One of the markers of great illustration is when it takes a rich, interior world and projects it out for others to engage with. Sometimes animation helps makes that world more immersive, but even so it’s a rare thing to actually experience a 2D world in a multi-dimensional way.
That’s a challenge the Swiss-born, Berlin-based illustrator Serafine Frey has recently come up against with a commission from the Children’s Hospital Wildermet in Biel to redesign their waiting room into something physical and interactive. Frey set to work creating giant puppets and wooden props that reflect the unique spirit of her drawings. The final design, which Frey has been working on for the past six months, was revealed this week.
Inspiration came from Niki de Saint Phalle, who, in the latter half of the 20th century, transformed her joyous, free-wheeling doodles into glimmering concrete playgrounds—literally turning playful work into something to be physically played with.
Frey drew on an early childhood memory of a homemade scarecrow her parents fashioned from clothes stuffed with straw. This figure, with its long, tumbling limbs falling awkwardly to its sides, had an important effect on Frey’s aesthetic. The hospital project was the ideal way for her to channel the wonder and enchantment she felt about the scarecrow as a child, and to experiment with a format that had so vitally informed her drawing.
Frey began the project last year by drawing immersive playground environments and a soft, friendly red figure—a kind of protective personification of a red blood cell. The hospital’s staff wanted the puppet to open up and reveal its organs so that they could explain to children what was going on inside them, so Frey set about designing male and female characters that hang on the wall and open to reveal their musculature, skeletal system, and internal organs. A large wooden ambulance and a kiosk became the sets for this troupe of puppets.
One of Frey’s defining characteristics as an illustrator is her vibrant use of line, the shaky quality of her ink pen injecting figures with an energy and life that lets them dance from the page. For Frey, the challenge with the hospital commission was finding a 3D equivalent.
When it came to creating the wooden figures and structures, Frey engraved directly on their surface, making use of the tactility of the material. She wanted the result to feel like a traditional woodcut with veins, bones, and organs delineated by grooves. But when she received the wooden figures back from the cutter, Frey was disappointed by the mechanical feel of the result: the machine’s perfect blades created something too seamless, without any element of warmth or life.
Frey added a much needed human touch by covering the tips of grinding needles with sandpaper and retracing the grooves of her wooden figures, changing up the pressure to vary the depth and breadth of the winding lines so that they exuded the handmade charm of ink. She also worked with local upholsterers in Biel to create the friendly red blood cell—a spindly, cushioned creature that will surely be main attraction of the waiting room.
The combined result is a safe, inspiring space devoid of the visual clichés of public institutes. Frey has used illustration to remove children from their immediate context, simultaneously teaching them about their physiology in a way that feels adventurous instead.