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These gorgeous paper vases are inspired by ancient Islamic architecture

Hundreds of sheets of paper are laser-cut and meticulously layered to create these designs.

These gorgeous paper vases are inspired by ancient Islamic architecture
[Image: courtesy Ibbini Studio]
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For centuries, Islamic artists have adorned mosques and palaces with beautifully intricate recurring geometric patterns. Now, the founder of Abu Dhabi-based art studio Ibbini Studio, Julia Ibbini, is using modern technology to transform those centuries-old shapes into gorgeous sculptures.

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[Photo: courtesy Ibbini Studio]
The resulting designs turn paper with intricate laser cutouts in the tradition of historic Islamic art into 3D forms by layering hundreds of individual sheets until they make a sculptural shape. The sculptures are intricate examples of how precise mathematics and human craft combine to push the boundaries of sculptural form and make layers of cut paper look as delicate as glass. It’s no easy feat.

[Photo: courtesy Ibbini Studio]
Ibbini says she has always been an artist, but she also has a background in communication design, and she started her career as a graphic designer working in marketing. She founded the studio in 2017 with software engineer Stephane Noyer. From there, the work evolved to become more and more complex.

[Photo: courtesy Ibbini Studio]
Over Zoom, Ibbini explains that every vessel starts with a single arabesque piece that she designs in Adobe Illustrator, which is then repeated a set number of times around an arc, using computer algorithms and custom software tools Noyer designed. They twist the pieces around as they go to decide on the final profile. (Ibbini also makes some pieces she calls “2.5D,” because they have enough layers to accrue mass but are still flat enough to be framed.)

[Photo: courtesy Ibbini Studio]
Once they land on the final shape of the sculpture, the designs are sent to a laser machine to be cut. Then, the pieces are assembled by hand. This isn’t another 3D-printed sculpture. The vessels are made by stacking anywhere from 60 to 300 layers of paper and card stock depending on the size of the sculpture. (Over the last year, they have also started using fine veneer woods with pearl inlays.) It takes hundreds of hours, according to Ibbini. It’s also the most challenging part of the process. Each layer is precisely numbered so “you can’t make a single mistake,” she says. While the studio doesn’t list pricing on their website, you can email to inquire about purchasing particular pieces.

[Photo: courtesy Ibbini Studio]
When the layers are stacked, they create gracefully curved new forms. Some seem to defy the laws of gravity through the use of negative space. Others seem to perfectly embody the laws of nature, such as this one, which resembles the mathematical Fibonacci sequence that’s all over the natural world—from spiral galaxies to shells. (The golden ratio is derived from the sequence too.)

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[Photo: courtesy Ibbini Studio]
Looking at the individual layers, the throughline to Islamic art is clear. “I think it started with things like Islamic geometry. If you look way, way back at what tools they had hundreds and hundreds of years ago, they had such simple tools and were able to create such stunning, complex work,” says Ibbini. “I find that fascinating that there’s this incredibly rich history and complexity.” Now, Ibbini is giving it new form.

About the author

Lilly Smith is an associate editor of Co.Design. She was previously the editor of Design Observer, and a contributing writer to AIGA Eye on Design.

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