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The Story Behind the Story: Q&A with Helen Friel

Updated: Oct 5, 2018



As a paper and book engineer, Helen Friel is the crafter of sophisticatedly designed, intricate and interactive masterpieces that delight both adults and children. We asked her a few questions on her journey and her creative process, and delved into a little bit more about her and her story.


Helen Friel is a prolific paper engineer and book engineer who has experience in collaborative works for brands to making her own children's books.

You’re known for your amazing pop-up work and intricate designs. What are your other passions or interests that people may not know about?

I love walking and hiking. The area I live in has beautiful countryside and I often spend my weekends walking in the hills of West Sussex. I also spend a lot of time in cafes, drawing on my iPad. Technically it’s work but it doesn’t feel like it!


Having graduated from Central Saint Martins with a Graphic Design degree, how did you get started with paper engineering and book engineering? Was it something you had always wanted to do, or did it come later on?

As a child I had lots of pop-up books but I hadn’t considered it as a career choice. While I was studying I made a pop-up card as part of a typography project. I enjoyed the process and started using paper in lots of my work. It’s been a natural evolution to the work I make now.


In the children’s book world, your books are among the most unique and well-loved. When and how did you start crafting children’s books?

In 2012 I collaborated on a pop-up book animation about the water cycle with Jess Deacon and Chris Turner. My publishers, Laurence King, saw the animation and contacted me to see if I had any ideas for books. I had been thinking about Midnight Creatures for a while and suggested it as a concept. Luckily they liked the idea too!


You've worked with Hermès, Harrods, TIME, Vogue UK, Kiehl’s, Tatler UK and Tatler Asia… Just to name a few. What was your first ever collaboration and how did that come about?

My first big collaboration was a jewellery project for Vanity Fair. I think they found me via my website. It was a really fun project featuring animal themed jewellery. One brooch in the shape of a fish was flown from Australia to London for the shoot.



Your debut pop-up book, Midnight Creatures, is such a unique work of art and so stunningly crafted. How was the experience like? What were the most challenging and most rewarding parts of creating this book?

Thank you. It was fun and challenging in equal parts. My first job was to design a system to make sure all the shadows line up correctly. It was very exciting the first time a test worked correctly. I also particularly enjoyed researching all the creatures - lots of them I hadn’t heard of before I started writing the book.



Hoakes Island is an interactive book, a puzzle adventure of sorts, that takes readers on a journey of discovery and mystery-unravelling. What sparked the idea for this book, and how did it evolve?

Hoakes Island started from the red lens that comes with the book. You use it to reveal clues. I had seen the technique used in other books but usually for search and find, I wanted to see if it could be used in a longer, narrative driven book. I began with an idea for a picture book. That idea was rejected but the publishers suggested a detective story and I went away and came up with Hoakes Island. I also collaborated with my Dad who wrote the text for the book. We both had lots of ideas and we share a sense of humour which is where all the silly jokes in the book come from.


How does your process of one project differ from another? Do you work on several projects simultaneously, or do you immerse yourself in one or two projects at a time? What’s the general creative process of paper engineering like, from ideation to production/printing?

I usually have more than one project on the go but I’m not very good at switching. I like to dedicate a few days to one before starting on another. Hoakes Island took about a year to create the concept, illustrations, photographs and design. In comparison, Midnight Monsters only took around two months. My commercial work is much quicker. If I’m working for a newspaper or magazine I usually get one or two weeks to complete the work.


Given your prolific experience in paper and book engineering, what would you tell yourself when you first started your journey? And what would your advice be to others who'd like to follow your footsteps?

I would tell myself not to worry as much and to take more holidays! For anyone starting out in paper engineering, illustration or any other creative field my advice is the same - make work you love and don’t be afraid to say no sometimes.


See more of Helen Friel's work here, or follow her on Instagram @helenfriel.

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