Paper House Portraits: A Story of Beginning

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A little over a year ago, August 2017, some friends asked me for some ideas for a special gift they wanted to give. Their old church was closing down, and they wanted something special to give to the pastor to remember and celebrate the community and the building. I totally winged it, found paper approximately the right color, and made this 3D paper construction that would fit inside of an off-the-shelf shadow box frame.

Custom Architectural Portrait: Church in Washington, DC

Then I spent the rest of the summer and fall moving, and the winter doing as many holiday markets as I possibly could!

As I recovered from that season, taking some time to rest and review and dream at the beginning of 2018, I thought back to that little paper church and wondered if that would be something with a broader appeal and market.

I first created a version of my own house, to test out the process, and put it out on Instagram to see what my online friends thought:

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It was pretty well-received, so I listed a trial run of 5 houses for $50 each in my Etsy shop, and figured that given the overwhelmingly positive response, they would sell pretty quickly. Three of the five sold in the first few days, and then, maybe because I stopped talking about them for a while because I was busy working on them, the last two orders took a while to come in. Since then I’ve sold a few at what I’m calling my normal price for now, $150, as well as some special commissions with colors and other details that for now I’m quoting on a case-by-case basis.

This has been such a fascinating process. It’s such a different kind of work – more like the graphic design work I used to do, where I’m working directly with another human being to make something that they hopefully find beautiful and meaningful – unlike my product design work where it often feels like I’m making things, throwing them blindly into the world, and hoping the right person comes along and buys them! I’m still processing that, and feeling out what this change means for me and how I work and how yeiou exists in the world.

Heading into the holiday season, I’m feeling a little uneasy about the new breadth of my body of work – I’ve also added one-of-a-kind framed paper pieces to my repertoire. They are a lower price point than my custom house portraits, and help me build my skills and invent new techniques for rendering architectural details in paper…and I think they’re quite beautiful, too! But they’re another “thing” that I do, and it’s all quite hard to explain to random people I meet without pulling out my phone to show pictures!

At in-person events these additions feel risky to me, because I’m still figuring out how to tell a cohesive story about my full range of work. In the past, the story my display told was about creativity and the therapeutic qualities and infinite possibilities of crafting. It was all “yay” banners and bright colors. Now, my display is still mostly fun and colorful and enthusiastic, but there are also a few one-of-a-kind pieces that tend to be mostly white-on-white and about details and subtlety, as well as information about custom house portrait orders! It’s a lot to process, and I realize that, and I’m just going to go forward with the faith that I will figure it out eventually.

Anyway, because I wanted to see them all together, and maybe you do, too, here are all of the house portraits I’ve completed so far, in the order they were created:

Windows: A riff on Victorian-era architecture

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I’ve been obsessed with houses and architecture since I was a child, always staring out the car/bus/train/plane window, paying attention to what the buildings look like where ever I go. I never actually studied architecture, though, so it just became an observational past time. When Brian and I moved to the east coast about 10 years ago, it was pretty mind blowing to suddenly be surrounded by historic homes and buildings, some of which pre-date the formation of the United States. Extra mind-blowing, there are buildings from that era that are used for things like housing college freshmen! Anyway, I love looking at buildings. When I started working on my paper house portraits earlier this year, I began by focusing on the big picture, figuring out perspective, and making sure the house ends up being the right shape—I added some details here and there, but it was mostly about the shape/form of the house and the dramatic shadows for the windows and other cut-out elements. With each piece I created, though, I found myself adding more and more little details, and wishing I could add even more! But when you’re trying to create a whole house in an 8×10″ or even 11×14″ space, there’s only so much detail you can add with bits of paper! As I’ve been observing all of the different architectural styles in my neighborhood and on trips this summer, I realized that one area where buildings really show their character is in their windows, so I decided I would experiment with creating pieces that show a window and really hone in on all the details. My long term plan is that by making larger versions of architectural details, I’ll be able to make them more detailed when they’re smaller as part of a paper house portrait, too. I began by researching Victorian era window styles*, and collected inspiration images from real windows as well as doll house window designs. Once I had my reference material, I designed the basic elements to create the multi-paned window, the moulding around the window frame and up the sides, and the decorative pieces above and below the window. I’ve been using those same building block pieces, and then adding additional pieces or modifying pieces, to create a series of Victorian-inspired paper windows. *To be clear, by “research” I mean I did a Google image search and collected some of the images that popped up with that search. I try to keep one or two of these in my Etsy shop, but since they’re all one-of-a-kind that can be a little tricky as we approach the end of the year. If you’re interested in a window and there’s nothing in my shop, email me and I will let you know what I have in stock, or make one special for you!