There are few and far in between that can astound the paper world to the degree of paper engineer Benja Harney. With a background graphic design, he expanded upon the next level of exploration of paper where he refined his skills and mastered a medium that at the time seemed very obsolete and slightly unnoticed.
He without a doubt has become one of my favorite artists of his time working in everything from editorial, fashion, and even pop-up books where he constantly challenges himself, yet remains completely humble. Reading his interview with us has been truly inspiring! I have also included below another interview which touched my heart as a designer and continues to reaffirm perseverance of ones dreams. I present to you Sydney-based paper artist Benja Harney.
Tell us a little about your background what path led you to what you’re doing now?
I am a Paper Engineer based in Sydney. I started studying graphic design in 2002 and during my course we had a rudimentary class in the elements of paper construction. I was immediately struck with a passion for paper! I thrived on the precision expected by the teacher. I also loved to make models as a child and this was suddenly reignited. I think I got really excited that something like this could be considered ‘design’. From that point on I tried to incorporate paper into every project I could. Once I had finished my course I started self-initiated projects – sculptures and art pop-up books for exhibitions – in a bid to keep my hand in while I toiled away designing. I had no idea that you could make a career out of paper construction or that paper engineers even existed! It was a very organic process. My first paid project was a pop-up lookbook for a fashion designer friend of mine. This got the ball rolling and I’ve been working solidly at it ever since!
What have been some favourite recent projects / clients / collaborations?
There have been so many highlights – the chance to collaborate with such a huge range of creative types has been so fulfilling for me. It has been completely beyond my expectation.
One of my main dreams was to get my first pop-up book published. I finally saw that through last year with the production of a limited edition pop-up book for Kylie Minogue – ‘The Goddess Edition’ – to celebrate her Aphrodite world tour. Such a great honour for an Aussie! It was high pressure and a steep learning curve but I’m really proud of what our team created.
In November last year I was asked to visit Paris and start an ongoing collaboration with Hermès on their ‘Petit h’ project. The passion, expertise and history that the craftsmen/women there apply to their everyday work left a deep impression on me. I left France feeling so privileged to be able to create in such a unique environment – it really invigorated my own appetite and commitment to outstanding design!
In terms of ‘Sydney-centric’ projects, my posters for The Sydney Opera House and The Sydney Mardi Gras were two pieces that I felt very honoured to create for my home town.
I have also been doing a lot of teaching over the last few years in the form of workshops and at colleges. Sharing my knowledge with kids/students/adults is a fantastic experience – they give me so much in return! I would love to do more of that in the future.
How would you describe your creative process?
I tend to think a lot before I start anything. I like to let an idea percolate for days/weeks (pending on a deadline). I take inspiration from the world around me – books, friends, art, conversations, the internet. Eventually I have to hit my cutting mat and begin producing something solid. Sometimes the hardest thing is just to start! At times it can be a slow and frustrating process (especially pop-ups) but the feeling of getting something that ‘works’ makes all the toil fade away. I usually start quite rough and then work through a series of refinements to come to a design solution I’m happy with. It is wonderful to have something tangible on your desk at the end of a day’s work.
Since you work in a wide range of areas from editorial to pop-up books, which is your favourite?
Pop-ups is where my interest was first sparked – I love the precision and dedication required to get to a final working model. Paper sculpture is another game entirely. For me it is a much more free form process and tends to be less brain taxing. Is it alright to say I love it all? Paper is a simple medium but it offers so much complexity. I thrive on pushing within the boundaries.
What is a source of inspiration that is not art/design related?
The street! I heard US Vogue creative director Grace Coddington once stress how important it is to never stop looking at the world around us. You never know where inspiration will strike or when a solution will present itself.
What’s the weirdest thing you have ever done with paper?
A few years back I collaborated on a bespoke package for Shigeru Ban Architects who were pitching to build something here in Sydney. We created a ‘woven’ paper cover for the report. It was the first time I had seen anything like this. Maybe not ‘weird’ as such, but unique in my eyes. I loved the idea of a woven paper textile at the time.
Are you involved in any upcoming shows or events? Where and when?
I will be presenting some work here in Sydney in mid-March at NG Art Gallery in a group show with other paper artists from around the world. Exciting stuff! I have just started my sculptures this morning – I’m looking forward to see what I come up with. I had my first solo show last year – The Paper Attic – it was a total buzz.
Are there any particular places that you would love to showcase your work?
Without doubt Japan. It remains a bit of an elusive goal at this point – even after numerous visits. The Japanese have such a deep appreciation for paper and I really admire their elegant design language. If there are any Japanese readers of your blog out there who could help me, I would be most grateful to hear from them!
If you could collaborate with anyone in this world, dead or alive, who would it be?
Collaboration is the core of my work practice really – art directors/designers/photographers/the creatives I share my studio with. As I said above, someone from Japan would be exciting. I’ve just documented Andy Warhol’s Index Book on my site (which has pop-ups in it) – that would have been a dream job!
What websites do you use for inspiration?
Such a double edge sword this one! I really love searching the internet for inspiration but I always get a bit freaked out when I start looking at other people’s paper creations – with so many amazing paper artists out there doing amazing things I start to feel a bit inferior! Perhaps that’s the nature of creativity?
In any case I’m hooked on Twitter (@paperform) and Flickr. Pinterest is good too. I love Dezeen, The Sartorialist and Style.com. Monocle and The New Yorker. Interesting paper blogs like Upon A Fold and Strictlypaper of course! Hipster blogs like Hawlin, jjjjound and Johan and Franchise which can be a bit ‘too cool for school’ but often turn up interesting tidbits. So much amazing stuff out there! Keep digging is my advice. Any new suggestions are more than welcome.
Have you always worked with paper, or have you used other mediums prior?
No. Just paper. A client has just asked me to make something out of chopsticks – that will be interesting?! I would like to start to explore other mediums this year but I’ll always be drawn back to paper.
Is there anything else you would like to share with our viewers?
One of he most beautiful thing I ever saw was in a restaurant in Kyoto, Japan. This traditional tavern in the tiny back streets of Gion had taken a very fine shaving off a large block of wood and hand printed the menu in kanji. Simplicity and elegance personified!
Thank you so much for taking the time to interview with us Benja! Your work continues to blow me away! Looks like I need to get back on the crafting table and get to work. If you ever have a show in the New York area please be sure to drop us a line! To our viewers, be sure to post below with your thoughts of the interview and if you know of any artists that work with paper that you would like to be interviewed be sure to shoot us an e-mail. Below is the video interview I stated above. ENJOY!
Video Interview: Slashies
A4 | Photography: Justine Fahd
Desktop Magazine | Photography: Tong and Danny
GQ | Photography: Todd Sutherland
Harpers Pop-up | Art Direction: Rowena New Photography : Harpers Bazaar Australia
Hermès Windows | Photography: Murray Fredericks
Incu/Topshop | Photography: Jenni Carter
Mastercard | Art Direction: Patrick Chambers and Shelby Craig
Parklife Poster | Art Direction and Photography: Briton Smith / Vissukamma Ratsaphong
Sia | Photography: Liz Ham Art Direction: Techa Noble
Women’s Health Magazine | Photography: Women’s Health Magazine