V&A Dundee

Enchanting glimpses through paper windows

We’ve spent much of 2020 looking out of windows at a changing world. What better way to celebrate the festive season than by peering into Laura Sayers’ stunning paper windows for this year’s VADvent project?

Written by: Laura Sayers

VADvent is our annual festive project where we turn our Instagram profile into an advent calendar of sorts. This year has been a whole mood and we knew we needed something beautiful and colourful to lift people’s spirits.

We commissioned talented paper designer and illustrator Laura Sayers to create one of her characterful pieces for every day leading up to Christmas Eve. Each day we share a paper window that reveals a wee insight into someone’s life in the festive period during lockdown. You might even spot some of our objects in them too! Have wee look.

We caught up with Laura and asked her a few questions about her work.

Hi Laura, tell us a bit about yourself!

Nice to chat to you! I work as an illustrator and paper artist based in a little studio in Glasgow where I work full time. I came up to Scotland to study in Edinburgh, moving from Oxford, which is where I came to develop my detailed paper cut style that's been filling up your Instagram recently.

Fingers holding a tiny paper cut out illustration of a window. Someone in the window is cutting out things in paper and the background is a studio with a calendar that reads 1 December.
Fingers holding a tiny paper cut out illustration of a window.
Fingers holding a tiny paper cut out illustration of a window.  A man and his daughter are decorating a Christmas tree.
Fingers holding a tiny paper cut out illustration of a window.
Fingers holding a tiny paper cut out illustration of a window.
  • A selection of our gorgeous VADvent 20 pieces. In this one, Laura has created a self-portrait showing her hard at work.

  • A selection of our gorgeous VADvent 20 pieces, designed by Laura Sayers. You can see Christopher Dresser's Clutha vase (usually!) on display in our galleries.

  • A selection of our gorgeous VADvent 20 pieces, designed by Laura Sayers.

  • A selection of our gorgeous VADvent 20 pieces, designed by Laura Sayers.

  • A selection of our gorgeous VADvent 20 pieces, designed by Laura Sayers. Can you spot Holly Foulton's Lips dress?

How did you get into illustration and paper art?

I was brought up on children's books and classic paintings, so to do something creative with my career was always the plan. Illustration seemed like the best fit as I love the combination of words and images and how they can tell a story together.

Paper art sort of came about accidentally. The more I tried other methods of making images like printmaking, digital work, drawing or painting, I realised that the process of cutting paper shapes to make up an illustration was one that suited me and my way of thinking.

I started way back in school, working on a project that was to be made solely with paper. That was when I began using scissors for everything and found that I enjoyed the definite act of cutting so much more than traditional drawing. There's no space for rubbing out pencil lines when you're working with paper. I was drawn to the tactility of layering it up and getting as much detail as possible in there.

A beautifully illustrated scene of a lad floating in space in a spacesuit with planets and start around him. Entirely made out of paper cuttings!
A hanging glass frame with a gorgeous Highland cottage scene depicted in cut paper.
Photo of a wee white rabbit shooting a fun party popper, entirely made of paper cuttings.
Photo of a hand holding a church or similar style of building made intricately of paper.
Top-down photo of an illustrated image of a child with their parent on the tube, entirely created out of cut out paper. A pencil lies next to it showing the intricate scale.
Photo of a woman sat by a window cutting paper out with scissors.
  • More of Laura's work.

  • More of Laura's work.

  • More of Laura's work.

  • More of Laura's work.

  • More of Laura's work.

  • Laura hard at work.

What’s a typical day or week like for you as a designer?

It’s as much admin as it is creative work! I usually start the week replying to emails from customers and clients to make sure they’re in the loop with what I’m making for them, and if I’m at the start of a project I’ll be sending them sketches, colours and mood-boards. Rough sketches first and then I’ll neaten them up on my iPad.

When we’re past that phase I’ll get down to the making side of things, taking as much time as I need to get all the paper bits together. I work in a little studio in a lovely old building called the Briggait in Glasgow, but I get odd bits of work done in my flat, like photographing the pieces next to the big bright windows on a good cloudy Scottish day.

It’s great to have a studio space to leave behind all of your work at the end of the day, and in a normal month I’m quite good at switching off. But Christmas is when all systems are go, all hours of the day!

A hand holding a wee box in which lies lots and lots of tiny paper cut shapes and things.
The flat of someone's hand with many tiny paper cut creations in it, from windmills to bees!
Close-up photo of someone's fingers holding a tiny head illustrated using cut paper.
Close-up photo of mint green paper with a few beautifully cut out paper creations on it.
  • Don't drop it!

  • Tag yourself! We're the wee bee...

  • "How to get ahead in paper art!"

  • The colours, the textures, the tininess!

Can you more specifically talk through your process?

The ideas stage of the process is as important as the rest, if not the most important. If I’ve got time, I’ll get out and about to do some research for an idea. For instance, last year I was working on a piece about the architect Zaha Hadid and was living in London at the time, so I went for a wee field trip to swim in the Olympic pool that she designed to get the ideas flowing.

A lot of your work is stunningly intricate. Can it be frustrating or is it second nature to you now?

It still frustrates me frequently! Although it is second nature in a lot of ways: I can cut paper better than I can draw and I think in the shapes and colours that I need. But there are days when things just take an age to get something finished.

That’s often down to me being a perfectionist though, which I’m trying to snap out of more and more as I notice it. Most of the time I'm glad that my work takes time to make. It gives me more confidence in promoting the craftsmanship involved and I don't like to rush things for the sake of it, instead I try to enjoy the journey that a piece goes on.

Do you prefer doing the tiny, intricate miniatures or larger scale pieces?

