Photo Credit: © Heiko Preller
Designer, paper artist, specialist for pop-up-cards and paper-engineering, developer of pop-up cards and foldable artworks made from paper and cardboard.
Describe something that has recently amazed you and how it made you feel.
Almost every day I see amazing things. I am especially enthusiastic about geometric patterns that can be found in nature as well as in art. Recently I saw a huge geometric pattern drawn by an artist on a beach. I’m thrilled that an artist has invested many hours of time to create a transient work that will be destroyed by the first tidal wave. I felt great because it reminded me of the beauty of nature AND art – how everything is connected.
How would you personally define wonder, awe and curiosity?
Wonder arises when we encounter something unexpected – something particularly beautiful or something very complicated (or both together). If we cannot imagine ourselves being able to produce what we have seen (or experienced) ourselves, this can cause awe in us. Curiosity is the desire to find out more about something, e.g. how something was made or how an effect was achieved.
And how do they relate to each other?
I think the sensations often occur in a certain order: Amazement is a very emotional and immediate reaction in which we have not yet reflected too much on what we have experienced. Then you sometimes wonder how a certain effect was achieved – that’s curiosity. If also the way in which an effect was achieved astonishes and excites us, it can create awe.
What inspires you to be creative?
I find many things inspiring – architecture, geometry, nature, music, art, … I am often amazed myself when I see where my inspirations can come from. In any case I love to work with paper and cardboard. Practical work has often given me the best ideas.
Do you have any ‘rituals’ or an environment that aids your creativity?
I definitely need a certain amount of time to get into “flow”. On some days I am often interrupted at work to answer telephone calls or emails. Then creative work is out of the question. But if I can work undisturbed for a few hours at a time – often in the evening or at the weekend – without being disturbed, then surprising results often emerge. I like to listen to music or an audio book during this work. But when I have to concentrate very hard, I like it calmer. Then I turn the music off.
What do you love about magic?
Magic always inspires me when the magician creates an enthusiastic audience. He should not aim to show how much smarter than the audience he is (because only he knows the secret). The audience’s desire to know how the effect was achieved should play a subordinate role. I love magic that not only entertains but inspires the audience.
What do you think hinders an audience from experiencing wonder when watching a magician?
If the magician himself stands in the foreground and shows how much greater he is than all the uninitiated ignoramuses, then no positive feeling can arise in the audience.
Where do you think our sense of wonder comes from and what can we do to cultivate it?
To be able to experience wonder, you need to be in a positive mood. When someone takes me by the hand to lead me to a wonderland that inspires me, I like to go with them – as long as I don’t feel I’m being led into a trap or exposed. In an atmosphere of trust, one can inspire and amaze each other. It’s a very childlike, immediate feeling. Anyone who has ever been exposed will try to avoid being embarrassed again. The magician or artist must be able to make the audience feel certain that he is on “your side” and that he himself is astonished as well.
I adore the feeling of unfolding a flat piece of paper and seeing a 3D scene or object emerge. It’s a magical experience; something from nothing. And brings me back to childhood wonder. Do you experience something similar and has that changed now you’re a paper engineer?
My enthusiasm for pop-ups has not diminished even after years of dealing with this topic – if a pop-up has been well done, I also experience this feeling of magic. I can’t get enough of it. However, I admit that my demand for quality has increased considerably over the years. Especially with my own work.
Tell me about your journey, how did you end up as a paper engineer?
I always loved to create things from paper, even as a child – but it was during my design studies (I studied communications design) at the age of 22, when I created my first pop-up sculptures. For more than 20 years, I did not show these artworks to any of my clients. But in the year 2009, some fellow designers suggested, that I should put my pop-up artworks online. So I created my first YouTube video, which became very popular on the internet (https://youtu.be/YuQsxFhBGzw). Since then, I received requests from clients from all over the world, so the percentage of projects which involved paper engineering increased more and more, compared to “classical” projects which involved only 2D graphic design. I never planned to become a paper engineer / paper designer, but I am very happy with this outcome.
What have been your favourite projects to work on?
In general, the most recent project is always the one that I like best. But if I have to mention a concrete project from the past, then I can say that I particularly liked the collaboration with the magician Marco Tempest. In his TED Talk, he presents the story of Nikola Tesla with the help of a pop-up book. The white scenes are then enriched with projection mapping, sound and music. Even after I have seen it dozens of times, watching this presentation is always a very emotional experience. (https://peterdahmen.de/en/project/pop-up-skulpturen-fuer-marco-tempest/)
I first learnt about your work through your YouTube channel displaying your work and teaching techniques. What have you learnt through making the videos?
When I created my very first video, I did not even have a high quality video camera. I just used the video function of my photo camera. Over the years I’ve bought a few better photo lamps and a slightly better camera – but in my experience it’s much more important to focus on the content. Nowadays, video content is available everywhere – and people react very quickly. If they don’t like what they see, they will switch to another video immediately. So the most important thing is never to bore the audience. Unfortunately, I still don’t have a recipe for exactly how this can be achieved. Especially with my tutorial videos it is difficult to find the right balance: If I explain the technical details too precisely, the video often becomes boring. If I explain the process a bit too quickly, the video will remain interesting, but I will get a lot of bad comments from people who don’t understand my explanations. I’m still learning.
I suspect being a paper engineer you need a lot of patience and be very precise in your work. What other skills do you need?
Yes indeed, patience is a skill that helps a lot! But I think, that persistence is even more important. I create new designs usually by trial and error. It happens very often, that my first models do not lead to the desired result at all. It is often hard, not to give up, but to give it another try.
Open-mindedness – In addition, it is helpful to always be open to solutions that may arise during work. Sometimes, the designs, that are created during an iterative process are much better than the solution which I had originally planned.
Precision – Especially when my designs are to be mass-produced, I have to work very precisely during the construction phase. In mass production, there can always be minor deviations. To compensate for this, I have to plan in these deviations from the very beginning. Every detail has to be 100% accurate.
As a magician I sometimes create from an effect I have in mind and work backwards to the method behind the scenes. Sometimes the other way; I discover a fascinating method or technology and try to turn it into a trick. How do you go from an idea in your head to a final project?
Just like you, I have both approaches. My customers usually want to receive a certain motif, which I should implement as a pop-up. Then I start with the final motif and break it down into individual elements, which are suitable for the implementation as a pop-up.
If a project allows me more artistic freedom, I prefer to work intuitively. I start with a simple model, which I change step by step. With each new model I add more complexity. In this process, I often don’t know at the beginning which motif will emerge at the end. From my point of view, the more interesting paper sculptures are often created in this way. Almost all my artistic works were created in such an iterative process. But since the result is not 100% predictable, I can only rarely apply this approach to customer projects.
What stood out for you? Any questions? Things you disagree with? Write a comment and join in the discussion.