The Lost Art Of Papercraft


Think back to a time before your laptop screen, perhaps at a point during your childhood, when you discovered the joy of cutting and folding paper. The most primitive of hobbies is also the most sophisticated of arts.

When I was small  you could buy paper cut-out activity books, now not allowed because they involve scissors (yet somehow I managed to traverse a whole childhood armed with glue, knives and razor blades without ever doing much damage to myself). Some of the activity books involved pinwheel discs with many slots – draw a line in each slot, turn and align it to the next number, and you end up with a finished picture. I have never seen a single one of these ubiquitous half-crown books since.

But it turns out there was a long history of paper sculpture in the UK, which partly regained popularity because of the Festival of Britain in 1951, when designs were created in paper based on designs by artists like Emmett and Searle. If you cut a curve on a sheet of thick paper but don’t cut all the way through, you can make an elegant dune-like fold. Soon the possibilities of making organic forms becomes clear.

I distinctly recall a number of caricature paper cut-out posters for British comedy films – in fact, I saw their artwork being junked as Rank Films closed down and ditched its entire archive, courtesy of the philistines at Carlton TV, who bought the company and destroyed it. These elaborate dioramas contained 3D models of actors and sets.

Later, when I had my film company, we hired an in-house paper engineer who designed and created those huge 3D cinema foyer models made in cardboard. They had to be complex yet easy to assemble. Indeed, some assembled themselves because they were held flat under a tension of elaborate skeins of rubber bands and cables.

For a while, paper sculpting had been everywhere. On the backs of Corn Flake packets there were collectable 3D cut-out animal heads (this was in 1963) and the fashion spread across other brands. But it goes back much further than that.

The ancient art of kiri-e is intricate and demanding. Designs are cut from a single sheet of paper, but in all the videos I’ve seen on the subject nobody seems to answer the obvious question; what if you slip? You only have to make one mistake for the whole thing to be ruined. Above is an octopus made from a single sheet, cut with special tools. You can see a short documentary on the art here.

Recently I saw the 3D art revived in a series of animal sculptures. I have a 3D cut-out cat, bought in a Japanese sculpture museum, and a 3D cardboard stag purchased from an art gallery in Norway. In these newly austere times you would think such a pastime would be ripe for revival, especially as working with the hands feels so therapeutic.


20 comments on “The Lost Art Of Papercraft”

  1. Peter Dixon says:

    I remember you could get a large size glossy book with life-size masks of Elvis, Marilyn Monroe, Tutenkahmen and others, all nicely airbrushed.

    Also some really good pop-up books for kids – I think one of the top people was Jan Pienkowski.

    There were lots of cut-out paper toys during both World Wars because factories were working for the war effort and paper toys were cheap to produce.

  2. Ken Mann says:

    I’m now flashing back to the book “Paper Faces” by Michael Grater which occupied weeks of my childhood. I had forgotten the title and the author, but found the cover on the Internet and remembered it immediately.

  3. Martin Tolley says:

    Gosh this takes me back. I remember trying (and failing hopelessly) to make an elephant head from the back of a cereal packet. What disappointed me most was that the final construction was about the size of an orange – weren’t elephants supposed to be huge?
    I still have on my shelves a book of Escher cut-out kaleidocycles which make various polyhedra with his repeating designs running over the various faces.

  4. Helen Martin says:

    I have a model of the Globe Theatre (damaged) the idea of which fascinated the girls down the street when I gave them a picture book about Shakespeare. I have found a new copy which we’ll maybe do together (because I still love doing them.) I have the buildings and street furniture for an Irish village and two Irish castles. Also a very thick book which will make up into the Unseen University. These things make for interesting conversations in a school library.
    I don’t understand this business about keeping tools away from children. Make sure they know how to use them, what the dangers are and keep a distant eye on what goes on. How will they learn if not by doing?

  5. Brooke says:

    More on the incredible octopus and other animals
    Thank you–great post..

  6. Ian Luck says:

    Helen – I also had the model of The Globe Theatre. It was frustrating for me to make, as I have always had fingers like pork sausages, but when it was completed, it was a beautiful thing. I remember being annoyed on losing the miniscule flag that flew from the top. Sadly, it was accidentally destroyed in a ‘book avalanche’. The practice of ‘keeping kids away from the sharp stuff’ is hindering a lot of young people. And I feel so sorry for them. Not being allowed to do anything but the safest (and dullest) chemistry experiments themselves. Not being allowed to actually dissect things in Biology lessons – when I was at school, we were actually told to jab our fingers with a new blade to get a few drops of blood to examine under a microscope. Only when you have taken a cow’s eye to pieces, does it strike you that sight is so much more complicated than you ever thought possible, and far from being a somewhat disgusting spheroidal piece of flesh, the eye is earth-shakingly beautiful on multiple levels, in it’s physics, mechanics, and chemistry. But no, you can look at a video and get it from there. Generations of people will throw good clothes away, simply because they were never taught how to replace buttons, or repair seams. The simple joy of using a lathe on a piece of wood, or making a tight Dovetail joint, or using a box plane or a spokeshave, will be alien to thousands of children, as will the deeply satisfying working of metal, with a forge, hammer, and anvil. It’s a primal skill, and yes, I have a few tiny bits of steel in my fingers – but we wouldn’t have suggested taking the school to court. Some kids did get bad injuries, sure, and the two I remember were those sort of kids who never listen, muck about all the time, and have no idea of consequences. One put a drill through his hand, simply because his best friend dared him to – and the other lost the tops of two fingers because he was talking to someone, and not watching what he was doing, whilst using a bandsaw. My mum had an almost morbid fear of blades, and, as a result, was always accidentally cutting herself whilst trying to be ‘careful’. I use craft knives of all sorts, razor-sharp, all the time. I have cut myself with a knife badly… on one occasion, when what I was cutting, slipped, twisting the scalpel blade, and snapping it – the scar is still visible on my right forefinger.

