In Depth

Paper perfectionist: couture of a different kind

The delicate paper art of Paris-based creative Marianne Guély

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In normal circumstances, Marianne Guély would be working from her Parisian workshop at 46, rue de Provence, a few streets away from the city’s famous Galeries Lafayette department store, well known for its elaborate window displays. Just like the emblematic shopping destination, Guély’s two large windows are perennially decked out with beguiling props, though all of hers are meticulously handmade. Her studio is also crammed full of luxury names, but again, couture comes in a very different guise: Guély is a specialist designer who creates fantasy worlds out of paper, ranging from large- scale installations and dramatic backdrops to accordion-style greeting cards too beautiful to store away in a drawer. She has collaborated with almost every prestigious maison you could name, including Christian Dior, Harry Winston, Piaget, Prada and Hermès. And, just as in couture, Guély’s creations can be deceptively simple —take her Cartier party invite shaped like a crocodile—or grand design statements such as the immense paper fans she recently made for Paris’ Opera Garnier.

With her studio closed for the lockdown, Guély and her partner are self-isolating at her family’s cottage in Normandy, where she’s been working remotely with her team on various projects, including one intended to lift the spirits: each week, a new artwork inspired by spring is revealed on her Instagram feed, a virtual garden of floral folds and blooms digitally enhanced and manipulated to kaleidoscopic effect. “It feels important to all of us to imagine and continue to dream,” says Guély, whose mornings are currently spent working on a new sculpture using traditional paper sourced from Papiers Arches, a famous 15th-century French paper mill: “It is a pure cotton paper and therefore very pleasant to touch.”

The artist is effusive about her craft and has an extraordinary way of articulating what she finds so magical about her medium. “Like a couture fabric, paper can be cut, perforated, creased, pleated and frayed,” she says. “So all the caprices of high fashion can be applied, only with more ease and confidence.”

Guély describes ‘making’ as a sort of chrysalis process, since her creations are structured from an accessible and affordable material that is elevated into the realms of art by shape, narrative and context. “You can create a sense of reverie with paper that never clashes with the landscape of luxury design,” she says. “What you discover is that these paper worlds actually enhance other areas of beauty and prestige.” Last September, the studio produced a paper jungle for luxury Swiss watchmaker Patek Philippe, which was shipped to Singapore for its special Watch Art Grand Exhibition. Encased within glass vitrines, these verdant scenes featured adorable sloths, monkeys, birds and exotic flowering plants, each one a labor of love made by hand using complex layering, molding and folding techniques.

More recently, Guély and her team unveiled a large feather tree made of gold paper, commissioned by Piaget for a charity auction, as well as a greeting card for Paris’ Hotel Lutecia—her mini maquette of the famous Left Bank hotel “unfolds like a little theatre and can be kept all year round”, she says. “We work with metal, textiles, leather, porcelain, bamboo and alabaster, but paper is my first love,” says the artist, who set up her business 20 years ago, having studied industrial design at Paris’ prestigious ENSAAMA School of Art and Design. “I was destined to work somewhere like Renault, but I was always more drawn to a ‘design and build’ ethos. In the end, I gravitated towards art and fashion rather than automotives.”

One of Guély’s first jobs was to create an elaborate floral table centerpiece in paper for a private dinner organized by style icon Inès de la Fressange on behalf of luxury footwear brand Roger Vivier. At the time, around 2005, Guély was on her own, using her metal-cutting dies to ‘cookie-cut’ the paper via a professional press. Today, designs are often produced on digital or laser-cutting machines, though she still turns to the traditional method for many of her floral shapes. The dies, though, are much bigger and are stored at her workshop in Aubervilliers, a northeastern suburb of Paris, where the bulk of the large-scale works are made by a young workforce of around 15-20 artists. She hopes to reopen this beating heart of her paper-art operation as soon as possible.

“I love discovering new techniques—being open to different disciplines is part of the adventure,” says the artist, who is collaborating with Limoges porcelain specialists Haviland & Co and haute parfumer Clæpsidra on a range of elegant candles. “It’s a project that is very close to my heart, because porcelain and paper are very close as materials,” she says of the delicate receptacles, which are decorated by hand- chiseled motifs inspired by eroded sandstone and undulating waves. Paper remains the main focus of her creative output, however: “What I have always loved about paper is that it is honest. You can’t lie or cheat [with it]. If you create an effective form, it is at once elegant.”

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