2: Paper Lights!

2: Paper Lights!

My family used to drive from Texas to New Mexico where we’d live for months at a time, while my father did research in Los Alamos. I remember my parents getting us up in the wee hours (2 or 3am) to begin the long trip so that we kids would sleep through a good part of it. I loved watching the lights on the side of the road as we started our journey, as I fell back to sleep to the lull of the car’s engine. Sometimes I’d wake as we drove through a big city, which was exciting, since our small town didn’t have many lights.
We spent a few Christmas seasons in New Mexico, and I fell in love with the luminaria (brown paper bags illuminated with tea lights) which were used to adorn rooftops and driveways throughout the region.
Many years later, I designed my first paper product, which I also called a luminaria. I incorporated watermarking, a hand papermaking technique which makes the paper thin in certain areas.

Obama luminaria, by Helen Hiebert

Obama luminaria, by Helen Hiebert

Another interest in paper and light was sparked during a trip to Japan in the late 1980’s, shortly after I’d moved to NYC. I stayed in a traditional Japanese Inn with lots of shoji screens, and I admired the way those paper screens filtered the light.
Japanese Tea Room, Oakland Space

Japanese Tea Room, Oakland Space

I returned home to NYC inspired and (long story short) found my way to Dieu Donné Papermill , where I ended up working for six years. During that time, I made a set of shoji screens (following the instructions in Jay Van Arsdale’s book, Shoji: How to Design, Build and Install Japanese Screens). The woodworking took so much longer than the papermaking, and I decided to hire experts to do the things I wasn’t an proficient at in the future. Below is a picture of another shoji prototype I made (I’ve always wondered why nobody broke the tradition of rectangular panels in shoji screens – can anyone prove me wrong?).
Helen's insanely labor intensive shoji panel

Helen’s insanely labor intensive shoji panel backed with abaca + onion skin paper

While working at Dieu Donné, I was approached by a publisher about writing a book about paper lamps. I’d been teaching myself how to make various lamp and lantern structures, because I realized that I needed a specialty in the paper world. I ended up writing Paper Illuminated for Storey Books a few years later (another long story made very short), and I currently teach how to make lamp and lantern workshops around the country.
One of my favorite places in the world is the Noguchi Museum in Long Island City. I used to lead bicycle trips over there when I lived in NYC, and the museum is practically across the street from Socrates Sculpture Park, another gem. Isamu Noguchi is better known for his stone sculptures, but he was a multi-talented designer and created Akari Light Sculptures. Designed by Noguchi beginning in 1951 and handmade for a half century by the original manufacturer in Gifu, Japan, the paper lanterns are a harmonious blend of Japanese handcraft and modernist form. They also collapse flat for easy transportation and storage.
Akari Lights, by Isamu Noguchi

Akari Lights, by Isamu Noguchi

There are many artists whose work features illuminated paper, and Kyoko Ibe of Japan is one of my favorite. She recently produced a performance piece, Recycling: Washi Tales, which brings to life in performance the human stories contained in a sheet of “washi” (Japanese handmade paper) as it is recycled through time.
Recycling: Washi Tales, by Kyoko Ibe

Recycling: Washi Tales, by Kyoko Ibe

Susan Hersey of Petaluma, CA makes beautiful illuminated sculptures utilizing paper.
Illuminated Paper Structures to be, by Susan Hersey

Illuminated Paper Structures to be, by Susan Hersey

And one of my favorite lamp designers has a shop in Portland, Oregon called HiiH Gallery.
HiiH Lights

HiiH Lights


I have a pinterest board featuring paper lights. Please share your lights and the work of lighting designers with me by sending me an e-mail or leaving a comment below.
Well friends, I have thoroughly enjoyed curating this 25 Days of Paper for you, and I have much more to share. I’ll keep blogging weekly (instead of daily), so stay tuned! Tomorrow’s post will be short and sweet: a holiday giveaway will be announced!
May your holidays be filled with …. light!
About the 25 Days of Paper: In celebration fo the publication of my new book, Playing With Paper (in stores January 1, 2013) I’m going to be a crazy blogger in December, featuring cool paper products, projects, blogs, books, or papers each day. Join in the fun by reading along! I’ll also post links on my FaceBook page. Enjoy the season!


  1. Thank you, Helen ….
    I have loved, LOVED! every post, each one as juicy, creative, inspiring and informative as the last. Each one an outpouring of your heart and soul.
    Thank you!
    Merry Colorado Christmas, and the happiest new year to you and your family.

  2. Susan Kipp says:

    These paper lights are incredible. I can’t even imagine creating one! Thank you for the posts you sent every day this month. Each one was a gift.

  3. Mary C. Leto says:

    Dear Helen
    What a lovely Christmas gift all your posts have been… cant wait to get the newest each morning…impossible to thank you enough for such a generous sharing of your time and knowledge. I used my Obama luminaria quite often this past year ! Just love it. While looking for interesting photos (just this week) to use for covers for little handmade pocket notebooks I found my pictures taken at the Noguchi Museum – what a coincidence ! ..I think I owe you one.
    You’ve enriched my life, so glad to know you. All my best for the Merriest Christmas ever to you and your family..and much success in your new home,

  4. this “intensive” has been very enjoyable, helen, and a huge commitment. (but perhaps not for one who made the non-rectangular shogi panel). thank you for it all.

  5. Claudia says:

    How great to have shared your light each day as the days grew darker! Now we go toward the light! Thank you for those scrumptous posts about paper!!!!

  6. Linda K. Fendley says:

    Love these. I so want to design a lamp shade.