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Interview: Hilli Zenz, Paper Artist

Edited by Sara Adams

Hilli Zenz, July 2013

I met Hilde, AKA Hilli, Zenz three years ago, at the 2010 CDO convention. She is a banker from Germany and a mother to her only daughter. I was caught in their friendly webs immediately; both are the happiest folders I have met.

Hilli is not just an origamist, but also an artist that paints origami papers for folding, and the moment I saw those papers, I knew I had to own them, fold them, and tell you about it. But this is not a paper review. It is more about the creator. And I must say, although the papers are sold as origami papers, some of them are real works of art that can be framed and hung on the wall. The biggest challenge is figuring out which model suits these artistic papers best.

The artist

So, tell us, who is Hilli?

I have a daughter and we live in Germany. I work for a bank.

I love paper and I think it's a pity that it doesn't get as much appreciation in the world of art as stone, metal, wood etc.

What is origami to you? Why are you interested in origami?

For me origami means passion, meditation, a bridge to other people, deep bliss and relaxation, science and mathematics, aesthetics, but most of all: origami is art!

I cannot really say why origami interests me. It's just something deep inside me, origami simply fascinates me... It's about meeting people who share the same passion. It's also about folding alone in solitude and tranquility. It's about the cycle of my own hands and my head. It's the one moment amidst the daily stress when you grab a piece of paper because a model pops into your head that just wants to get out...

Hilli's display at the CDO 2010, photo by Sara Adams

What was your first model to fold? What types of origami you like to fold? Do you have a favorite designer?

I can't remember my very first origami model. Back in my "wild days", when I was still smoking, I used to fold miniature boats out of the silver paper from cigarette boxes. I also very well remember a video course (good old VHS) from years ago, in which an adorable Japanese woman showed the Sonobe cube and a lot of its variations.

I like to fold geometric shapes, modular models, boxes, stars, but also useful stuff like briefcases, folders and elegant shapes as simple roses.

My favorite designer? Oh yes - Tomoko Fuse!

You are a painter, and yet you decided to paint paper that will never be the main issue – your painted papers are meant to be folded, so only a small part of your painting is visible to the observer. Why don't you only make real paintings?

Paper by Hilli Zenz; click to enlarge

I have been making decorative and art papers for quite a long time now and I used to use them for book binding. At some point I started to use these papers for origami. I liked that and so I began to create papers particularly for the sake of folding. I find it exciting to only see a part of the paper in the final model. This kind of surprise is really fascinating. Sometimes, though, I make especially patterned paper for particular models.

That's right, I'm a painter. In fact I was painting even before I started with origami. Many years ago I painted icons, nowadays I've turned to etching which for me is the high point of artistic techniques. Painting and etching in particular, remains the biggest part of my artistic endeavors. I'm part of an art group, I work as an assistant in an etching studio and I showcase my paintings in various exhibitions. On the other hand origami plays a very important role, too, these days.. ;)

What three origami books would you take with you to a stranded island?

Paper and Fold: Hilli Zenz; Design: Snail by Tomoko Fuse; click to enlarge

My favorite books for the island are SPIRAL - Origami Art Design, by Tomoko Fuse; Origami - 21 Stars, by Carmen Sprung and Origami Omnibus: Paper Folding for Everybody, by Kunihiko Kasahara

The papers

What paper do you use?

Often I use drawing paper, mould-made paper or Ingres paper. I always try to find different kinds of paper that are suitable.

The most important point for me is how well the paper folds. The basic paper often changes its properties during painting, it gets softer and more elastic.

Do you decide what the paper is going to be according to what people can fold from it? Do you have painted paper for tessellation or modular or stars, or for any other unique purpose?

Paper and Fold: Hilli Zenz; Model: Box by Tomoko Fuse; click to enlarge

If I want to make paper for boxes I use stiffer paper, depending on how big the boxes are supposed to be.

For tessellations I am still experimenting. Plus, a tessellation is a pattern in its own right. Maybe it shouldn't be put into the background by a patterned paper.

How do you make your paintings?

That's a tough question, because there are so many different aspects to it. It depends on many different factors. I do a lot of experimenting.

For me it's highly dependent on how much energy I can muster. Most of the time it doesn't work to decide Alright, I'm going to make some new sheets. On such occasions I will most likely not produce anything.

Then again, some other days there comes a moment that just feels right. I think that to make something good I have to find the right mood and if that happens I really get into the flow. Everything flows then and the results keep on bubbling up to surface and flowing out of me. I have to keep on going then and seize the moment. (I've had paper making nights when I was only stopped by running out of material - colors or paper.) When I am in the flow I don't think about which pattern I want to make and how to achieve it. Instead I let my hands and my body just do whatever feels right. It's like a dance, everything has to flow because otherwise it isn't authentic, flowing, natural and clear.

How long does it take you to make one sheet?

Paper by Hilli Zenz; click to enlarge

Of course, the amount of time I need differs greatly. For paste papers I have to work fast because otherwise the paste dries too early and the patterns stays incomplete. For marble papers it's similar, the sheet has to be taken up from the bottom quickly. As you can imagine most of the time is needed for preparation, especially when making marble papers.

What materials do you use?

I use many different kinds of colors. I really try out everything – acrylic, oil, water, printing colors. For oil colors I prefer make-up. I use different brushes, too. Sometimes I use an old brush on purpose because it can produce special structures.

Do you cut before or after painting?

Usually I cut the paper after painting it because I need enough space and it's just more interesting.

Where do you get your ideas from?

All my ideas and inspirations come from some (hidden) place in my head. On the other hand the whole world is full of patterns when you keep yours eyes open. There are so many patterns and shapes in nature that you can use in some way or the other.

Where can we buy your paper? Is there online option?

I have started to sell my paper at origami meetings I attend. Plans to sell my paper online are also in the pipeline. I am preparing this at the moment.

Hand on testing

Braided Bowl, designed and folded by Ilan Garibi

Lion, designed by Hideo Komatsu, folded by Yuval Atlas

I was tortured with doubts - what model should I fold from it? At the convention, I saw many model Hilli folded by herself, such as Carambola flowers by Sprung (instructional video, diagrams), and Fancy Organizer by Shumakov (diagrams), as well as the Magic Ball instructional video). I finally decided to fold my own model, a Braided Bowl from a 40cm square. The paper is a little too big for this model, so I moved from 12 facets to 16, since I didn’t want to cut it. The paper folds nicely, remember a crease well, like Tant. The collapse shows its springiness, quite satisfying. It's not as thick as Elephant Hide, but thicker than printer paper. The color is stable, and no white fibers come at the centre, where 16 lines are crossing each other.

Another great rendition with this paper is the Lion, by Komatsu. Folded by Yuval Atlas, you can see how the painted pattern and colors suit perfectly this model.

Bottom line

So here is the great dilemma - should you fold an art piece in order to make another one? I will let you decide for yourself, because for me it is already decided - and I quote my wife: Don’t you dare fold such beautiful papers!


Wonderfully beautiful paper! I would like to encourage others to try their hand at painting, dying, staining, and weaving other effects into their work. Whether dying translucent waxed paper, applying color to watercolor/artists paper, or designing your own hand fabricated paper, the addition of lovely mediums can take your work to an inspiring new level. After folding a model, one can tailor effects as the heart desires.

Are there any of your papers for sale online yet?