Paper flowers, handcrafted sneeze-free beauty

Malinda Swain's big paper flower installation at March's Philadelphia Flower Show, at the Convention Center.
Malinda Swain's big paper flower installation at March's Philadelphia Flower Show, at the Convention Center. (MALINDA SWAIN)
Posted: May 17, 2014

Malinda Swain has "a thing" about nature, snowy white paper, handmade or recycled anything - and the kind of solitude others dread.

She jokingly calls the hours, days, and weeks spent alone in her suburban studio folding recycled copy paper into three-dimensional flowers "my solitary confinement."

Lock us up, please!

The studio is in a funky old carriage house overlooking the tennis court at her father and stepmother's Haverford estate. Says Swain, 32, an artist from Brisbane, Australia: "It's quite lovely to sit here and drink tea and listen to music and fold."

Swain's folding honors the traditions of origami, the ancient Japanese art; and kirigami, a paper-cutting variation. Beyond that, she says, "I make it up," which seems to suit someone whose childhood ambition was to be a florist.

"Now I'm a paper florist," says Swain, who also does photography, sculpture, drawing, and video work.

She sits cross-legged on the floor, folding and folding the crisp paper sheets, her slender fingers moving rhythmically and noiselessly. It's a tactile meditation that's at once riveting and calming - and, it turns out, fashionable.

In this craft-crazy DIY world, paper flowers are increasingly showing up at weddings and events. Driving the demand are bridal parties wanting unusual backdrops for photos and the public's seemingly endless appetite for one-of-a-kind, handcrafted decorations, according to Rebecca Thuss, author with her husband Patrick Farrell of Paper to Petal: 75 Whimsical Paper Flowers to Craft by Hand (Potter Craft publishers, 2013).

"It's one of those crafts that is so simple and yet it can be so complex . . . and we have access now to so many more materials to work with," she says.

Paper flowers are a centuries-old craft, their popularity fading and reviving over time, from Asia and Mexico, to colonial America and Victorian England, and again in the U.S. in the 1920s, '50s, and '70s.

"There's always that resurgence, always artists and crafters looking backward and getting inspired by the past," says Thuss, a Bucks County native and former style director at Martha Stewart Weddings magazine.

Grace Bonney, creator of the home and product design blog Design*Sponge, has a different take. "I think the current wave of paper flowers is pulling more from current floral trends than it is paper-folding history," she says, citing the "loose garden-style arrangements that are so popular today.

". . . I'm seeing far more garden roses, vines, and wildflowers reproduced in paper form than perfectly shaped rosebuds," she says, adding that the current trend is not limited to the U.S.

Paper flowers also are "popping up in window displays throughout England, France, Germany, and Sweden," says Bonney, a former Inquirer design columnist.

Bonney doesn't see paper flowers' ever displacing real blooms, which are incomparably bright and lush. "They're very different looks, and the best paper flowers, the ones that look the most dramatic and realistic, are just as time-intensive and expensive to produce as real cut-flower arrangements," she says.

(One of Swain's 6-by-8-foot paper-flower displays took a week and $850 to make.)

Like Swain, Thuss has always loved the look and feel of paper, but she prefers crepe, wrapping, or tissue paper over stiffer varieties.

Speaking of variety, crepe paper, Thuss' favorite, comes in single-ply; double-sided two-ply; streamers; vintage; printed; florist; and metallic.

"I like the grain, the way it's manufactured, and its ability to become sculpture is to me even more exciting," Thuss says.

Sculpture was Swain's major at Griffith University in Australia, where she earned a degree in fine art, and it remains an abiding interest.

It's also how she thinks of the three huge installations the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society commissioned her to do for the Philadelphia Flower Show in March. Like stylized progeny of Babylon's hanging gardens, which Swain loosely drew on for inspiration, they greeted visitors overhead and on the walls inside the Convention Center, where the show was held.

These grand paper sculptures took six weeks to make and assemble in Haverford and three long days to install at the show. And though a perfectionist, Swain did not decide on a design ahead of time, preferring instead to just put it all together.

"Sometimes you don't even know where you're getting your ideas from," she says.

Swain now is playing with paper pyramids, crystals, and other geometric forms, and she has an idea: Why not use undesirable or invasive vines to make "gigantic human-size pods that you could hang up and crawl into to take a nap"?

This is more practical than you might think.

Swain and her fiance, Darcey Clancy, 26, a carpenter and fellow Aussie, hope to buy land in the tropical rain forest of North Queensland, Australia, build a tree house, plant a garden, and live off the grid. The plan lacks only a napping pod.

The wedding will be small. Guests will bring food. Swain will borrow a dress and carry a small bouquet - of paper flowers.


vsmith@phillynews.com

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