The title on Benja Harney’s business card reads very simply, “paper engineer”. The crisp, white card is sliced and cut on a curve through the middle, and an arrow invites you to fold it. As you bend the paper, a tiny telescope pops up, floating above a curved ocean wave.

Over the course of his career, Harney has designed and engineered astonishing and brilliant paper sculpture and installation. From elaborate pop-up books to giant hanging garlands, pushing the parameters of the paper medium has driven him and a selection of his most recent creations is now showing at M Contemporary’s exhibition of wearable art, Intimately Connected.

“Right from the start I wanted to make sure my work wasn’t crafty,” Harney says. “It was more technical and about precision and about being exploratory. Not just pretty or cute.” The artist’s Surry Hills studio is much like a playful, life-size pop-up book; it houses towering animal headpieces, an intricate Japanese tea set and a pair of ice skates, each made entirely from coloured card. “I started in 2005. I studied graphic design and we had a basic class in paper construction,” he says. Harney quickly realised the medium had a great deal to offer. “I got really excited about the idea I could construct something.”

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As his practice developed, Harney’s graphic illustration began to come to life as paper-built design. “Around 2006 the graphic-design world seemed to become more interested in this idea of tangible design,” he says. “I happened to be in the right place at the right time. I suppose there was a bit of serendipity to it.”

Harney has since produced work for a diverse collection of local and international clients. His portfolio includes bespoke pop-up books created for Google, Samsung and a Kylie Minogue world tour. He has crafted whimsical installations for MCA Art Bar, Luxe Bakery and desktop Magazine. A set of Harney’s brightly coloured fish lanterns hangs from the ceiling of Darlinghurst’s Cliff Dive.

Harney exhibited The Paper Attic at Object Gallery in 2010, and New Platonics at NG Gallery in 2012. “[At that point] I was getting quite technical. I thought I’d done everything I could with paper,” he says. “I decided to put a set of limitations on the works.” Without using adhesives or glue, Harney created interlocking 3D-paper patterns based on platonic solid shapes.

As for how each sculpture, installation or commission is engineered and built, there is a lot of testing. “It’s a lot of problem solving, because often each project is entirely different,” Harney says. “It’s just experimentation, really. It starts off quite rough and loose and then over a series of test models, it comes together and is more precise.”

Harney’s most recent commission is from the timeless French fashion house, Hermès. Harney crafted a set of three headpieces for guests to wear to a summer masquerade. While each headdress is embellished with paper antlers, stars, clouds and the Hermès signature horse bust, Harney insists they are quite simple to fold and pull together. When M Contemporary approached Harney to exhibit as part of Intimately Connected, Harney decided to show these recently crafted, folded headdresses. “It all just clicked into place. They’re beautiful, and no one here in Australia has seen them.”

“I never wanted to be just an illustrator or design pop-up books,” Harney says. I wanted to explore the capabilities of paper and to look beyond the surface.” Harney has just crafted a paper instrument as a prop for an opera signer friend, a series of miniature sets for belle magazine and is currently working on a new collaboration with Romance Was Born for the National Gallery of Victoria. “That’s what’s wonderful about paper,” he says. “It’s a total accident that I found it, but it’s been so rewarding, and it is so flexible.”

Intimately Connected is showing at M Contemporary until October 26.

M Contemporary
27 Ocean Street, Woollahra

Tues to Sat 10am–5pm
Sun & Mon 11am–4pm