Tiny is definitely my comfort zone! Large scale things are something I want to work more on, but it takes me a bit longer to figure out the logistics of making something as flimsy as paper sturdy enough to fill a space.

Top-down shot of a woman sitting at a bright white desk surrounded by paper and stationery.
Photo of a sketchbook being held up and open by a hand. The sketchbook shows swatches of coloured card.
Close-up photo of the crease in a sketchbook with colourful paper art piece tumbling amongst the page.
Photo of a hand holding a sheet of white paper on which are an amazing cluster of multi-coloured paper cut outs in abstract shapes and patterns.
  • Laura hard at work.

  • Colour research.

  • More of Laura's work.

  • Tag yourself! We're the grey block in the middle (naturally)...

What kind of pieces do you particularly enjoy making?

I love telling people’s stories within my illustrations. It’s been my goal for a long time now to move into publishing work for children’s books and covers which I’m still working behind the scenes on. I really like the challenge of getting character into the faces of the people I make, and creating the space surrounding them, with plenty of room for details.

What's the favourite piece you've ever created?

That’s a tricky one... I made a piece for an exhibition featuring a little boy at the opticians. I loved the 1970s-inspired colours that I picked out for it and all the optical paraphernalia that I could surround him with. It took a long time, but it helped me to push my style a bit more. Now it lives with an optician in Panama of all places!

Photo of an illustration made using cut out paper of a young boy sitting in an opticians. It's super intricate and detailed.
Photo of an illustration made using cut out paper of a young boy sitting in an opticians. It's super intricate and detailed.
  • "...a little boy at the opticians."

  • We just can't with how detailed Laura's work is 🤯

What's been the most unexpected end product of your paper art?

One of my first bigger projects was a miniature Christmas house for Not on the High Street. They took the tiny thing I made and turned it into a novelty advent calendar that was sent to 50 of their high-profile clients, redesigned as a window display in Westfields shopping centre, and built into a stage set for a launch party.

It was funny to see something so small blown up to various different sizes. Another project more recently was designing trophies for the Scottish Awards for New Music which allowed me to be a bit more abstract with my design. I got to collaborate with my pal Alan who made the frames for the thirteen awards.

Close-up photo of a trophy made of wood with layers of glass between which are abstract colourful shapes of paper.
Two trophies made of wood with layers of glass between which are abstract colourful shapes of paper.
  • 'Scottish Awards for New Music' trophies designed by Laura.

  • 'Scottish Awards for New Music' trophies designed by Laura.

What are the biggest challenges of paper art for you?

It often relies on getting the right photo of it at the end, which in wintery gloomy Glasgow can be a challenge. I take all my own photos and edit them quite thoroughly. Most of the time they do the job, but occasionally it’s a headache trying to get the layers and the shadows to come across the best they can.

What is your favourite thing about the medium?

I love the physicality of it. Being able to hold a small detailed piece in the palm of your hand. I get excited by colour schemes and satisfying shapes and it’s a rewarding process seeing things come together.

Photo of a hand holding tiny band members with instruments made out of intricate paper.
Photo of a hand holding tiny people made of cut paper, there's a man, woman and wee bairn.
Photo of a hand holding tiny paper lanterns made out of intricate paper cuttings.
Photo of a hand holding tiny doorways and windows made of coloured card.
  • "Being able to hold a small detailed piece in the palm of your hand."

  • The totiest family ever?

  • "I get excited by colour schemes and satisfying shapes..."

  • Surely these are TOO wee?

What's your top tip for designers just starting out and trying to turn their practice into a business?

My method was not the most sensible, but I just went for it! Even when I was doing other jobs, I was always working on my illustration stuff on the side. I keep a lot of wisdom from Corita Kent with me (a nun and pop artist from the ‘60s): she famously said “The only rule is work. If you work it will lead to something. It’s the people who do all of the work all of the time who eventually catch onto things."

What was it like creating so many stunning pieces for VADvent 2020 one after the other?

A total pleasure! I was really touched to be trusted with this project, and I was immediately inspired by the concept of it. We came up with the idea of making a window for each day of advent which leaves a lot of scope for what those windows can include. As well as festive scenes, there are objects from V&A Dundee, nods to 2020 and even a hidden message! It’s been a treat seeing them pop up every morning and each one has been a joy to make.

Fingers holding a tiny paper cut out illustration of a window. Someone in the window is dusting a gingerbread house.
Fingers holding a tiny paper cut out illustration of a window. A wee lad is writing a letter.
Fingers holding a tiny paper cut out illustration of a window. A little girl is making paper snowflakes and decorating the window with them.
Fingers holding a tiny paper cut out illustration of a window. A menorah sits in the window.
  • A selection of our gorgeous VADvent 20 pieces, designed by Laura Sayers.

  • A selection of our gorgeous VADvent 20 pieces, designed by Laura Sayers.

  • A selection of our gorgeous VADvent 20 pieces, designed by Laura Sayers.

  • A selection of our gorgeous VADvent 20 pieces, designed by Laura Sayers.

Can you talk us through the thinking and process behind the VADvent 2020 project?

I make quite a lot of windows in my work and I've always loved the concept of seeing a glimpse of someone's world through a small square.

Sorry to get my book of quotes out again, but F. Scott Fitzgerald says in The Great Gatsby: “Yet high over the city our line of yellow windows must have contributed their share of human secrecy to the casual watcher in the darkening streets, and I was him too, looking up and wondering. I was within and without, simultaneously enchanted and repelled by the inexhaustible variety of life.” I think this plays into the project really nicely! It also connects to this year and the time we've spent inside.

I've often found myself staring out the window at all the tenements surrounding my flat, thinking about all the situations that are going on behind each pane of glass. It's a project that celebrates community, traditions and Scottish life in a setting that is quite mundane but no less interesting.