Peter Dahmen leads a busy life. He currently has 11 projects on the go. But he still found time to give us a glimpse into the world of a highly acclaimed paper artist.
Hi Peter, how are you today?
“Hi Johan, I feel fine, thanks for asking. I had several presentations last week and they were all very successful. So I am very happy right now.”
You sent me an email from Tel Aviv the other day – what brought you there?
“In recent years due to the popularity of my videos on YouTube, my work has become well known all over the world. The company Highcon in Israel is one of my most important clients today. In Tel Aviv they held an event to present their innovations to a selected audience – in preparation for Drupa, which will take place in a few months in Germany. I was one of the keynote speakers. Their inventions, mainly a machine that can cut and crease paper digitally, give me a lot of freedom to design the craziest pop-ups and packagings. I presented some of my packaging designs that can only be realised with Highcon technology.”
And now you’re writing me from your studio in Dortmund. Could you describe a normal workday? (if there is such a thing)
“Yes, even if no two days are exactly alike, there is something you can call a typical day. I usually enter my office at 9 a.m. I start my day by checking my emails and answering questions on social networks. I have so many followers that I need to take care of their needs every day. From about 10 a.m. I do office work like writing offers and invoices, having (Skype) appointments or phone calls with my clients or answering their questions by email.”
So when do you start being creative?
“Usually not before 11 a.m. It always depends on the amount of office work. Even when I am working on several projects at one time, I only have one project on my desk at a time. Depending on how my work is progressing, I try to get a longer break in the afternoon to catch some fresh air. But sometimes I am too busy to even leave my studio. Because I am so busy right now, I sometimes keep working until 10 or 11 p.m.”
How many parallel projects are you currently working on?
“At the moment I have 11 pending projects, which have to be finished within the next weeks or months. But I am absolutely unable to multitask. Therefore I focus on one project at a time. As soon as I have finished an important intermediate step, I send some pictures or a model to my client. Usually it takes a few days until I receive feedback, so in the meantime I can work on other projects.”
When do you function best at work, when you are super busy or when things are a bit slower?
“It stresses me a lot if the timelines are too tight. The creation of pop-ups and other paper artworks is a time-consuming process. Even if the first idea can be realised within a few hours, it usually takes several days to bring everything to perfection. I am not focused on the quick and dirty solutions. People hire me to receive the best quality. This always takes time.”
When did you realise you could focus solely on a career as a paper artist? Was there a specific moment?
“I created my first pop-up sculptures in 1989 during my design studies but I did not show them to anybody for 20 years. But some of my friends, who are also designers, persuaded me to show some of my paper designs on the internet. So I published my first video in January 2010 and then I began to receive more and more requests for paper designs and pop-up creations. Since then my work has gradually changed from graphic design to pop-up projects.”
If you find yourself uninspired, do you have any quick fix to get inspiration back again?
“When I notice that any new model is worse than the one before, I usually leave my office. Sometimes it works if I just play the piano for five minutes. Sometimes I need to leave the house and get some fresh air around my head. A walk in the park or a bicycle ride can be helpful. But there is no guarantee this will always work.”
What is most important as a paper artist, inspiration or patience?
“From my personal experience, patience is much more important. I had some of my best ideas after finishing the eighth or ninth model. It happens very often that my first inspiration leads to just a medium-level design. But as I improve it step by step and build more and more models, I sometimes create something extraordinary.”
Of all your works, which one are you most happy with and why?
“As a designer I usually don’t create paper artworks in the way that I like them best. I have to satisfy the client’s needs. So I am always happy if the client likes my designs. In 2011 I was privileged to create a pop-up book as a stage prop for the techno-illusionist Marco Tempest. He needed it for a stage show at a TED conference. He enriched my white pop-up scenes with projection mapping (videos), music and an interactive story about Nikola Tesla. This cooperation was very inspiring and the video is still very successful online.”
Personally I’m super impressed by the butterfly packaging you did for Maison Lack. Can you tell us how that project came about and what the brief was?
“Many thanks for your praise! The aim in this cooperation was the creation of a box design that shows the capabilities of my client. The company Maison Lack is focused on the finishing of luxury goods and packaging. So it was clear from the very beginning that my design should consider glossy varnish, matte lamination, laser cutting and perfect crease lines in one product. Since they wanted to present it at a trade show that focuses on luxury packaging (Luxe Pack Monaco 2015), we decided to create a box design that can be used as a packaging concept for different luxury items. We chose lip gloss as a product because it was the perfect connection to the company’s name (LACK).”
How did you come up with the idea of making the butterfly?
“When I presented my first models, there was no graphic design on the pop-up elements. In my video conference I presented just different movements that could be realised with different paper designs (different paper engineering). But when my client first saw this certain movement to the sides, she said it reminded her of a butterfly. And since the product is very feminine, the butterfly was the perfect design. Especially as my client wanted to create some associations to lace (which is often used by the fashion industry), which is as delicate as the wings of a butterfly.”
What was the biggest challenge with this specific project?
“Usually it would have been a challenge to create such a complex design within a few weeks, knowing that we would not have enough time to make a second attempt. But with this particular project it was a pleasure that my client could understand my very early and rough sketches and models, so we were always aware that we were moving forward along the same track. Since I knew that the cut outs and crease lines would be realised on a digital cutting and creasing machine, we could adjust tiny details at the very last minute. So the only challenge in this particular project was to be here in my office on the day of production.”
To date, what is the most prestigious of all the projects you’ve worked on?
“My jewellery box concept. It’s a box with a pop-up effect that is perfectly suited to an engagement ring. Even if it’s just a concept, I think this is the most representative design I have created so far. It shows in just one piece what I am able to do as a designer and a paper artist. If people ask me to describe my job in just a few seconds, I just show the ring box and they understand at once.”
When you get a brief from a client, what is the first thing you start doing?
Whatever the brief is, I always start by playing around with real paper. I don’t make any sketches using a pencil – my sketches are always paper models. If the client wants a specific motif, such as a particular building, it involves a more deconstructive process. In these cases I build a solid model from paper and try to find the axis (or several axes) to make it foldable. If the client does not want a specific motif, the process is more constructive. I start with a very easy model and add more complexity with each new step. When I open and close the pop-ups, I like to see the different movements. Such models can be abstract but sometimes clients still see a motif in my abstract design. I improve my models step by step. When everything is in its correct place and each detail fits properly, then I dismantle the models and scan them on a flatbed scanner.”
Are there moments when you get tired of your work? If so, what aspect of the work do you tire of?
“For me, the most annoying part of being an entrepreneur is the masses of office work that must be done. Since I am self-employed there is nobody else who can write my letters, offers and invoices. (To be honest, writing invoices is not THAT bad.) But I would love to be creative with paper all day long. Creating new things from paper and cardboard never makes me tired.”
See more of Peter Dahmen´s work on his Facebook or YouTube.
TEXT: JOHAN LINDBERG