Benja Harney is a world-famous paper engineer. He talks with Smith Journal about his love of fusing maths with art, and the joys of designing without a computer.
You started out studying graphic design – what drew you to paper?
It really harked back to my childhood; my brother and I used to make a lot of models. Dad was an engineer, mum was an author of children’s books so we always had a lot of pop-up books around. In 2005 when I finished my studies, tangible design was becoming a new thread in graphic design language. I was in the right place at the right time. When I started, there were only a few paper engineers around. I’m still a graphic designer but not having to be attached to the computer all the time is great.
There’s a lot of maths in this kind of art!
Yes! Most of what we do is basically maths underneath, with creativity as a blanket on top. I like being precise and unique, I’m really drawn to that level of perfection. There’s a lot of problem-solving involved.
What’s been one of the toughest/most challenging gigs?
I did a pop-up book for Kylie Minogue, that was a real turning point. And I made seven pairs of fabulous wings for Hermès for their Christmas windows and that really tested me. You only get the one chance to impress a company like that. I wanted to be one of the best in the world at what I did, so that first Hermès project showed me what it took to be the best.
What do you prefer: a clear brief or free rein?
I like a brief, I like to have certain parameters to work within it. When someone says, ‘Do what you want’, it’s challenging. I like to have a boundary that I can push.
How do you deal with knowing that your creations have a limited life?
If I’m really attached to something I’ll keep it, but I really like the ephemeral nature of paper, so I let them go and they live their own life. We can’t keep everything. That’s the nature of it as a material. It fades. It gets dusty.
How do you deal with paper cuts?
I’ve been getting more and more lately, it’s when you least expect it! I was doing a job in Japan and I got a paper cut in a paper cut. It’s definitely a hazard of the job.
How do you generally get started on a project?
Often I do a mood board if a client wants it, they need to understand where I’m coming from. That helps to set the frame for me as well. I work in 3D straight away. Drawing doesn’t really help, you need to see the shape, the form. It’s a very practical profession. From there it’s always a process of refinement, We start loose and then the design comes together and I’ll find a colour I’m inspired by. Each project is a bit different, it just depends really. If it’s a sculpture it’s very intuitive. If it’s a pop-up book it’s very technical.
What inspires you?
Colour, very much so. It wasn’t ever really something I was aware of when I first started out, but it’s become a huge aspect of who I am. I’m brightly dressed, I’m wearing all pink today. A colour can change the whole feeling of a project and the direction of a project. I’m also inspired by the urban environment. Paper is quite a technical thing and the urban environment resonates with that because of how it’s constructed. There’s a lot of repetition in buildings and street lines.
What makes you a better designer?
Failure! It’s such an important thing. Quite often I find that you’ve got to go down a road and then come back out again to discover that it didn’t work – but at least you’ve explored it. Failure keeps on driving me I guess. There’s a lot of determination involved in what we do, it’s fiddly and tricky. It’s a real mental conundrum.
See more of Benja’s work here, and check out some of his food installations at the Taste of Melbourne festival, running from November 30th – December 3rd. Click here for info; tickets are on sale from today.