Ella Fitzgerald may have loved it, but on this early spring day in the 20th arrondissement, the leaden gray sky throws down sheets of rain that strip the workaday area of all color and light, making Paris distinctly unloveable. Fortunately for me, I’m outside the studio of award-winning French illustrator, designer and art director Maud Vantours. Stepping into her large workspace is like going from Dorothy’s monochrome Kansas to Technicolor Oz, with a smattering of psychedelic landscapes reminiscent of 1960s album covers thrown in.
Every surface is covered with eye-popping textures, patterns and forms. There are meticulous 2-D cutouts. Huge pieces comprised of tiny overlapping triangles in every conceivable color. Contoured spiral collages that look like explosions of rainbows. Five-foot-high totem poles whose ribbons of bright multicolored layers call to mind giant Chinese lanterns. And a pink, purple and turquoise abstract piece featuring hundreds of different-sized hexagonal layers built up to look like a door grille. Almost all these pieces are exclusively the work of a craftswoman who went to art school because she liked to draw from an early age.
“I was really good at it, and my goal was to find a job where I could do it all day long,” Vantours says. She recalls how skilled her mother was with fabric and patchwork quilting, and her father building her a little wooden cabin in their family home. “While not artists, they were definitely makers, and creative, which I think is what pushed me into the art world,” she says.
Once she got to the Duperré School of Applied Arts in Paris, via textile design and with the help of a teaching ethos rooted less in technical knowledge and more “in helping us find our strengths and encouraging us to find our own ways of expressing ourselves,” Vantours soon began working with paper.
“Why paper? Actually, I have no idea! I think it was unconscious—from the very start at college, it just felt natural to me to use paper,” she says. “Transforming it into something extraordinary by adding volume, patterns and light to it is something I love. And, of course, its versatility, qualities, colors, weights and accessibility allow for endless possibilities.”
She began by making wallpaper—“not just printing, but using cutting and other techniques; experimenting and playing so that I knew the strengths and possibilities of the materials, and how to use them,” she says. These early projects received great feedback from not only her college tutors, but also brands. In January 2010, at the prestigious trade fair MAISON&OBJET, her work proved so popular that she won the young artist award and found her first client, Musée de La Poste, making the leap from wallpaper to paper art. Projects for Cartier and Lancôme soon followed.
To date, less than ten years after graduating from college, Vantours has worked with adidas, Lancôme, Christian Louboutin and TAG Heuer; the fashion houses Giorgio Armani, Issey Miyake and Yves Saint Laurent; and the major French cultural institutions Cité de l’Architecture & du Patrimoine and Cité des Sciences et de l’Industrie. By painstakingly shaping, cutting, layering and folding exquisite 3-D creations, she has provided the basis for ad campaigns, store displays, packaging, T-shirt designs and more.
Standouts include her poppies for Kenzo’s Flowers by Kenzo perfume. A sumptuous Christmas feast laid out for Moët Hennessy at the brand’s store in Paris’s Charles de Gaulle airport. A flower display for jeweller Chaumet in London (to tie in with the Chelsea Flower Show), for which Vantours created hydrangeas made up of hundreds of thousands of petals. And an ethereal interior design project for perfumier Guerlain, which saw the Champs Elysées store invaded by a flowing “poetic aerial plant.”
For all her projects, the idea, which Vantours describes as “the world I want to develop,” begins with a small pencil sketch or a digital layout. Sections or patterns are numbered, and the layer heights are determined. After that comes color: “This is where I decide whether the piece will be monochrome, gradient or multicolored. It can take me hours or even days to find the perfect color palette,” she says. With colors finalized and the elements printed out, the cutting begins, followed by the insertion of tiny foam layers to build up the piece.
Her 3-D geometric personal projects are inspired by sources as wide-ranging as Incan patterns, Miami architecture and European roof tiles. Other influences and inspirations include the Bauhaus school, African prints, Russian patterns and the work of Frida Kahlo (“for her colors”) and Belgian illustrator, painter and printmaker Pierre-Joseph Redouté (“for his botanical illustrations”).
For Gap’s REMIX Project 2015, for which she designed one of eleven limited edition artists’ T-shirts, she revealed (in a book Gap published to coincide with the project) that she “reimagined the brand logotype within a multicolored and multilayered paper sculpture design that mimics the patterns of waves, mountains and wind-blown clouds.” But she seeks and finds inspiration everywhere. On a trip to Cuba, “the peeling, overlapping layers of paint on Havana’s colorful colonial buildings led to my researching areas like accumulation and superimposition, which in turn led to my fascination with building layer upon layer until a flat structure becomes a 3-D design,” she says.
Is turning something flat into something three-dimensional a little piece of magic that resonates with all of us? “Definitely,” says Vantours. “I think my projects give people surprises—a different way of reading something. It changes their perspective. They think they know what it is; but then, when they come closer or read it more carefully, they see it’s not what they thought it was at all. This was very true with the Moët Hennessy feast and in particular its lobster, which people believed was real until they came closer.”
“We’re bombarded with so many images every day that it’s easy to just not notice them or forget them as soon as you’ve seen them, but things like the Moët feast stay with you because they make you look twice. I think projects like that delight people. And I really like it when that happens and when people ask me lots of questions about the work. Because the material is something that’s so familiar to everyone, we all have experiences and memories related to it—some people might tell me they remember doing origami or collage, and that they might take it up again. It’s such fun to have that kind of dialogue with people and talk about those shared experiences.”
Having honed her skills with paper the hard way—by cutting out thousands upon thousands of pieces of paper to different sizes and depths in order to create her trompe l’œil 2-D patterns, or spending days figuring out how to create the patterns that would turn a flat lobster into a 3-D one—Vantours is now turning more and more to mechanization.
“All my sculptural pieces used to be handmade, but in the last few months, I’ve been using a machine more, simply because it’s more efficient. I know some people will say, ‘That isn’t handmade,’ or, ‘It’s not an artist’s work anymore,’ but I’m not sure I agree with that. One piece produced using the machine will deliver exactly the same end result as a hand-cut piece,” says Vantours. While I’m reminded of the late great Dick Bruna, who used to draw his outlines for children’s character Miffy by hand using a brush and ink because he believed this was the only way to achieve what he called “lines with a ‘heartbeat,’” I feel that such a sweet sentiment doesn’t apply in Vantours’s case. The heart of her work doesn’t lie in the act of cutting paper by hand, but rather in the desire to create something magical.
And aside from the cutting, there is still a lot of handiwork to be done, like ensuring that all the colors are right. This a task that Vantours particularly relishes because, as she explained in the Gap REMIX book, “you can change the entire tone of a color combination just by switching or adding a single element, so it’s like a game you play or a story you tell. The only color I don’t use is black. I prefer to use colors that are more emotional than black. Sometimes there may be some ‘fake black,’ like dark blue or dark green, but never pure black.” For Vantours, it’s in such areas that the work really comes alive—as well as in the ongoing development of paper as a material.
“Because paper is such a trendy material now, manufacturers are keen to develop more colors and weights. They know that what designers can produce with it is the difference between fleeting images we see all day long and quickly forget, and something we can hold in our hands and want to keep. The graphic design on a great paper invitation might be the same as a virtual invitation, but it’s the physical reality and touchability that makes it so special.” That, and the ability of artists like Vantours to apply so much passion, love and joie de vivre to creating something special.
When I leave her studio, the sun has come out, and the 20th arrondissement looks like a different world. A multicolored, multilayered Maud Vantours world. ca