Updated: Jul 26, 2018
Luciana Frigerio has turned over three million pages. What’s more, she’s folded each one of them at least twice. She spends hours folding every day, turning pages in books into letters that become part of words like “Love,” “Inspire,” and “Magic.” Luciana is a book artist and to create her iconic work she follows “recipes” that she has created over the years, three-ring binders full of pages with arcane-looking columns of numbers that correspond to specific folds on a page. She always made them up as she went along, investing hundreds of hours learning and documenting the folds that produce specific letters, fonts and symbols. After years of practice, Luciana is fluid, fast, and precise – and she has now tried almost everything, though she admitted she has never folded a Helvetica “Q.”
Luciana works at a modest set up in her home Norwich, Vermont where she has workspaces in her living room, studio and basement. Her home-based arts business also boasts a pack-and-ship room and book storage chock full of titles organized by color and popular themes. Backpacker had the opportunity to catch up with Luciana as she worked to fulfill orders coming in from her Etsy store. Each time an order came in, we heard the satisfying “Ka-ching!” of her iPhone’s register app.
“Nowadays,” she told us as we settled in, “you can buy this sort of thing online,” referring to the stacks of recipe books at her side. Book art has exploded as a field, and with its popularity has come renewed interest in DIY projects. It isn’t hard nowadays to figure out book-folding, though it’s incredibly meticulous work that’s difficult to perfect. Luciana has the advantage of experience – she’s a pioneer of the form and has been doing this longer (and probably better) than most of her competition.
Why book-folding? The answer is surprisingly pragmatic. The first wedding anniversary is represented by paper, but few paper products in the anniversary market are beautiful, meaningful, and long-lasting. Luciana saw a niche to be filled, and pursued it relentlessly. She didn’t have any patterns to follow until she made them herself. But, she saw the right opportunity and went for it, all in.
Luciana got the idea for paper folding books in early 2012 an opened her Etsy store in June; she has since sold over 8,000 books through the online arts retail site. The most popular are her “Imagine” books that sell for about $160 online. A feature about her work appeared on the website MyModernMet.com, helping her work to go viral in 2013. And that explosion of interest officially launched her career as a book artist. With millions of views the orders began pouring in, 80 percent of them for first wedding anniversary gifts. Luciana found herself working 14 hour days, for weeks at a time.
“I basically put my kids through college folding paper,” Luciana mused without a hint of irony. “When I went viral, it was like nothing I’d ever experienced. It has given me a really good life.” This includes a licensing deal with Readers' Digest to do a "Fold Your Own" series; they in turn contracted with a Chinese company to mass produce the work. While the works sold well, the quality of finished folded product did not match that of the original works. Another example of the "dividends" of this work was her recent trip to Italy where she was the featured artist at a book show where the top spots are typically reserved for writers.
This is a pattern you’ll find in much of Luciana’s art, of which book-folding is the most commercially successful. It’s easy to see how such a good eye led her, early in her formation, into photography out of art school. She excelled at finding the right elements of a scene to frame and to capture, and understood how to modify these images into saying something new. Even though Luciana took to photography instantly, she had never tried it growing up; she fell into it when she took a mandatory course in art school. The rest she learned with the same meticulous persistence she brings to all her work.
After early success in commercial and fine art photography, she found her burgeoning reputation overly limiting. Living in New York City, it was all she was known for though she was thirsty for more. When her husband convinced her to move up to Vermont, the anonymity was liberating. She worked at a gallery and did freelance work, surprising everyone when she eventually submitted some of her own work in a group show.
During her early years in Vermont, Luciana moved away from her roots in photography, becoming attracted to, and eventually obsessed with, paper. Experiments in film and animation led her to collaborate with a friend to produce a series of “paper theater” pieces – highly detailed monochromatic set pieces that, photographed, simulate silhouette worlds – from New York to Paris, the hills of Vermont to ominous forest scenes. The effect is magical. When a friend showed these to another who worked at Disney, she landed a job animating a series of interstitials for a show. It was the income from this work that finally enabled Luciana to step back, take a six-month break and ask, “What is it that I really want to do? And what can I do that I can make a living from?”
