The Making Of
Sarah Illenberger’s 3-D Illustrations

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.

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For this hamburger made of wood, leaves, and treebark, Illenberger worked with a woodcutter, who turned the bun on a lathe. The brief was to comment somehow on an environmental topic. "My idea was to bring up the issue of McDonalds deforesting South America," she says, though she is not, in fact, a vegetarian. "I would have preferred to use wood from South America, but it was too difficult, so I had to use German wood instead."

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As impressive as this spread is, Illenberger's so old hat at paper sculpting that it took her only one day's work to make — many of her projects take several. A Canadian airline magazine asked her to capture the perfectionism involved in making a perfect chili con carne: 90 ingredients, cooked over 24 hours. "Getting the onions and tomatos round was the hardest part," she says.

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This head of lettuce for an eco-clothing ad was sewn together by hand in order to hold its wrinkles perfectly in place. The idea was to show that food isn't the only thing worth buying organic. It took two days to make, minus all the preparation. "I do tend to do things quickly, but sometimes I have to do them two or three times to get them right," Illenberger says.

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Embroidery is something Illenberger prefers to pass off to the "grandma" who works for her from time to time. "If a project gets complicated I prefer to hire other people to do elements of it for me," she says. "It's more professional."

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Though Illenberger does know how to knit, this heart was also ultimately made by granny. Illenberger chose the wool and made the sketch, then added the woven-thread veins on at the end. Meant to accompany an article about the softening and inactivity of contemporary society, the yarn heart — which was shown in a series with a brain and lungs — wasn't her first idea. "I think it was cotton candy," she says.

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"I like using food as something completely normal, as I would any other material," says Illenberger, and it is what she's come to be known for. But food does present its own problems — this dress made from chickenwire and vegetables had to be constructed and shot very quickly. "After an hour it already looked really shitty."

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Illenberger's preferred way of working with food poses challenges, too. "Sometimes it works, but I had an experience once of people coming to a magazine shoot and thinking what I'd made looked disgusting," she says. "It's because it wasn't finished with the sprays some food stylists use. I like to work with food very naturally, without things like sprays."

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For this magazine shoot about household products, Illenberger got to raid a department store and use anything she found there to sculpt a series of abstract Duchampian robots. Two toasters, three Kitchenaids, a coffeemaker, a pair of tongs. "I like surprises," she says. "When people are so used to one thing and it suddenly changes completely. In German you say entfremden, which is something strange, taken out of its normal ordinary context."

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Illenberger has a studio packed with strange tools, including a cutting machine for styrofoam that employs a hot wire to slice out various shapes. She uses styrofoam when she wants more visual weight than a setup made from paper, which appears lighter on the page. This composition is an (inaccurate) 3-D bar graph representing the symbols of various world religions, including Scientology on the lower right.

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This project, made on a pearl-weaving loom, was designed for a German magazine issue about organization and systems. It depicts the seating chart of the Munich Opera House, the pearls representing people. It's an homage to Illenberger's jewelry-making parents — and ex-boyfriend, with whom she attempted a short-lived jewelry label a few years back. "I guess I'm still inspired by that in a way," she says.