Between science and art, a paper engineer


His name is Mattew Shlian and he calls himself a “paper engineer”: he combines the art of paper folding and mathematical precision, and he knows the complexity of that task. His work is somewhat atypical, a hybrid of art and science, where paper folding meets nanotechnology. Shlian, who began his journey studying ceramics, has found that he is interested in a variety of artistic endeavors including glass, painting, performance, and sound. Although he majored jointly in ceramics and print media, far from making traditional ceramics or print work, Shlian instead creates large digital prints and folding pop-ups.

Starting with a computer-generated model, he blends inspiration from the biological interaction of polypeptide folds or viral structures, transforming paper into three-dimensional works of art that are enough to transcend the normal conception of geometric space.

He takes a three-dimensional model and extracts several “slices” from it, “as if it had been cut by an egg cutter,” explains Mattew, “and each of these is then taken, transferred to paper and redrawn as a flat model that is then reconstructed creating the same illusion”.

As a paper engineer, his work is rooted in printmaking, book arts, and commercial design: starting with an initial fold, a single action causes a transfer of energy to subsequent folds, which eventually manifest in three-dimensional, strictly undecorated patterns and shapes.

His sculptures are composed of folded dowels – a kind of origami – and juxtaposed against each other, and have attracted the attention of scientists at the University of Michigan, who are working elbow to elbow with the artist to translate his expertise in folding paper into microscopic detail: “We work at the nanoscale, translating paper structures into micro origami. Our research extends to visualizing cell division and solar cell development. Researchers see paper engineering as a metaphor for scientific principles; I see their research as a basis for artistic inspiration”.

His ideal studio has high ceilings and lots of light. He needs several tables to work on, plenty of storage space, wall outlets everywhere and large walls to hang his work on, and a good sound system. Most importantly, neighbors who enjoy having his whole world around him.


Matt finds inspiration in virtually everything: “I have a unique way of misunderstanding the world that helps me see things that are often overlooked.”

He draws inspiration from pollen, cells and other natural forms to create huge paper sculptures. Strictly geometric and undecorated, his works mix artistic talent with engineering knowledge. And when rotated at a reduced speed they become kinetic sculptures capable of fooling the eye and appearing to be constantly changing.

So he designs solar cells, protein “folding,” Islamic tile patterning, systematic design, architecture, biomimicry, and even music: a lifelong drummer who grew up playing in bands, he says he easily sees the connection between sound and the visual arts.

In terms of people, he is inspired by musicians, artists, writers, visual artists, producers, creators and thinkers: Brian Eno, Matthew Goulish e Lin Hixon, Simon McBurney, Christian Bök, Brian Blade, Mikhail Bongard, Chris Gethard, Annie Dillard, Kay Ryan, Mary Oliver, Martin Puryear, Annie Albers, El-P, Jóhann Jóhannsson, Billy Woods, Daniel Libeskind, Dondi White, Christina Cordova, Christian Marclay, Marian Bantjes, Tauba Auerbach, Ren Weschler, Ted Chiang, Buckminster Fuller, Anne Currier, George Hrycun, Nervous-System, Hanif Abdurraqib, Starlee Kine, Charles e Ray Eames ecc.

Other collaborations

In addition to his collaboration with scientists at the University of Michigan aimed at visualising cell division and the development of the photovoltaic cell, Matt Shilian has worked for major cultural and commercial players such as MoMa, but also Levi’s, Apple, Google and Facebook.

His paper sculptures can be seen live almost exclusively in the United States where he is very active and where he combines exhibitions with teaching workshops.

His story

But let’s see how this interesting artist got started. “I started as a university student. Initially I went to ceramics school, but I soon realised that I was interested in everything. I studied, glass, painting, performance, sound and eventually got a double major in ceramics and print media. At that point I was not making traditional prints or ceramic work. Instead, I wanted to create large-scale digital prints using a series of cut and fold scores for large-scale pop-ups. I wanted the work to be interactive and for the image to relate to the folds. I loved the immediacy of paper as a medium, I also loved the geometry. Understanding the pieces was like solving a puzzle because I understand things spatially, I have to see something to make sense of what I see. I started analysing the pop-up books and understanding how they worked. It all took off from there”.

Paper and other materials

The papers he uses are different and change depending on the project: for white pieces he uses an acid-free white paper from Neenah paper. For colour work he uses Canson and Colorplan, PVA glue from Hollanders and needle points from Rockler.

For the other tools “I use everything – bone folders, #11 blades, creasing tools, Reverse Action Tweezers, Casselli Spatulas, Soft Crease Meteorites, AutoCAD R13 & AutoCAD 2004 a Graphtec FC2230-ex (Marge) and a Graphtec FC4200-50 (Maria) flatbed plotter cutter”.

The conservation of works

Matt is keen to point out that he uses acid-free paper and glue, so he ensures that they will not yellow in the sun or fade over time: ‘their greatest enemy is dust and curious fingers, because people always want to touch them’, which is why it is always best to store them framed and under glass.

How a work is born

We hear from his own words how a new work is born. “I often start without a clear goal in mind, working within a set of limitations. For example on a piece I will only use curved folds, or create my own lines of this length or that angle etc. Other times I start with an idea for movement and try to achieve that shape or form somehow. Along the way something usually goes wrong and a mistake becomes more interesting than the original idea and I work on it instead. I would say my starting point is curiosity, I have to do the work to understand it. If I can completely visualise my end result, I have no reason to do it, I need to be surprised. I learnt by taking things apart, doing things the ‘wrong way’ and being curious. Making mistakes is more important for learning than copying something perfectly”.

Advice for fans

Accustomed to teaching, Matt is generous with advice for those who want to try their hand at it: for folding/folding systems and folding techniques for designers he recommends the work of Paul Jackson, and for pop-ups David A. Carter.

It is essential to watch the documentary “Between the Folds” by Vanessa Gould and the book “The Topkapi Scroll: Geometry and Ornament in Islamic Architecture” by Gülru Necipoglu now available for free download – a long out-of-print book that is essential for understanding motifs and ornament. Eric Broug also writes succinctly about Islamic geometric design and finally, Matthew Goulish’s “39 Microlectures in Proximity of Performance” is a text that “changed my life, maybe it will change yours”.

Who is Matthew Shlian

He was born on 14 July 1980 in Norwalk Connecticut. After graduating from Alfred University in 2002, he worked for three years as a paper engineer in the field of commercial design. There, he made paper objects ranging from pop-up books and greeting cards to artist’s books and kinetic sculptures. He received his MFA from Cranbrook Academy of Art in 2006 and currently runs a design studio in Ann Arbor, Michigan, teaches paper fundamentals and engineering at the University of Michigan and works as a visiting research scholar at the university’s materials science department.