In her work across all media, the idea of “the hunt” has been an important part of the process. Luciana is a collector, and a sense of play motivates her to manipulate materials in unusual ways until something sticks. Whether photographic stills, the arduous cutting of paper silhouettes, or establishing the exact lighting conditions for a shot, the search for appropriate materials, subject matter and conditions has been a driver of Luciana’s quest for detail bordering on perfection. Which has led her to the world of paper art, book folding, and now “book slices.”
Luciana’s art relies on finding objects and bringing out new meaning from them. Her house is cluttered with several different collections of books. Downstairs are the books for folding, upstairs are art-auction books and harlequin romances, in various states of wholeness. Right as we came in, she showed us an antique copy of “Smith’s Illustrated Astronomy” ca. 1876 that she had recently acquired, flipping through the beautifully designed star charts and letting us try and puzzle out handwritten notes on the inside covers. “Forget me not when I am dead,” one said, and though we didn’t know who the notes came from or to whom they were addressed, at least the book may remain in someone’s mind.
Currently, Luciana’s been experimenting with a combination of comic book illustrations and Renaissance reproductions, playing up the tension between the figures and technique. Though she has no personal connection to the stories themselves, the art and playful juxtapositions call to her. She attributes it to the use of archetypes. She pastes the simple and familiar cartoon characters and word-bubbles onto older art, letting them spryly interact. She’s been scanning the playing-card-sized results into her laptop and reproducing them on a variety of surfaces, from papers to metal, and at different sizes. Although she has the skills to make these collages in photoshop, she prefers not to.
Another project under way are her”Bezels,” pictures embedded in the shells of antique clocks, with little areas cut out to reveal text and key words, sometimes overlaid on other artwork. We got to look at a good dozen or more laid across the bed in guest room, another dozen in various states of completion in her studio. Some of these are purely joyful word play – a tiny flotilla of “thises” tethered like boats on strings to a towering maiden above a stormy horizon. Others are whimsical lines of romantic prose taken straight from the pages of a Harlequin paperback.
And then there are the “Book Slices”, pages of text redacted with an X-Acto knife, the remaining text often a single repeated word on the page while the gaps reveal an image beneath. Most of these works are also playful, with a hint of Victorian naughtiness and at least one which was a delighting stream of obscenities. It’s clear Luciana has fun with her art – the hunt, for her, is a playful act.
Despite the care evidenced in all of this work, Luciana told us she is not normally meticulous – and her cluttered workspaces did, on the surface, seem to contrast with her pinpoint craft. But she might underestimate the level of precise care that goes into every bit of her work. And while she considers the book-folding more of a craft than an art, she never does it half-heartedly. Perhaps the thing she lacks is pretentiousness – she clearly finds humor and fun in her art, and in that joyful process, materials are bound to spill out of their designated places into the rest of the house, and beating back the mess might be less of a priority. But from the methodical numbered patterns of her book art to the clean edges of her paper theaters, nothing escapes the years of thought, care, and a thoroughly perceptive eye that inform her practice.
In terms of work on the horizon, Luciana wants to find a way to reboot what she feels is an incomplete success of her paper theater projects. As we wrapped up our tour she showed us her new Glowforge scanner and laser cutter. “I’m having a lot of fun experimenting with this,” she said in the LED-illuminated half-light of her basement, “I want to push this, make some mistakes, and see what it can do.” This includes translating line drawings into paper-cut replicas and speeding up the delivery time for intricately patterned sets. And while the laser cutter has its drawbacks (“Its too precise, it loses the ‘soul’ of work where the hand leaves its trace”), she sounds really optimistic about the prospects. And why not – after all, she’s brought magic to all her other works in paper. Indeed, the best is yet to come!
Learn more about Luciana and her work at lfpaperworks.com
Shop book art and more at Luciana's Etsy shop
Catch Luciana in person at her upcoming show at the Kent Museum in Calais