Benja Harney is one of those people who are so talented that it crosses all borders and ends up in sheer genius. His company Paperform routinely performs incredible feats of paper art but has started dabbling with other materials as well. The beautiful installations, sculptures and pop up books that this self proclaimed paper engineer creates are in high demand with clients like Vogue, Hermes, Harper’s Bazaar, Sydney Opera House, Kylie Minogue,Adidas Originals, Mastercard , Yahoo and Romance Was Born . He is also a super sweet guy who is always great company. I stole a little bit of his busy day…
Tanja Gacic: When did you first discover your love of paper? Did you toy with it even as a child, or did it come later, like a thief in the night?
Benja Harney: You know, I did used to play with it as a child. My brother and I were constantly building all kinds of stuff growing up – always making models for our toys.
Paper is really the first artistic medium that we are presented with as kids, so to some degree I think it resonates in all of us. Years later in 2004 while studying graphic design here in Sydney we had a rudimentary class in paper construction and I was reminded how much I loved making things with my hands. Paper was suddenly there and I was completely hooked.
TG: How did Paperform get started?
BH: Paperform was born out of my passion for paper engineering. I really had no idea why or what I was doing to begin with and no one to ask for help either. It has been quite an organic process – I had never thought that you could make a career out of playing with paper but I loved it so much so I was determined to make my mark on the world. When college finished I started by creating self generated projects for art shows, myself etc. After I had a small body of work behind me friends began asking me to collaborate on commercial projects. It’s been 7 years now – a completely crazy journey so far!
TG: People often assume your incredible creations involve machines and many people but this is not true. Tell me a bit about your creative process.
BH: From the start until now it has always been me at my desk – over the last few years I have been doing larger projects which tend to have production teams.
The creative process varies greatly for each project. It always begins with lots of thinking before doing. I almost need to wrap my mind around the project in a three dimensional way. The best thing is to just get making: my work is generated out a process of refinement. I start raw and loose and gradually tighten up the design over a series of models. I’m fascinated by the notion of precision and always strive for ‘perfect’. An object produced by hand has a subtle quality that shines through. I love the parameters that working with paper sets out.
TG: You create installations, pop up books and sculptures. Which is your favourite?
BH: Pop-Up books are my passion. My first foray into paper construction was a series of 10 small books on Art Nouveau for college. They really bend my mind into new frontiers – it’s an enticing puzzle. Nothing beats the feeling when you get a working mechanism that actually fold flat.
From a design perspective, paper is an approachable and endlessly expressive medium. Every project is a chance to learn something new.
TG: You mostly work with paper but you have also worked with leather. Are there any other mediums you would like to experiment with ?
BH: After 7 years you do start to ask yourself what next. I’ve been trying to take my skills and transcribe them to other applications. I recently did a project for Lego which I loved. I also collaborated on a huge pop-up set for Romance Was Born’s Fashion Week show – it was a thrill to work on that massive scale. I’d love to push my skills towards something like product/furniture design. I really love glass. 3D printing is also interesting.
TG: You often say you are an engineer more than an artist but I disagree! When going through the creative process do you visualise things firstly in 2D or 3D? Do sketches play a big role in your work?
BH: I think you always start in 2D, even if it is just an outline in your head. My work is based on 3D so pretty early on I’m making something solid. I don’t sketch so much – I’d rather make a quick mock up in card.
TG: You recently did a pop up book for Hermes. Tell us a little bit about it.
BH: I was asked to come to Paris and collaborate on a project with Petit h – an offshoot that ‘upcycles’ leftover materials and translates them into unique, limited editions. Through access to the archive I formulated a design idea that was then fabricated by one of the talented craftsmen in the atelier. We created a pop-up book in leather that tells a geometric story of the corners of Hermes luggage. It was a fantastic challenge to be working in that environment. The craftsmen/women there are so passionate – I was honoured to be invited.
TG: What was the most influential movie and book of your youth and why?
BH: I was obsessed with the film The Dark Crystal – in recent years I have made a friend who’s mum is a super talented prop maker that helped design The Mystics. Amazing! The Star Wars trilogy was also a huge influence. Growing up I used to love reading Choose Your Own Adventure novels.
TG: If you won a billion dollars in the lottery what would be the first 3 things you’d do?
BH: Take a business course, set up a publishing house and then move to Marrakech for 12 months to think things over.
TG: What excites you?
BH: Colour, whiskey, dressing well and jets.
TG: What’s next for Paperform?
BH: Keep pushing! I want to be the best in the world at what I do. There is so much yet to explore.