Papercraft is suddenly very cool. You can tell because over the past year everything from tiny Minecraft creepers to nearly life size Marios have begun cropping up in the news. Thanks to papercraft, fan art is now distinctly more three dimensional, but the art form isn’t just limited to videogame fandom, nor did it start there.

Looking more like art projects than cereal box giveaways, this new breed of toy was unique, and harnessed the hip-hop meets art-school esthetic of vinyl toys.

A quick Google search will reveal hundreds of different websites dedicated to the creation, customization and trading of what their creators simply call “paper toys.”If you go onto Amazon you can order at least half a dozen books of templates, but every one of them has two things in common… they’re thick on projects and thin on information.

The problem seems to stem from the very nature of the art form. Paper is by its nature, impermanent. Start digging into the genesis of papercraft and you’ll find speculation that the art form began in China, and was brought to Europe by the Moors in the middle ages. We know for sure that Japanese poems from the Edo period reference origami and ceremonial paper folding, but experts believe we were folding paper for fun much sooner than that.

Regardless of how old they may be, paper toys have always been a dependable, if not particularly exciting, mainstay of the toy industry. Barnacle Press has an excellent archive of paper toy templates from the early 1920s, and paper toys are still found today as military models, cereal box giveaways and advertising gimmicks in women’s magazines.

That said, the paper toys that advertise feminine hygiene products in Elle Magazine are a far cry from the intricate creations of Matt Hawkins or the adorable Red Panda toys Mozilla commissioned promote Firefox 4.

2005 was the year the fortunes of the utilitarian paper toy changed and paper toys started appearing on the internet. Looking more like art projects than cereal box giveaways, this new breed of toy was unique, and harnessed the hip-hop meets art-school esthetic of vinyl toys.

Like so many things, the modern papercraft movement was born because of a completely unrelated passion: shoes.

The shoes in question were Nike Air Force 1s. The collectible sneakers were coveted by a Japanese student named Shin Tanaka. Unable to afford real versions of the AF1s, Tanaka started making incredibly complex paper models of them instead. The models were an immediate hit in Japan and motivated by his success, Tanaka expanded his repertoire, designing more paper toys that incorporated his love of hip-hop and urban culture into the designs.

What Tanaka would do next turned out to be the catalyst for the new art form. Lacking formal training but wanting to reach out to other designers, Tanaka invented the collaboration system that has come to define the paper toy world; he put blank versions of his toys online and encouraged other people to download the templates, customize the design and make their own versions.

At the same time Tanaka was parlaying his new toys into a a real art career, American artist Brian Castleforte was discovering that as much as he wanted to get into designing vinyl toys, it was too expensive to be feasible. Frustrated and looking for alternatives, he stumbled across the website of Norwegian artist Sjors Strimbach.

The people who started collecting paper toys were as interested in making art as they were in displaying it.

Like Castleforte, Strimbach wanted to make his own toys, but with no knowledge of 3D design, he decided to make a simple toy made of paper instead. Strimbach called his creation Brickboy, and shared the template online, encouraging other artists to collaborate with him. Castleforte was an instant convert. He created an original character he dubbed Nicebunny , and as Strimbach and Tanaka had done before, Castleforte put his templates online for free.

Soon Castleforte’s creations were all over the world, joining the work of other paper toy pioneers like Tanaka and Strimbach, Sal Azad , Ben O’Brien , Matt Hawkins and Kenn Munk . Despite being based all over the world, and despite not knowing each other, these artists created the first wave of collectible paper toys – they traded with each other and collaborated, spreading the new medium via their blogs and websites. Their work created a new class of toy collector, taking influence from the vinyl toy community where people were encouraged to create their own versions of popular toys, the people who started collecting paper toys were as interested in making art as they were in displaying it.

One of those early collectors was Vinny Walleen, aka Paper Vinny. The Canadian paper toy designer got into the scene much the same way that its pioneers had: Five years ago he stumbled upon some paper toy templates while surfing the internet. What really hooked Walleen on the medium was how the toys were distributed. They weren’t just free, they were free to be personalized.

