Interview: Jonathan Chapman of Mr Yen

by Grace Bonney

I’m so excited to start the day with one of my favorite artists specializing in paper cutting. Jonathan Chapman, otherwise known as Mr Yen, has been creating beautiful paper cut designs for the past four years. He shared his early projects with me via email, and I was instantly taken with his style and how incredibly polite and friendly he was over email (that goes far in my book). I’ve been following his work for a while now, and when I realized we’d be doing a paper day this month, he was the first person I wanted to interview. Whether he’s creating something custom for Oprah’s magazine or doing personal commissions online, Jonathan is always creating paper art that feels personal, sweet and special. I’m so excited to have his interview on the site today. Thanks so much, Jonathan, for joining us! xo, grace

The full interview (and a peek inside Jonathan’s studio) continues after the jump . . .

Name: Mr Yen . . . also known as Jonathan Chapman
Occupation: Paper cut artist and designer
Years in the business: I have been a papercut artist and designer for four years now.

Design*Sponge: I’m always intrigued to see how someone’s hometown (or adopted hometown) affects their style or influences. How does your home base shape who you are and what you do?

Jonathan Chapman: To be honest, I don’t really think my hometown has had that much of an effect on me. With the majority of clients and people I work with being based in either the USA or Australia, I don’t really feel that my adopted hometown has had an influence on my style. If it has had any influence on me, I would say it did so whilst I was at University in my hometown. I think being around so many other creative, like-minded people was a great experience, and since finishing University, I’ve seen several creative endeavors flourish that would normally be reserved for the likes of larger cities. I think that the work being done by Leeds Fashion Show and Duke Studios (a multidisciplinary creative space in the heart of Leeds) is great, as this kind of thing is usually only seen in big cities like London or Manchester, but I feel the time has come for Leeds to shine!

D*S: How did you get into working with paper, and how did you learn?

JC: I started to experiment with paper in University. I’ve always had an affinity for materials and textures, plus I love the creative possibilities a single sheet of paper can have. The combination of these two loves led me to stumbling upon paper cut art. When I first came across this delicate craft, I instantly knew it would be something that I would want to get deeply involved with and so began my love affair with paper cuts!

I learned to paper cut through trial and error, patience and practice. I would endlessly experiment with one design and tweak and change little sections to see the effect it would have, and I would do this over and over until I developed my own little methods of paper cutting. The one thing that I had a problem with when I started paper cutting was the time it took me to create a single design. My very first design was quite simple (looking back now), but it took me at least two days to complete. Thankfully these days, I can get things done much quicker!

D*S: How would you describe your work?

JC: Inspired by nature, cut by hand! It’s the phrase I use on my website, my shop and my business card, and I feel it describes what I do best and what I love about paper cuts. I would describe what I do as a love of technique and my subject. I find nature endlessly fascinating, and I love finding out new information about the plants and flowers that I illustrate and cut — from the myths and folklore to facts and figures, it all plays a part in the development of my technique and process.

D*S: What was the first piece you made, and was it made for anyone in particular?

JC: The first paper cut piece I made was a design inspired by the fairytale Hansel & Gretel. This piece was hand illustrated and hand cut, then photographed to be part of a series of postcards. It was created as part of a University brief, and it was one of the very first things I listed for sale in my Etsy shop. The very first paper cut piece I sold was a greeting card design that I called “Paper Mountains,” and it was made up of layer upon layer of white triangles that overlapped each other and created a subtly textured pattern.

D*S: What are your work room essentials? What sort of creative objects and/or work tools can you not live without?

JC: The work tools I always need and use are a scalpel, pencil, paper and blades. With these minimal tools I have what I need to create; everything else just makes the process easier — oh and a comfortable chair is important, too!

As I initially hand draw all my designs then digitize them using a MacBook, a computer is always handy, but it can sometimes be quite the distraction. The work tools/objects I don’t need but like having around are things like plants or flowers (for inspiration and unplanned photo shoots), physical pin boards (to keep notes and ideas organized) and my French bulldog, Toby, for company!

D*S: What sorts of things (or artists) are inspiring you right now? Where do you typically look for inspiration?

JC: I’m currently looking for a new house, so my mind is on everything interiors at the moment. When I’m typically looking for inspiration for work, my first stop is to visit blogs that I’ve bookmarked over the years. I find blogs (and now Pinterest) to be great for visuals, which spark ideas and get my mind thinking about the possibilities that can be created. My next stop is the bookshelf where I enjoy looking through books focused on Japanese packaging designs, hand-drawn typography, factual botanical books and several books on graphic design.

