The resurgence of paper-cutting

Paper-cutting has long been favoured by artists and designers for its intriguing and magical effects. Anna
Richardson canvasses views among cutting enthusiasts about their recent projects

When you hold the invitation to the reopening of the Lumen United Reformed Church up to the window, light shines through the tiny holes pierced through the card. Consultancy Multistorey used laser-cutting to create the invitation, which aims to capture and evoke the beauty of unexpected light.

Multistorey creative director Rhonda Drakeford explains that the effect was produced through type made from pinprick-sized holes, laser-cut into the invitation. ‘This results in a lovely interactive quality when the receiver removes the card from the envelope and sees tiny flashes of light piercing the photograph,’ says Drakeford. The consultancy has used laser-cutting before, but not in such fine detail.

‘It was a pleasant surprise that the result was so delicate,’ says Drakeford. As for the risks in dabbling with new processes, Drakeford adds that there can be ‘an inherent beauty in things that have gone a little bit wrong, so we are usually prepared to enjoy the uncertainty of an experimental process’.

The art of paper-cutting is a fine one. From early examples of Chinese cut-outs, via Henri Matisse’s late work to the contemporary portfolios of the likes of Kara Walker (best known for her tableaux of black cut-paper silhouettes), many artists have used the cut for their creative ends.

Graphic designers have also long used paper engineering, including cutting, as part of their toolbox. As Michael Johnson of Johnson Banks says, ‘I’ve always been fascinated with using paper in cunning ways. Most graphic designers love folding, shaping and cutting, but they are probably frustrated because they don’t get to do it much.’

Using weird and wonderful processes can be time-consuming and expensive, with clients reluctant to commit to what can seem risky processes. Die-cutting requires the expense of the die and laser-cutting comes with a smidge of singeing, for example.

Ded Associates creative director Nik Daughtry thinks that creative risks are worth taking. Ded recently designed a book for next year’s Vital, a Chinese live art festival. The design includes a DIY die-cut front cover, which allows readers to remove pieces to their own design.

‘Live art often includes involvement from the audience, so we wanted to create the opportunity for the purchaser to interact with the publication,’ says Daughtry. The idea was simple, but Daughtry says there was still an element of uncertainty. ‘We were lucky that we had a client that was willing to try it,’ he adds. ‘No one was sure what the outcome would be.’

One man who straddles the commercial and fine art world is Rob Ryan, who specialises in hand-cut paper illustrations. Ryan has been creating intricate, narrative paper silhouettes for more than seven years, with his work recognisable from book covers and advertising campaigns. Ryan says his fascination with paper-cutting is about simplification. ‘You’re dropping everything,’ he explains. ‘You’re dropping line, shadow, perspective – it’s a flattening of the world.’

One of Ryan’s current projects is a series of cut-outs for Fortnum & Mason’s Christmas season, including catalogue, cards and VIP invitations. Design consultancy Proletariat says that Ryan’s fairy-tale style was a perfect fit with the luxury department store’s theme of The Snow Queen.

About 2000 special-edition catalogues, sent out to VIP customers, feature a laser-cut front cover. ‘It’s always a bit of a learning curve,’ says Proletariat creative director Phil Holder of the process. ‘But the end result is beautiful and really engaging. You immediately want to get inside the book.’

Despite the creative potential of paper-cutting, the leaner times may discourage clients from taking risks. Johnson thinks it’s not such a fantastic time for adventurous paper work. ‘You don’t get that many people bowling through the door and saying “I’d like to do some really fancy paper engineering please”,’ he says. ‘So you have to take the opportunities as they come along.’

Some of his self-initiated projects for the Victoria & Albert Museum’s Village Fete, such as the Send a Letter die-cut cardboard alphabet project and die-cut airmail letter shapes, have in turn sparked interest from clients, with the alphabet proving particularly popular. Johnson thinks, ‘Maybe that’s a sign that people just needed to be reminded what you can do with those processes.’

Paul West, partner at Form, puts it another way. ‘If you’re going to have something printed, you might as well make it an object of beauty or desire. That tactile experience is almost the only thing you can offer in the paperless world that we’re living in,’ he says.

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