In the designer Sourabh Gupta’s studio, in a nondescript apartment building in East Harlem, flowers bloom on nearly every surface. Towers of hollyhock animate one corner with their showy hot-pink-and-white blossoms. On a nearby bookshelf, pale lady’s slippers, Carolina roses and strawberry buds spring from earthenware pots. Gupta moves about gently tending to his nursery — not with pruning shears and trowels, but with tweezers and a magnifying glass. Only up close is it clear that these perennials are all made of paper, stunningly lifelike down to each delicate pistil and stamen.
Since moving to this apartment several months ago, Gupta has been nurturing his paper garden in a room of only 120 square feet. But he is used to seeing beyond the constraints of his circumstances. When he was growing up in a small village in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir, Gupta says, his family of five lived in a windowless room no bigger than this studio. Even then, he created obsessively, making fanciful paintings and sculptures with whatever materials he could find. Now, at 29, Gupta is parlaying his resourcefulness into a fledgling design practice, and his paper flora have caught the attention of the worlds of fashion and design. In May, his work ascended the steps of the Metropolitan Museum of Art as embellishment on the fashion designer Tory Burch’s gown at the Costume Institute’s annual gala. Beyond creating botanicals for a number of private clients, Gupta is also in the process of incorporating his young art, architecture and design studio.
It took Gupta 25 tries to achieve the correct petal shape for his lady’s slippers.
That Gupta is able to use paper to carve out a creative niche for himself is no surprise. He is accustomed to improvising on his own. “Where I grew up, if you wanted something, you had to make it yourself,” he says. At age 9, he created his first paper flowers to decorate his Catholic school and church, crimping and folding the thin yellow sheets from a booklet of receipts. It was all in the spirit of jugaad, which in Hindi means, roughly, a “clever fix.” “It’s a concept in India that people just somehow make things work,” Gupta explains. “It’s so profoundly within our blood that we don’t see a dead end anywhere. All my life, that’s how I’ve worked.”
Gupta studied architecture in India before a scholarship from Parsons School of Design landed him in New York. But after one year in the interior design program, he dropped out for financial reasons. It was a visit to the Costume Institute’s 2017 Comme des Garçons exhibition — where he soaked up the designer Rei Kawakubo’s sculptural, floral-patterned dresses — that inspired Gupta to turn his attention to paper flowers again, as a hobby. When he posted some of his blooms on Instagram, inquiries flowed in from people like the interior and landscape designer Brian Sawyer, who commissioned paper versions of the plants in his Bellport, N.Y., garden. Then this spring, Tory Burch’s studio came calling. As it happened, the designer was considering a floral motif for her dress for this year’s Met gala, which celebrated camp in fashion. After several weeks of creative back-and-forth, Burch settled on her concept: hundreds of paper daisies, to be hand-sewn onto a white tiered crystal organza gown. With just days to go, Gupta got to work making 320 flowers, each less than an inch in diameter, with individual white ray florets hand-cut and glued to each centre disc. “I didn’t sleep for three days,” Gupta says.
Gupta fashions a sprig of wild strawberry flowers at the wooden picnic table where he often works.
Gupta improvises with various materials, including paper towels and food colouring, to create flowers like these Icelandic poppies.
While the art of paper-flower-making is centuries old, with vibrant histories in China and Mexico, Gupta does not tap into any particular tradition. Instead, he adds his own jugaad spin on each flower. Stems might be fashioned from paper towels; carpels are made from toilet paper. For his early samples for Burch, Gupta made the daisy centres by wrapping paper around things like balled-up bits of bread or makeup sponges before producing tiny curved moulds out of clay to shape paper discs. When Gupta is finally satisfied, he tints each bloom by hand with Chefmaster Liqua-Gel food colouring, which he says gives petals the most realistic hues.
For now, Gupta is focusing exclusively on his paper flowers. He is working on a collection of plants native to New York State for a show at the Bolton Historical Museum near Lake George and wants to continue making trims and embellishments for fashion houses. But he intends to return to a more holistic creative practice when he has more space. “For me, the whole thing is that I have to create something,” he says, gesturing to a portfolio from his student days, filled with images of rough-hewn baskets, vases and urns in subdued tones of moss, lichen and blush. “I always have the urge.”
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