  7. snowy says:

    Ahem.. You don’t cut folds, it doesn’t work very well, you need to displace the excess material instead. You use a bone folder [it crushes the fibres, creating a shallow U and no you can’t have a lend of mine, that’s how I lost the last one.]

    Unless the kirie artist is absolutely wedded to tradition large scale pieces are laser cut, spot a problem? Edit the CAD file and cut a new one. Till it is perfect and then handcut a final if needed.

    [There are lots of downloadable papercraft patterns kicking about on the internet, that there is a model of Anne Frank’s house I find a bit disconcerting, for some reason.]

  8. Wayne Mook says:

    You’ll be pleased to know these things are still about under the arts & crafts and various magazines. My 7 year old daughter has several of the magazines. The Cbeebies Art one has a cut out artic hare you can put your fingers through, there is a polystyrene egg for gluing things on to make a penguin. The magazines have stickers, puzzles, things to draw &/or colour, how to make things. There is the pom-pom & tassel maker (instructions with template to cut the things out of cardboard and then how to wind the wool around them etc.) and there is a spoon animal maker; make icicles from silver foil and paint; and she loves ink stampers, ones you need a pad for and the self contained stampers. Oh there is a cut out tower to construct of a Hogwarts tower. The list goes on, paints, glue and scissors feature heavily. Plus there is origami, we did a boat and the simplest of things, various paper planes.

    Which reminds me, we need to finish off her penguin, last week we did a thousand piece jigsaw of Disney princesses. The fun never stops, we even played Mouse Trap, how very 70’s.


  9. gkbowood says:

    Mousetrap!! Oh, how I loved that game…seeing how fast I could assemble it all and then setting it off and running with that small metal ball.

  10. Peter Tromans says:

    Is the fear that children suffer injury or that they gain manual skills and risk becoming blue collar?

  11. Brooke says:

    Peter T: my friends who teach kid robotics classes say it’s not the programming skills that are hard but finding someone who can teach welding.

  12. Peter Dixon says:

    Snowy, cheap tip for folds: use an empty ballpoint pen – the roller ball is excellent for accurate creases.

  13. snowy says:

    It was my tool of choice for a while, but when the ball sticks it drags the colour layer off the base/leaves a shiny snail trail. [Only matters on valley folds.]

    I found what worked best for me in the end for card, was a Masonry Tile scribe with the edge of the little wheel rounded off with a whetstone. [It rolls rather than slides avoiding the above problems.]

    But it is a good tip for anybody that wants to get started without buying lots of bits and bobs.

  14. Ian Luck says:

    I don’t know about blue collar, but having to explain to a younger co-worker what a Soldering Iron was once, made me feel oddly suicidal. It had been left by workmen who were tinkering with the electrics at work. This young guy had absolutely no idea what it was. Thank goodness it wasn’t arc welding gear. The temptation to electrocute him might have proved just too great.

  15. Jo W says:

    To Ian Luck,
    I think you would have had justification. 😉
    Btw,was it an electrical soldering iron? I remember watching my Dad,who used an iron that had to be heated in the fire or on the gas ring. I think I can still smell that sharp odour that came off the solder.

  16. Helen Martin says:

    Soldering irons! Yes I can still smell the hot solder, too. There were a few of us, probably today we’d have been called nerds, who got together at lunch to do things like that: tumble polish rocks, solder circuits and we had both kids of ironsto run (what? I don’t remember). I remember when the drama class got together in the industrial arts shop to heat animal glue for sizing so we could build sets. That was the only time I did anything in the “shop” because girls weren’t allowed to do that sort of thing. It’s interesting that there are quite a number of men who are very hesitant about sewing machines because they didn’t learn how to operate them and how to be careful.
    At one point I was told that the most dangerous knife is the dull one.
    Since I’ve been doing quilting I’ve learned about rotary cutters and would be slow in introducing a child to them unless I was able to be there to watch. All tools are safe if you use them properly and maintain them.

  17. Peter Tromans says:

    I earn a crust through thinking mixed with computer calculations and writing tersely about it all. For me, making something is a wonderful way to relax. Most skills are accessible if it’s possible to perform them slowly.

  18. Helen Martin says:

    That’s a great point, Peter, and that’s where you have to start, slowly. It doesn’t even matter if speed never comes since who knows afterward how long it took?

  19. Peter Tromans says:

    Helen, problem is that some things, such as plastering (or icing a Christmas cake) and most welding can’t be done slowly. As a consequence, they (and playing a musical instrument) are things where I’m not very good or hopeless.

  20. Ian Luck says:

    Jo W, – yes, it was an electric one. My dad had one that he used to heat in the gas cooker, as well as an electric one, which I was allowed to play with. The way the solder turned into the shiniest silver liquid always fascinated me. Actually using it was another life skill learned in metalwork class.

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