Paper Typographer Sabeena Karnik is Building a World with Her Hands, One Strip at a Time

Posted inTypography

How the hell did she do that? 

This is the first thought that popped into my brain when I first came upon one of Sabeena Karnik’s paper letters— and I know I’m far from alone in this reaction. Karnik is a paper typographer who uses meticulously sliced pieces of colorful paper to construct letters, words, and phrases by hand. Her mastery of paper makes her handcraft dynamic and tactical, and her use of bright color further elevates the typography with a joyful flair.

Karnik answered a few of my questions below, and while she’s provided some helpful insights into her practice, I’m still left wondering: How the hell did she do that?

What’s your art background? How have you honed your meticulous skills and craft?

I studied applied art with a typography major in Mumbai, India. I was introduced to many different kinds of art in my art college years, but I loved handcraft much more than using design software. While working as a freelancer for a few years designing logos and brochures for clients, I was exploring other mediums on the side because I was always more drawn toward creating art using hand skills.

When did you first start combining your love of paper with your love of typography in what eventually became your signature style?

In 2011, I decided to experiment with paper and type in an effort to do something fun— I wanted to bring about a change in the monotonous work I was doing. I started creating each letter of the alphabet using strips of paper and uploading photos of them to my web portfolio just for kicks. Little did I know that this would catch the attention of advertising agencies, and land me a few jobs even before the alphabet series was complete. That’s how my professional journey with paper type began— it was purely by accident.

From where do you typically derive inspiration for your work? Are there other artists, aesthetics, or places that you find especially influential?  

I’m always inspired by how light falls onto objects, and the shadow it produces. Nature is always so inspiring too. Bright colors, architecture, textures, lines, and forms in nature are the things I love observing, and what I try applying to my work.

What are the main tools that you use to create your designs?

Lots of papers of different kinds, a cutting knife, glue, and some other basic tools like a cocktail stick to shape the paper strips.

What is it about paper as a medium that you find so inspiring?

I absolutely love the fact that paper is so versatile and can be molded, cut, and shaped any way you like. There are endless possibilities to what you can do to make it more and more interesting with every artwork. The more you play around with it, the more exciting the outcome always is.

The 3D aspect of paper is the most inspiring to me. The play of shadow and light, the reflections cast on a white base, how every angle produces a different visual— it’s all super thrilling. 

What experience do you hope viewers of your work have when looking at your pieces?

I always want the viewer to feel shocked, surprised, happy, and full of wonder when they see my work. They must stop and think about how it could be done, and feel joyous and uplifted when they see the colors and movement in the piece.

Is there a project of yours that you’re most proud of?

There are so many projects that make me proud of what I do. The one that was the most challenging, but had the most rewarding outcome was the Google Doodle I created for India’s Independence Day in 2017. I worked with the art director of Google Doodles to create a design that appealed to so many people, and some were even able to guess it was created by me just by seeing the style of the Doodle. That’s definitely been the high point of my career.