Port-a-Plant Q & A

At long last, plants you can’t kill! Port-a-Plant is a flat pack of punch-out paper plants you can build in minutes to create your own tabletop garden. To celebrate its release, I had a chat with the man behind the paper—Ben Laramie, our in-house industrial designer.

Port-a-Plant punch-out sheets

AW: By the time you worked on Port-a-Plant, you had already designed other paper construction products, like Port-a-Pug and Port-a-Menorah. How did those projects inform the design of this one?

BL: My previous involvement/experience designing other paper-punch-out things greatly informed the development of this one. By now I’ve become reasonably familiar with the possibilities/limitations of different kinds of paper and board, different construction and connection methods, packaging solutions, and, hopefully, a balance of complexity/simplicity when it comes to the assembly process. Those previous projects, each having their own very specific challenges, helped me start this project from a kind of informed place.

Ben’s original prototypes

AW: At our second meeting, you had the basic construction down—the cardboard stems that slot together in an x-shape and create the structure, the paper leaves, the wraparound pots. How did you get to that point? Were there other construction ideas you tried that didn’t pan out?

BL: That prototype I made for that second meeting was actually the first (and, as it [rarely] happens last) basic version of the original interpretation of the brief from meeting number one—from then on it was mostly minor tweaks. The wraparound pots are a [simplified] direct relative of the decorative crowns we did for Princess Cupcakes (and also Fortune Cupcakes). The leaf and stem concept are descendent from a freelance project I did awhile ago for a Dwell magazine feature on modern planters where I was asked to make dozens of paper flora to fill the collection of pots. So I guess I had already established a kind of vocabulary for making stylized paper plants and applied all those experiences to this new brief—arriving rather quickly at the essential construction.

spread from Dwell magazine

AW: One of my favorite things about Port-a-Plant is that it packs flat. Why was that important and how did it influence the design?

BL: The flat-pack aspect of this kind of thing is extremely important—mostly for practical packaging reasons. Paper is at once an incredibly durable material (think of a sheaf of standard printer paper, which you can easily stand on) and also very prone to crushing or tearing (think of all those crumpled first-drafts of things). When making things out of paper—things that need to be shipped all over the place—the first goal is to keep it safe. One of the best ways I know is to keep things flat like that sheaf of printer paper or like a deck of cards. Then, with everything flat and trim, you can make a simple envelope for the contents as opposed to more elaborate and unnecessary packaging if, for example, we wanted to have things pre-assembled (imagine trying to package playing cards as a house-of-cards rather than a deck—not to mention the importance we place on the experience of user-assembled things).

AW: We had to go back and forth with the printer a few rounds before their mock-ups were right. What was the biggest challenge in getting the output you wanted?

BL: The biggest challenge was the connection/assembly method between the leaves and stems. Since I handmade the first prototype I was able to make tiny wedge-shaped cuts in the stems which made inserting the paper leaves very easy and secure. Once in production—where die-cutting is employed (basically a steel ribbon with a knife edge is laid out in an exact pattern and slammed into the paper stock)—those wedge shaped cuts were impossible to make. The best we could do is a straight cut, which meant that the thickness of the cut had to match the thickness of the paper stock we were using for the leaves. Figuring out the right combination of blade thickness and paper thickness took several attempts.

a packaging die in its intermediate stage

AW: Many of the products you work on at Chronicle involve paper engineering. Do you get many paper cuts? What are some of the challenges inherent in working with paper?

BL: I’ve cut myself so often (with a knife though, not so much paper) that not only can I remember the way it hurts, but I can call to mind the sensation so vividly that when I do my instinct is to go to immediately to the first-aid kit. Thankfully though I got the majority of those injuries when I was still in school—the worst of which was only three weeks into my freshmen year and I was sent by my RA, along with another cut-fingered freshman (same exact finger, left pointer—mine’s still scarred) to the emergency room where we both eventually received some skin-glue instead of stitches since we had been waiting for about four hours with our fingers wrapped in paper towels and kept above heart-level before being looked at—and so I think I’ve learned since how to be more careful. Thankfully I’ve only gotten a few very minor cuts since working here.

The non-physically-painful challenges working with paper are things like not having the exact paper stock that will be used in final production, which can have a pretty significant effect on whether or not we can determine whether the idea will actually work. There are some types of board that are so difficult to cut through that it takes many multiple blade changes just to make one cut. Sometimes individual pieces are so small that they are really easy to lose. Simple things like that make working with paper a constant challenge.

AW: Pugs, menorahs, plants . . . what else would you like to make out of paper?

BL: For better or worse I’ve come to believe that if you allow for enough abstraction, anything can be made out of paper. So it’s a difficult question for me to answer. Since Port-a-Plant I’ve been working on a punch-out paper chess set that I’m particularly excited about, disposable cake stands, hanging ornaments, iconic cartoon characters, trophies, and most recently a water-tight paper vase for real plants and flowers. So, there seems to be a lot of room for growth (pun willfully intended).

Allison Weiner

Allison Weiner

Senior Designer at Chronicle Books and weekend crafter.

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