Paper can glide, float or stand still. It can hold messages, start fires and polymorph into any number of animal shapes. During my foundation year at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), Lee Dejasu told me that my first four-week assignment was “paper.”

Sculptural work comprising cast paper, wood and found bricks by Ryan Mather. Photo: Ryan Mather

In Lee’s classroom there were two industrial-grade blenders, a few clothes irons, several screens and newspapers covering everything. Our papermaking process was a rudimentary one: put everything into a blender and then squeeze the water out through a screen. I hadn’t the slightest idea where to go, so I just started making.

My first instinct was to make the biggest screen possible, so I built a large wooden frame. Lee approached me and said something along the lines of, “You sure do like to plan things out, don’t you?” The way he lingered on plan made me feel like it was a bad thing. So I started mixing in soap, candy canes and anything else I could get my hands on. I learned that I was more interested in the delicacy and translucency of the paper than the size of the pages.

Six months later, I was introduced to another papermaking project, this time in a laboratory at the Syracuse Biomaterials Institute, where I worked on incorporating shape-memory polymer into paper. The lab was a huge room, about the size of a tennis court, populated by white coats, machines that made unexpected clicking noises and glassware with magnets whirring inside to stir their contents.

My advisor described to me how we would systematically vary concentrations of a shape-memory polymer within a paper to increase its water-soaking properties. The first step was to make samples of the paper and measure if we were successfully incorporating the polymer. I asked, what if we do successfully get the polymer into the paper? How will this increase the water uptake?

The focus of the lab seemed to be about discovering what we were capable of making. In Lee’s studio, the focus was more on why one would want to do something without much emphasis on what the final product would be.

Neither of these processes is better than the other, but to be constantly working in concert with the two is what works best for me. As a designer, I do not always have the answers, but the real value I gain is the ability to ask the right questions, and being in a scientific role has helped me constantly edit my process. What am I doing right now, and how will it lead to the next step?