Paper World

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About halfway through Unfolded, Peter Schmidt and Nicola Stattmann’s new book on the uses of paper in contemporary design, you get the idea that one volume probably won’t come close to summarizing the material’s current applications and, more importantly, its potential. It’s not just that there’s too much historical or cultural ground to cover; early on Schmidt and Stattmann confess that they “are not interested in [paper’s] function as a bearer of cultural heritage, or even as a means of mass communication,” but are concerned only with the material’s capacity in constructing three-dimensional art and design. Rather, it’s the sheer variety of works–Unfolded showcases paper furniture, sculpture, drawings, clothing, architecture–that makes a comprehensive review difficult.

Schmidt and Stattmann avoid that approach by treating their work as a primer to the field, and emphasizing a wide breadth of high-quality projects by artists like Mieke Miejer, who reverses the normal life of the material by making a wood table out of recycled newspaper; architects like Shigeru Ban, whose Paper Log Houses were first used as temporary housing for victims of the Kobe earthquake in 1995; and scientists like Shinji Suzuki, whose work may soon produce a paper plane capable of returning to Earth from space. The designers use the material in ways as diverse as their backgrounds, and in the hundred projects outlined in the book, paper is cut, stacked, folded, treated, shredded, worn, hung, lit, cooked, carried, and otherwise manipulated, always with unexpected results.

Then, almost two-thirds of the way in, the book’s pages lose their glossy sheen and become duller and rougher, a clue that the authors have moved to the theme that dominates the book’s final section. From here on, Unfolded adopts the tone of an instruction manual or an encyclopedia, detailing, in single-paragraph entries, the recent technological breakthroughs that point toward the material’s future in what must be hundreds of professional fields. If the first part of Unfolded celebrates the creative ways in which contemporary designers reimagine an old material, these last hundred pages emphasize how technology is changing the properties of the material itself. The authors offer descriptions of 79 types of paper, each one accompanied by a photo. Eventually, the experiments take on an almost sci-fi feel; in addition to the more prosaic incarnations (weatherproof paper and tear-proof paper, for instance) there are, apparently, such things as algae paper, antibacterial paper, solar paper, and ceramic paper. Though careful not to overwhelm their readers with too much technical speak or overly complicated descriptions, Schmidt and Stattmann impart a genuine enthusiasm for paper’s practical applications (including its increased structural capacity as a building material), and its more whimsical ones. The authors even include a short entry on origami robots.

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