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We Talked to the Artist Creating a Miniature City Out of Paper

Let 24-year-old artist Charles Young invite you inside the tiny world of Paperholm.

Charles Young, at 24, seems almost like an anachronism in the age of internet art. Young, a graduate of the Edinburgh College of Art with both bachelor’s and master’s degrees in architecture, has spent more than three months making miniature replicas of buildings and posting them on his Tumblr, Paperholm. Each building is hand-cut from watercolor paper and glued with PVA; each GIF is hand-animated.

When compared to procedurally-generated art worlds, Paperholm can seem almost low-tech. The buildings, though, are miniature masterworks of technical craftsmanship. Posting each day to his Paperholm blog, Young is creating a miniature, all-white city, piece by slow piece.

We exchanged emails with Young about the genesis for his project, his future plans, and what buildings inspire him.

No. 43

The Creators Project: When did the idea for Paperholm first occur to you? Did you always know it was going to include GIFs?

Charles Young: The idea for the project came back at the end of the summer when I found some tiny models that I made a few years ago. It seemed like a good Idea to make something small every day and by documenting it in a blog it would force me to keep working on new things all the time. The GIFs were something that came much later. The first one that I did, the tower on a little stone turning round, I animated just because it spun 'round nicely. Fairly quickly I started to have ideas for other moving buildings.

No. 74

When you're conceptualizing a Paperholm structure, where do you start? Is it just a feeling or urge or is there a logical progression?

The ideas come from things that I've seen recently. There's no particular logic to it. I try not to copy things that already exist but rather use that as the starting point for something new. The idea for the moving greenhouse (No. 74), for example, came from a camellia house at Pillnitz in Saxony, although it doesn't really look much like it.

Can you walk us through a step by step process of how one of these structures is made?

I often start by sketching out in pen a very rough 3D drawing of what I'm going to make. At this point I might decide to make something completely different from what I'd initially imagined.

I'll then find a piece for the base—at the moment it's mostly scrap wood—and cut it to a better size if I need to.

No. 78

I draw, cut and assemble each element in one go. For example if I was making a basic cabin I'd draw, cut and assemble the walls before then working out the size of the roof pieces before then drawing and cutting these.

I do the detailed cutting, whether it's the sails of a windmill or the fine frame of a tower, while the piece is still attached to the bigger sheet of paper. This makes it easier to make detailed cuts without the piece deforming.

I work from the ground up and elements often change while the model is coming together. It's sometimes difficult to know when the model is finished but you can usually tell when adding anything else would be too much.

No. 115

How do you make the GIFs? Is it stop-motion photography?

The GIFs are made with very straightforward stop-motion photography, moving the piece by hand for each new frame. I really didn't have any idea how to make a GIF before I tried to make that first one. As I've made more I've managed to make them a bit more smooth, but I try not to do too much to the images because the idea has always been for this to be a fairly quick thing.

What materials do you use to make each structure? Does it vary?

Every piece is made using the same kind of watercolour paper and ordinary PVA glue. I've kept the material the same throughout, partly as a kind of experiment to see what I can do with it but also because I know that it's just heavy enough to hold its shape well while being light enough to make curves.

No. 19

Do you plan to assemble a full Paperholm city at a certain point? Is there an end goal for the project?

I'm in the early stages of trying to organize an exhibition of the first 200 pieces probably in March. The built pieces are all about the same size so the scales at which the different buildings are made varies a lot. They wouldn't necessarily make sense assembled together as they are in their current form. In order to assemble the whole of Paperholm into a single city, I'm starting to think that it might work better as a drawing.

How long can you keep doing this at a pace of one per day?

There isn't a planned end at the moment. When I first started I thought that it would be a year long project. I think that I'll see how I feel about it at that point. It's quite possible that at some point I'll stop having enough time to keep doing a piece every day and it becomes a more occasional thing. Depending on the complexity of the piece, it takes anywhere between 30 minutes and 3 hours to finish a building, I like to photograph each piece in the daylight so I try and get them done as the first thing that I work on in the day before moving on to other work.

Work-in-progress images of Paperholm

Is there a certain structure that was the most technically complex? One you're most proud of?

The most difficult shapes to make are the curves, particularly cones, they take some time and patience to get right. I have a few favourites. No. 19 which is a cabin with a ladder up to a platform on the roof I still really like, it's very straightforward but I'm pleased with it as a form and I still think it's my favourite. No. 43 which is a rock held up by a framework I made to test the strength of the paper structures and I was quite surprised when it took the weight. The carousel GIF I think is my favourite of the moving images.

What's your favorite building in the non-Paperholm world? Is there a particular style of architecture or art you're attracted to?

I'm interested in vernacular architecture as well as constructivism and modernist ideas. Alvar Aalto is probably my favourite architect, in particular his experimental house, Villa Mairea, and the Riihitie house. I have quite wide ranging tastes, I'm interested in everything.

Is there a logic at play when you decide how to mount each individual structure?

The models are built on whatever I have to hand and this often influences the form that the piece takes. This is especially true of the pieces on rocks. 

If I wanted to buy a piece of Paperholm, how would I do that?

At the moment I'm keeping the whole of the Paperholm project together so they're not available to buy individually. However, when I have any extra pieces I put them in my shop which is accessible through the Paperholm website.

Click here to visit Paperholm.

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