See 3-D Paper Art That Should Be Geometrically Impossible

Matthew Shlian is a paper artist whose latest work confronts viewers with precisely constructed geometric figures in 3-D. Here’s how he makes them.

Matthew Shlian’s work resembles a pop-up book come to life. Instead of palm trees and dinosaurs or whatever, though, the things that spring from his work are complexly layered geometric shapes of austere beauty. He is a paper artist, but a multifaceted one. Kind of like a work of origami.


Shlian is a teacher at the University of Michigan, but he also mocks up far-out packaging options for companies like Apple, Levi’s, and Procter & Gamble, while creating custom paper art installations. The artist also has a working relationship with record label Ghostly International, whose retail boutique and online gallery, The Ghostly Store, just released his latest edition, Apophenia. The new work is a succinct summation for the hard-to-describe style he has been working toward since college.

Shlian originally went to school for ceramics, but he realized early on that his interest transcended any traditional medium or material. By the time he graduated, the artist had a dual major in ceramics and print media, but he wasn’t really working with either anymore. Instead, he would create massive digital prints and large-scale pop-up spreads.

“I really had no idea what I was doing,” Shlian says. “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, and I also loved the geometry. Figuring out the pieces was like solving a puzzle.”

Indeed, much of his work looks like an unsolvable math problem on the board at MIT during Good Will Hunting. His latest piece, Apophenia, which is named for the condition of seeing patterns where none exist, is presented in four discrete moments–like a pattern frozen in time at the moment of creation. The piece is a continuation of Shlian’s Ara series, which are works all rooted in Arabic tiling.

“Most of my work deals with unfolding of space in one form or another,” Shlian says. “I wanted to create a piece that used geometric patterns, but specifically patterns that are dissected and subsequently reconstructed. It is not completely chaotic–there are moments where the underlying structure is visible–but overall the pattern would be non-repeating.”


Putting together such a formation begins with drawing–the longest part of the design process. The shapes have to balance and complement each other. The goal is to find a pattern where negative and positive shapes balance so that there is no clear figure or ground. Shlian uses an admittedly outdated version of CAD r13 (computer-aided design software.) Next, he extracts the forms he wants to use and plans them out as 3-D shapes by adding glue tabs. The pieces are cut on a plotter cutter and assembled by hand. It is a painstaking process.

While the pieces seem as though they would take an excessive amount of time to assemble, Shlian explains that this is true only for the uninitiated.

“I spent four years in undergrad, two years in grad school, three years in the industry, and I’ve been teaching since ’06,” he says. “I can knock out a piece in an afternoon but it takes a few years to get there.”

[Photos by Cullen Stephenson]