Pop-up artist Peter Dahmen talks about his love for paper and breathing life into still images.
Imagine you open a book and a paper-made tiger jumps towards you. This is just one of the many three-dimensional objects that are formed in front of the viewer’s eyes while reading a book. Bringing life to these figures — that lie hidden between pages waiting to be brought to life with a turn of the page — is German artist and paper engineer Peter Dahmen.
A book titled Haunted House by Jan Pienkowski awakened Peter’s love for pop-up art at the age of 13. “I was immediately excited by the pop-up effects. Unfortunately, I couldn’t afford to buy it from my pocket money, so I went very often to the bookstore to look at it,” reminisces Peter. A couple of years later, while studying communication design at Dortmund, Peter had his first encounter with paper designing. He was given an assignment of creating a 3D object out of paper. He soon realised a small problem. Regardless of what he designed, there was no safe way to transport it to class on his daily train commute. Instead of risking damage to his project, Peter devised a way to make his paper sculpture fold flat like a pop-up book, a decision that changed the course of his life. “At that time, I did not even know the term ‘pop-up’. The transformation from a flat object into a three-dimensional sculpture excited me so much, that I never stopped to create pop-up sculptures (and other foldable objects) ever since,” Peter shares.
The artist starts his projects with handmade paper models first, gradually adding on the structures and making the models complex. “I never start a project by making sketches. The first few models are always completely handmade. It is only when I am happy with my construction, and the details in my handmade paper model work perfectly, that I start working on my model piece by piece.”
Naturally, Peter uses paper to make pop-up cards, artwork and delicate motifs. The fact that paper can be shaped into something delicate or sturdy only increases his love for the medium. “You can use it to create fragile motifs like the wings of the butterfly as well as sturdy architectural designs. It is lightweight, but when you fold it, you can create strong structures. I also love that you can instantly see if a construction will work or not. When I make a mistake in one of my models, the erroneous bits will tear or break immediately — but when I use it in a correct way, the models can be folded thousands of times without being damaged,” he explains.
What fascinates Peter is the gradual transition from a flat to a three-dimensional object and though he may seek inspiration from nature, he emphasises that his works have an accurate symmetry of their own. “I like to focus on the sculptural qualities of the pop-up. I am not interested in telling a story, but more in the creation of a movable paper sculpture. I try to find my personal interpretation, which is very often much more geometric than the original. I’m inspired by nature, architecture, geometry and mathematics, than by concrete images or motifs.”
How does he decide what quality of paper suits his art the best, we ask. “It always depends on the effect that you want to achieve. For instance, the petals of a flower can be made from thin paper, but the walls of an architectural model need to be sturdy enough to keep the shape. In general, the paperboard qualities that are used for packaging (the type of paperboard that is used for chocolate boxes) are a good choice for the construction of pop-up cards.”
Peter’s pop-up art tutorials are popular on social media and have received over millions of hits online. But as an artist, does he ever run out of ideas? “If I can’t work on a certain creative project for several days, it is difficult for me to come into the groove, especially if the time schedule is tight. I can’t be creative under stress. It makes no sense to ‘try harder’. I have learned that it helps to leave my office and do something completely different to gain momentum again,” he signs off.