In designer Sourabh Gupta’s studio, in a nondescript building in East Harlem, flowers bloom on almost every surface. Towers of hollyhocks enliven a corner with their showy bright pink and white blooms. On a nearby shelf, pale lady’s slippers, Carolina roses and strawberry buds spring from terracotta pots. Gupta moves slowly to tend to her nursery – not with secateurs and trowels, but with tweezers and a magnifying glass. Only up close is it clear that these perennials are all paper, incredibly lifelike down to every delicate pistil and stamen.
Since moving into this apartment several months ago, Gupta has maintained his paper garden in a room of just 120 square feet. But he is used to seeing beyond the constraints of his situation. 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 whimsical paintings and sculptures with whatever materials he could find. Now, at 29, Gupta is turning her ingenuity into a fledgling design practice, and her paper flora has captured the attention of the fashion and design worlds. In May, her work graced the steps of the Metropolitan Museum of Art as an embellishment for fashion designer Tory Burch’s dress at the Costume Institute’s annual gala. Beyond creating plants for a number of private clients, Gupta is also integrating his fledgling art, architecture and design studio.
That Gupta is able to use paper to carve out a creative niche is no surprise. He is used to improvising alone. “Where I grew up, if you wanted something, you had to do 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 of a receipt book. It was all in the mind of jugaad, which in Hindi basically means “smart solution”. “It’s a concept in India that people make things work out one way or another,” says Gupta. “It’s so deep in our blood that we don’t see a dead end anywhere. All my life, that’s how I worked.
Gupta studied architecture in India before a scholarship from the Parsons School of Design brought her to New York. But after a year in the interior design program, he dropped out due to financial reasons. It was a visit to the Costume Institute’s Comme des Garçons 2017 exhibition – where he imbibed designer Rei Kawakubo’s sculptural floral dresses – that inspired Gupta to turn to paper flowers again, as a hobby. When he posted some of his flowers on Instagram, requests poured in from people like decorator and landscaper Brian Sawyer, who ordered paper versions of the plants in his Bellport, NY garden. Then this spring, Tory Burch’s studio came calling. In fact, the designer was considering a floral pattern for her dress for the Met this year gala, which celebrated fashionable camp. After several weeks of creative back-and-forth, Burch settled on his concept: hundreds of paper daisies, to be hand-sewn onto a tiered white crystal organza dress. With days to go, Gupta set to work making 320 flowers, each less than an inch in diameter, with individual white florets hand-cut and glued to each central disc. “I haven’t slept for three days,” Gupta said.
While the art of paper flower making is centuries old, with vibrant histories in China and Mexico, Gupta draws from no particular tradition. Instead, he adds his own jugaad turn on each flower. Stems can be made from paper towels; the carpels are made from toilet paper. For her first samples for Burch, Gupta created the daisy centers by wrapping paper around things like balled-up pieces of bread or makeup sponges before producing tiny, curved clay molds to shape paper disks. When Gupta is finally satisfied, he hand-dyes each flower with Chefmaster Liqua-Gel food coloring, which he says gives the petals the most realistic hues.
For now, Gupta is focusing exclusively on her paper flowers. He is working on a collection of plants native to New York State for display 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, pointing to a portfolio from his student days, filled with images of roughly hewn baskets, vases and urns in muted tones of moss. , lichen and blush. “I always want to.”