Walleen started building paper toys and forging connections, but the scene remained small and templates were hard to find unless you knew where to look. However, all that began to change when Castleforte decided to start an official community for the paper toy movement. Since its inception two years ago, Nice Paper Toys has become the hub of the paper toy community and dramatically increased the craft’s visibility.

“There was a calendar released last year that was called “Fold Your Own Zombie” and every month there was a different zombie to punch out, fold and glue together,” explains Walleen with a laugh. “This is how I know it’s starting to get a little bit more mainstream.”

At almost 4,000 members, Nice Paper Toys is still a small and close-knit group.

“The Nice Paper Toys Community is great,” explains Walleen. “People are always putting up models or pictures of stuff they’re working on. You’ll see a lot of people saying ‘hey, this is my first model,’ and it’s the internet, so you can get a lot of different people saying a lot of different things … [but the] community is really supportive. People will be very complimentary, but they will also give constructive criticism. You see people working together too. They’re in two different countries, they don’t know what the other person looks like, but they’ve come together and collaborated.”

It was the desire for collaboration that inspired Walleen to take his paper toys offline with his I Found Vinny project. Instead of keeping all the toys he creates, Walleen now photographs them and releases most of them them into the wild, spreading paper toys in real life the same way they first spread online.

“[Papercraft] is kind of an isolated practice … I wanted to figure out a way to reconnect with people. I thought, why not put an email address on my toys, and start leaving them all over the city,” he explains. “People would email in saying, ‘Hey! I found this!’ and then I would share the template with them, or any other templates they might be interested in, and I would ask for a picture of the toy in the new surroundings. That’s how I started connecting with people and getting known.”

At its core, papercraft has become popular because it democratizes art – it is both complex and totally accessible.

Feedback was positive, but Walleen started getting requests for an “entry level” paper toy. That led him to create his Simple Vinny template , a straightforward toy designed to be stable and secure even when made with lightweight printer paper. As with all paper toy templates, Walleen made sure that Simple Vinny could be assembled as is, or completely customized by using a blank template. All he asks for in exchange are pictures of the new toys.

When I ask him about why he thinks paper toys have suddenly become so popular, Walleen echoes the sentiments found online – it’s a seductive mix of collectibility, accessibility and accomplishment, and both the designer and the collector get it.

“When people look at something like the Simple Vinny model, they’re not intimidated by it. People have been cutting and pasting since they were in kindergarten so it’s a really approachable craft,” says Walleen. “Paper is cheap, and I don’t know any household that doesn’t have a printer now. [With paper toys] you can download something for free, print it out in your own home and end up with something really awesome. On the other side you have the design. You can create something and send it out to the world, but people make it with their own paper, their own glue and their own scissors. Your overhead is so small, but you can still promote your name.”

To illustrate his point, Walleen picks up one of the toys he’s brought to the interview. “If this was a vinyl toy, it would be $150 bucks,” he says in a matter of fact tone of voice. “But when I build this, I’m not buying a toy, I’m interacting with the artist. Every time I finish a model I laugh – the toy comes to life and there’s a great sense of achievement. It could either be from five minutes or [several hours] of effort but in the end you’ve created something.”

At its core, papercraft has become popular because it democratizes art – it is both complex and totally accessible. Only with papercraft can someone create a three dimensional work of art completely from scratch, a work of breathtaking difficulty, and yet still compel someone who doesn’t think they have any particular artistic talent to try and recreate the results.

Or, as Walleen puts it, “You can create a toy that looks really neat, I don’t know how you would not enjoy that.”

Kathleen De Vere is trying very hard to be a professional funny-person and writer. Most famous for LoadingReadyRun, Kathleen has discovered her main passion, petting cats, is not terribly practical in the financial sense, so if you need some adjectives strung together, she’d love to hear from you.

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