If I had to list five things that are inspiring me right now, I would say 1960s furniture — I have my eye on a round teak coffee table with brass tipped legs (on eBay), pink peonies (the colours and the texture), grey painted interiors, paneled interior walls and gold metallic balloons.

D*S: When do you feel the most creative or inspired?

JC: I feel the most inspired when I notice the seasons changing. It’s one of those moments that you can miss if you don’t keep an eye out for it, as it’s that in-between time when you can start to notice flowers, plants and trees changing. I find this most inspirational as it signals change, which I always enjoy. One of my favorite quotes is “The only constant is change,” and this reminds me to always be thinking about the next step and my next move (both in life and in business).

D*S: What do you do to keep yourself, your space and your time organized?

JC: To keep myself and my time organized, I keep a diary with my daily list of emails and things that need to be done, I use iCal on both my Mac and my iPad to keep track of deadlines and recurring business things (like dates to send out the Mr Yen newsletter or when to publish a new blog post), but when it comes to keeping my space organized, that’s a different story! The very nature of paper cut work is messy, and if I’m halfway through a wholesale order or in the middle of experimenting with new designs, for example, there will be paper scraps everywhere, mock paper cut designs lying around and offcuts pinned to my notice board. Sometimes I do find it difficult to throw away my paper cut offcuts, and I usually keep a few around for a while and then file them away for future reference. The only time my studio is neat and organized is if there are photos to be taken or once I’ve finished a new design and it’s time to clean the mess to start again on another design or order.

D*S: How do you combat creative blocks?

JC: I’m not shy to admit that I have had my fair share of creative blocks, but I think this is a good thing. The more often I get a creative block, the quicker I can forge my way through it, and every time it has happened in the past, I’ve noticed what triggered it and how I made it through to the other side. For me, I need to absorb then distract . . . and by this I mean that if I have a creative block, the best thing for me to do is research, focus and learn all I can about my topic or idea and then keep my mind busy and forget about it for a while. I find that this usually helps me, as I’m not trying to concentrate so hard on something that is often right in front of me. Oh, and if you’re curious, the way that I distract myself is usually by cleaning, taking a shower or a bath (I really do believe that running water helps for some reason) and starting to take a nap. I say only starting to take a nap as it’s usually just at the point before I fall asleep that I will get an idea and rush to find a notepad and pen!

D*S: What is next for you with your work? What can we look forward to from Mr Yen?

JC: I recently created some paper-cut designs for an editorial piece in the February issue of Oprah’s magazine, which has opened up a whole new avenue of work for me that I am really enjoying. I have been on the lookout now for more editorial work, and I have some 3D papercut animals that are going to be featured in the April issue of House & Garden magazine (due out this week!). Another area I would love to make a start on this year is a small selection of wedding stationery and greeting cards, with more window display designs and a few large scale projects, too. I’m always thinking big and planning ahead!

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  • Yep! Close to the heart indeed! Paper cutting and the artist.
    And yes, his e-mail replies are the most most politest and kindest ever! :)
    Oh! I love his work!
    And man, his work-space’s is dream-worthy!

  • What a nice guy! Lovely to hear about him and his work. I too have an obsession with cutting shapes out of paper with a craft knife. I find it very soothing to make papercut artworks as well as cutting stencils which I use to create pattern in my portrait paintings.

  • Hi Grace,

    Once again I would like to encourage you and your readers to look at Laura Carraro’s cut paper collage. She has an opening of new work next Friday in Tarrytown. You can see her work at lauracarraro.com. Her work will be hanging at W@tercooler for April and May.

  • Oh dear, I realize that I didn’t acknowledge Jonathan’s work which is truly beautiful and crazy cool with detail. I have been enjoying it ever since you first brought it to our attention. At least I think it was designsponge that first brought him to my attention. I enjoyed all of today’s posts!


  • I love paper art, especially stationery and printing, but this paper cutting is fascinating to me! I never really thought to look much into it, but now I’m finding all sorts of beautiful things with a quick Google search. Thanks for bringing this to light :)

  • My friend Lou Taylor based in Brighton UK has some beautiful paper cut work and recently did our biog portraits for our creative agency lucky fox , they will feature on our new site this spring , in the meantime you can view her website at : http://www.lou-Taylor.co.uk her bathing capped ladies are beautiful !

  • Jonathan’s work is fantastic beautiful to look at and he puts a lot of effort into it.