When Sarah Illenberger picks up the phone, the first thing she does is apologize: There’s a loud, repetitive popping noise going off in the background of her Berlin studio, which turns out to be the firing of a staple gun. She doesn’t say what her assistants are constructing with the staples, but judging from her past illustration work, it’s likely they’ll be built up by the thousands onto a substrate until their glinting mass reveals some kind of representational image — a skyscraper, maybe, or a ball of tinfoil. Almost all of Illenberger’s work involves using handicraft to manipulate one thing into looking like something else entirely, and almost all of it entails such a meticulous construction process that there’s no time to silence it for interviews.
These explorations started when Illenberger was only seven. While most kids were buying Halloween costumes that came prepackaged in plastic bags, she made herself an entire outfit out of newspaper. “I didn’t have any house shoes,” she says, “so I made them from a magazine.” Both jewelers by trade, her parents had given their young daughter a workbench so she could experiment with the family craft, but for her, materials like paper felt more normal, more everyday. Except for a brief phase later on when she wanted to be an astronaut — thanks to the movie Space Camp — she would carry those impulses with her all the way through an education in graphic design at London’s Central Saint Martins, where she discovered her talent for 3-D illustration. “I never felt I could really express myself well on a computer,” she says, so paper and styrofoam and staples it would be.
And lettuce and yarn and pearls, too. As a freelancer working for the likes of Neon, Vanity Fair, Time, and The New York Times Magazine — for whom she recently illustrated 2009’s “Year In Ideas” cover story — Illenberger is constantly experimenting with different materials and construction methods. Most of them she executes on her own, and the ones she feels less skilled at, like embroidery, she farms out to an anonymous “grandma” with a lot of time on her hands. Here is a sampling of her favorites.