Czech architect ditches office grind to make her own unique pop-up cards

Architect ditches the office grind to make unique pop-up cards, writesAngharad Hampshire

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 23 September, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 23 September, 2012, 10:25am

If Hong Kong's working hours weren't so long and inflexible, Tereza Hradilkova would still be working as an architect. But the 31-year-old Czech found it impossible to maintain a balance between work and family, with a young son to raise.

"After working for a few months, I decided I couldn't do it long term," she says. "The hours were awful. Basically, I had nothing to do in the morning and in the afternoon I was told what I had to do for the next day and then had to work late. I just could not accept it. It was totally incompatible with having a family."

So she quit her job and turned her talents to creating exquisite pop-up greeting cards, many of them featuring Hong Kong scenes, through a venture called Porigami.

"When I realised that I couldn't work here as an architect, I had to think about what to do. So I decided to try to turn my hobby into my job," she says.

Her hobby is working with paper - drawing on the material, cutting it and experimenting with printing, using techniques that she picked up in Japan.

Hradilkova grew up and trained in Prague, the capital of the Czech Republic, but spent two years in Tokyo when her husband, a French teacher, took a job there in 2007. Their son, Tigran, was born a year later and she took some time off to raise him before the family moved to Hong Kong three years ago.

"I have always been interested in crafts," she says. "When I was young in the Czech Republic, I learned how to make lace and baskets. I like to understand these traditional techniques, so when I was in Tokyo, I started to look at traditional Japanese crafts."

She eventually rediscovered pop-up paper techniques from Masahiro Chatani, a Japanese designer, architect and teacher.

"Architecture is very frustrating in that the projects are long term," Hradilkova says. "It takes years to see results. All architects I know do a craft like sewing or jewellery-making just to see some immediate results."

In Hong Kong, she started to emulate the design tasks which Chatani set his students, and incorporated these skills with elements of Chinese paper cut and stamped patterns.

A few months after she started designing at home in earnest, Hradilkova developed a series of 10 prototype greetings cards and her venture, Porigami, was born.

Its name is derived from an amalgamation of her nickname, Pori, and the Japanese name for paper, kami, and it also works well as a play on origami, the art of paper folding.

Porigami has taken Hradilkova's favourite architectural scenes in Hong Kong and turned them into works of art. Her series includes the Hong Kong skyline, the Bank of China building, Tai O, a Hakka house, Western Market, Hong Kong trams, and her personal favourite, bamboo scaffolding.

The intricate patterns are laser cut on stiff paper, so that the design pops up in 3-D when the card is opened, with delicate ink-stamped designs printed on the backdrop. The cards are now sold in design stores and bookshops throughout Hong Kong.

Although she now runs her own business, Hradilkova's lifestyle these days is a far cry from her time working at an architectural practice, when she would be stuck in the office until 10pm.

The family lives in Peng Chau ("one of the few places in Hong Kong where you can sleep with your windows open"), and on weekdays she can now take a more leisurely ferry ride to drop off and pick up her son from school. She accompanies him to his school in Sheung Wan before going to her nearby office, a bright, airy space which she shares with other young start-ups.

Hradilkova typically sketches out her designs on paper before transferring them to a computer and using 2-D CAD software. "The software is just about lines. I do the three dimensions in my head," she says.

When it's finally ready, she sends the design to her laser cut machine. To complete the card, she prints the background patterns using stamps that she has hand-carved herself (her desk drawer contains more than 100 stamps).

"As the papercuts are so precise and architectural, I needed to add something imperfect. The stamps aren't perfect so that's good," Hradilkova says.

However, she has to have her intricate cards made in Shenzhen, which annoys her because she feels it's important that the end product is made locally.

All the printers she spoke to in Hong Kong said it could not be done. "At the beginning nobody trusted me that these cards were possible to produce but I have proved it can be done," she says.

Currently working on a series of cards for Tokyo, Hradilkova plans to expand her pop-up cards to other cities, such as her hometown Prague, and Paris and London.

She also hopes to design cards for landmark buildings in Hong Kong to be used in marketing.

In the longer term, Hradilkova has her eye on creating pop-up books for children. "It's a big experiment, so let's see where it goes," she says.

Hradilkova has all the ingredients for success: a good idea, talent, business sense and drive. Her cards are fabulous, but there's a flaw - they are so beautiful that it's hard to bring yourself to write in them.