amazon worldwide, and also Waterstones in the UK.

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