Paul Wells: The Art of Curved Score Folding

It started with a fortune cookie. Paul was teaching silversmithing at a London college when an undergraduate asked him for some technical help with making a fortune cookie shape, as he describes: “Caste moulding would be too heavy and solid for the shape so I managed to design a score configuration which would allow a circle to be folded into the correct form, and that’s when I really saw the potential for using curved scores for all types of fabrication and how scores could help to shape form in ways that weren’t easily done by other methods.”

This is something silversmith Paul Wells has been developing for over 25 years through a technique called Curved Score Folding. As Paul says: “Curved Score Folding is a radical technique which harnesses the transformative powers of curved scores and how they affect sheet metal to create dynamic three-dimensional forms, much like metal origami.” The properties of silver actually lend it to being considerably more versatile than paper, which mean “many more possibilities for the exploration of different forms”.

“Perhaps the simplest way to imagine it,” Paul says, describing the technique, “is if you imagine a curved line scored into a piece of paper – when folded along the score the paper begins to pull itself around in order for the curve to tighten. The malleability and solidity of silver means the metal can act as a more experimental medium – although, there is still little room for error. To help circumvent this and in the tradition of origami, paper models are first made to evaluate the feasibility of each score and fold; a prototype is then made in copper before work is finalised in silver.

Paul Wells, Innoxia Silver Bowl

“There’s something about the way the metal moves around the scores, pulling itself into comfortable fluid forms, that naturally suits biomorphic designs.

The versatility of the technique amounts to an evolutionary leap when it comes to making shapes and patterns that nature has taken aeons to perfect. When describing the fluid nature of his work, Paul says that it’s no chance his work has been influenced by Art Nouveau, expressed in the living geometric curves of score folding, which allow for the creation of endless silver lifeforms. The Met Museum traces some of the origins of Art Nouveau to the study of natural history and illustrations of nature from naturalists such as German biologist Ernst Heinrich Haeckel, famous for his elaborate lithographic and halftone prints of deep-sea life in his 1904 book Kunstformen der Natur (Artforms of Nature).

Ernst Heinrich Haeckel, Kunstformen der Natur, 1904

Study the work of Paul Wells and these lifeforms resolve themselves into metal – even the making process has a kind of developmental, organic language:  “This technique gives the pieces a unique aesthetic, often giving an impression of an object which has evolved or grown into itself, or of an artefact that appears to have always existed in this form. There’s something about the way the metal moves around the scores, pulling itself into comfortable fluid forms, that naturally suits biomorphic designs.” It is ideal to replicate the structures of flowers and insects as well as aquatic life, after all, natural processes must adhere to the same universal laws, even the silversmith isn’t exempt.

Paul Wells, Crescent Curl Earrings

His ‘Solanum Dish’ in Britannia silver and ‘Crescent Curl’ earrings are examples of how score folding has allowed the creation of these forms. But as to be expected, it’s not just the technique Paul has had to innovate with. He uses a planishing press to finely shape and smooth the metal, but has had to ensure this tool was given the same amount of attention and care and the finished piece: “I spent quite a while polishing the steel plates of the planishing press to a mirror finish so that the score lines are stamped perfectly without leaving any other marks in the metal. For the time it took, I think that makes my press customised!”

Paul Wells, Solanum Silver Dish

The score lines Paul refers to are used to imprint the curved lines in the sheet and are made from stainless steel wire. For the Solanum Dish, “the design required one wire design for the front, and one for the reverse. The wires were secured into position one at a time and stamped in the planishing press to create an impression in the sheet.” The 2D sheet is then turned into a 3D piece by hand without the use of hammers or mallets, ready for forming, “which is harder work and needed a wooden burnisher to help move the metal.” The mastery of this technique has given Paul a door into the mechanics of natural geometry, that otherwise may have remained shut. Reverse engineering nature into silver wasn’t on Darwin’s mind when he wrote the Origin of Species in 1859, but his famous last sentence certainly captures what is happening with Paul’s work: “…Endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”

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