Sandy Wheeler, artist and VCUarts faculty, shares her process for creating the ICA’s very popular holiday card and limited edition pop-up gift.

  1. What was your motivation and inspiration for the holiday card and pop-up?

We were tasked, by the ICA’s staff, to create a holiday card and gift that acknowledged and thanked the ICA’s supporters with something made by hand. Our conscious and subconscious inspirations included the building and its relationship with the city; Borgesian* slices of space, time, and orientation; and the materiality of Italian paper sculpture, rheinzink, and glass.

* Editors note: Steven Holl’s design for the ICA’s building, the Markel Center, is inspired by Jorge Luis Borges’ The Garden of Forking Paths.

  1. How are the holiday card and pop-up related? How do they speak to each other?

The holiday card is a simplified version of the pop-up, depicting only the East facade of the building. It was designed to be mass-produced while maintaining handmade qualities. We decided early on that the pop-up, which would be presented as a gift, should be contained in a handmade, two-part box with bottom and lid, and covered in book cloth. We agreed that the ICA identity would be blind embossed on the box lid. This required die-cutting the ICA mark from Bristol (an uncoated, machine-finished paperboard) and attaching it to the lid of each box. After the linen cloth was glued to the lid, small tools were used to burnish the cloth into the recessed mark.

  1. How long did it take you from beginning to end to conceive of the idea, and to process, and execute it?

The idea for the project began in the spring and serendipitously unfolded. I was preparing for a presentation about interior signage for the Markel Center when an ICA staff member casually mentioned an affinity for pop-ups. Around this time, I met with Carole Harrell (B.F.A. ’14), who told me about a children’s book that she was working on, which might include a pop-up. We started talking about paper architecture, and in October, we assembled crude prototypes to present to the staff for their review. The ideas were approved and over the next five weeks, a limited edition of 50 boxes and pop-ups were designed, laser cut, and assembled.

  1. How did you choose the materials?

White cover stock seemed an obvious and appropriate connection to the building’s interior. The book cloth, FSC® certified from the Netherlands, matches the color of the rheinzink, the exterior surface of the building. The blue interior of the holiday card was inspired by the edge of the glass selected for the building’s transparent walls. Red grosgrain ribbon represents the red of the ICA’s logo and was used for a splash of holiday color.

  1. How did you select Big Secret?  What is it like working with them?

Former students of mine have had internships and worked for Big Secret, so I’ve seen and heard great things about them since they opened. I’ve always been impressed with their attention to detail and their willingness to embrace projects of any size or scope. When we learned that our pop-up was too intricate to be die-cut, I contacted Big Secret. Their team is fantastic to partner with. We worked together on preliminary tests to determine the appropriate paper and weight that would allow for precise and minute detail without burning out. This also provided information regarding file preparation so details would not be lost to the laser. They cut, scored, and delivered the pieces for us to assemble. Their commitment to the project was remarkable, especially considering that it was around the Thanksgiving holiday.

  1. You had an assistant help you. What was her role?  

Carole Harrell and I collaborated on the project. The division of labor was intuitive and the process fluid. We couldn’t have done it without each other or the commitment of Big Secret and Worth Higgins & Associates.

  1. What is important about the holiday card and pop-up that hasn’t been addressed in the previous questions?

It was an incredibly fun project and exciting to see so many parts come together. I think we were all fueled by the intensity of the project, meaningful collaboration, and the forthcoming ICA.

Sandy Wheeler is associate professor of graphic design at VCUarts, where she teaches in the department’s MFA and BFA programs. She is an active graphic designer and fine artist and is overseeing the design and execution of the museum’s way finding system, directional signage for visitor orientation.