Inspired by Pop-Up Books, This Paper Engineer Creates Giant 3D Sculptures

Artist Matthew Shlian creates large, mesmerizing sculptures inspired by origami, kirigami, and papercraft.
March 7, 2017, 7:09pm

Take a quick glance at artist and paper engineer Matthew Shlian's work, and you might mistake his elaborated sculpted paper for 3D-printed art. Through the work's dimensions, geometric patterns and shapes, as well as its frequent monochromatic colors, Shlian creates a sort of trompe l'oeil effect where the eye is tricked into questioning the true nature of materials and construction. The sculptures are all paper, however, inspired by traditions like origami and kirigami, as well papercraft and paper engineering. Whatever the output, Shlian's sculptures defy easy categorization with work that is almost always instantly intriguing.


Shlian, who is based in Ann Arbor, Michigan (where he taught for eight years at the University of Michigan), says that his interest in paper began as an undergraduate at Alfred University. Originally focused on ceramics, he realized early on that he was interested in everything—glass, painting, sound and performance. While he double majored in ceramics and print media, though, he wasn't exactly making either traditional print or ceramic work.

Stagger, 60 x 60 x 4 2017

"I would create large digital prints and using a series of cut scores and creases to create large-scale pop-up spreads," Shlian tells Creators. "I was making these four-foot v-folds or strut-fold pieces. I really had no idea what I was doing. I wanted the work to be interactive and for the image to relate to the folds."

Shlian loved the immediacy of paper as a medium. He also loved how it lent itself to geometric approaches, and the fact that figuring out a work's various pieces was like solving a puzzle. This is still apparent in Shlian's work, which clearly requires a deliberate approach to craft.

Swire, paper 36 x 52 x 5 inches (2013).

Shlian's current obsession with paper began in a rather unexpected way, when one of his faculty advisors, Anne Currier, began buying him pop-up books. Inspired, Shlian started to dissect them, reverse-engineering how they worked. This, he says, started him down his "dark path of paper."

"There aren't any paper engineering or paper sculpture programs," says Shlian. "A lot of my work was learned by figuring things out for myself—doing things the wrong way. I worked for a number of years in the industry designing pop-up books and greeting cards. In that job I learned CAD and how to work with plotters. Unlearning industry shortcuts was important as well."

Detail on Swire

Surprisingly, Shlian has never really looked into the work of many paper artists. He is an admirer of people like Paul Jackson, Noriko Ambe, and Robert Lang, but isn't directly influenced by them. Instead, he looks elsewhere for inspiration: solar cell design, protein misfolding, Arabic tile patterning, systematic drawing, architecture, biomimetics, music, and so on.

"I have a unique way of misunderstanding the world that helps me see things easily overlooked," he says. "I honestly don't care about labels. My work has a difficult time fitting into any pre-existing label. I would call them sculpture or 3D pieces because they are not flat."


"There's that joke about sculpture as the thing you back up into in a museum when you are trying to look at a painting," he adds. "The pieces are about lighting and form and repetition. The what isn't necessarily important—it's the how that's important."

when you are killing what you are meant to kill there can be no remorse. Tyvek size varies (2012). Photo by Josh Kurz.

Shlian's approach to paper sculptures is rooted in surface and form, but while the work might have a machine-like appearance, he doesn't use any parametric software to make the work. Instead, Shlian combines various traditions of paper artwork, and the tools at his disposal are diverse. He uses bone folders, X-acto knives, creasing tools, AutoCAD R13, Rhino, a Graphtec FC2250-ex and a Graphtec FC4200-50 flatbed plotter cutter. His favorite part of the process is often the assembly stage.

"I really enjoy the repetition and process of seeing a piece become realized," says Shlian. "I don't want to give that up to a machine just yet."

Ara 111, paper and contact paper, 50 x 36 x 1 inch, (2011). Photo by Melissa Squires).

Shlian struggles with the fact even though he labors to create works that are five or six feet in size, most people will experience them on a two or three-inch screen. For him, experiencing the work by scrolling with a thumb through a curated news feed is not the ideal way to experiencing them.

"On the other hand, that experience allows thousands of people to see each piece," Shlian says, in something of a reversal. "There is a play with depth and a certain trompe l'oeil created—but it's way better in person."

Telemetry, paper, 7 x 18 x 18 inch (2015).

Shlian's next project will be an interesting conceptual departure. He is currently working collaboratively with Dr. Henry Paulson, the head of Alzheimer's research at the University of Michigan, on a piece that he says will have something to do with protein aggregation in the brain, a process thought to be behind the disease's development.

Sphex, paper 19 x 25 x 1 inches, (2012).

Detail on ALEATORIC 3, paper 11 x 15 x 1 1/2 inches (2012). Photo by Cullen Stephenson.

Click here to see more of Matthew Shlian's work.


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