Art, Science and Design intersect in Paper–The work of Paper Engineer Matthew Shlian
by Purva Chawla
At first glance, it is the exquisite, clean-cut geometry of Matthew Shlian's work that catches your eye. Then, your eyes take in the depth and complexity created within each piece. Whether the faceted paper form is coated with a wash of colors, is pristinely white or boasts a dark and hypnotic matt glow– it's surface, and its finish is what strikes you next. Finally, you can't help but feel that the many-faced paper structure before you is only a fragment of a massive pattern, or a single swift movement, captured in time.
With these first impressions in mind, you proceed to learn about 'Paper engineer' Matthew Shlian's entire body of work. At the end of that experience, you realize that there is no limit in your mind, as to what paper can do or be.
Far from being a delicate, or decorative material, a new side of paper is unleashed by Matthew–one is that robust and structural, but also capable of being extremely dynamic.
From intricately pleated, large-scale commissioned work for corporations, to micro and nanoscale explorations, done in partnership with scientists–Matthew's work traverses multiple scales and roles. For most artists and designers (and Shlian is both, in addition to being a 'Paper engineer'), with the passage of time, the complexity of works and the mastery of medium grows. That is, without a doubt, the case for Matthew as well. But equally significant in his case, is the powerful and rhizomatic growth of his ideas, and the influence and interaction of his work with many diverse disciplines.
One the one hand, Matthew has spent several years engaged in research with scientists and educators at the University of Michigan–carrying his sophisticated, pleated paper forms into realms such as that of flexible solar panels. On the other hand, he is able to engage with children through workshops, and playful platforms like Sesame Street, helping to build their creative relationship with paper. Recently his pleated geometries and art were even embedded in the prosthetic limb of a young woman in San Fransisco. From the mathematical to the playful and humane, Matthew's skills and mastery of paper in his art, seem to give him an almost limitless reach.
In addition to Matthew's unique way of folding, bending and connecting paper forms into three-dimensional structures, it is his trajectory as an artist, designer, and paper engineer that is of immense interest to us at MaterialDriven. The Artist Talk below is a wonderful insight into Matthew's journey, and his involvement with multiple disciplines.
Starting off as a student of ceramics at Alfred University, in the state of New York, Matthew's interests soon led him to paper–a medium that offered immediacy, and allowed him to create more interactive work. After dissecting the mechanisms of several complex and beautiful pop-up books and greeting cards, Matthew's work began to evolve from early explorations with simple 'V-folds' and 'Strut-folds' in paper. He then made his way to a successful position as 'Paper Engineer' at Structural Graphics in Connecticut–creating dimensional prints and pop-ups for prominent campaigns, and for greeting cards.
Matthew's use of paper for communication through design had already begun here, and he soon moved beyond his role at Structural Graphics and began to create large-scale paper constructs, with ever growing three-dimensionality. During his master's program at the Cranbrook Academy in Michigan, Matthew was then introduced to a vital thread to his current work–cross-disciplinary partnerships with architects and scientists.
These associations and explorations have fed into Matthew's work, and today even the smallest of his creations boast extensive detail, an almost mathematical understanding of structure and material, and an overwhelming sense of motion.
Matthew attributes the faceted forms of his works to inspiration from natural and scientific patterns, and also Arabesque imagery. None of this is predetermined or predefined, though, and each piece is born of his sense of curiosity. He says "Often I start without a clear goal in mind, working within a series of limitations. For example, on one piece I'll only use curved folds, or make my lines this length or that angle, etc. Other times I begin with an idea for movement and try to achieve that shape or form somehow. Along the way, something usually goes wrong, and a mistake becomes more interesting than the original idea, and I work with that instead. "
Surprisingly, this organic complexity in his work is all hand-assembled. Working with physical tools like flatbed plotter cutters, x-acto knives, and laser cutters–the individual paper components or pleats (in single paper works) of his works are created, and then assembled with glue.