The Greensfelder Design Studio is a childlike page in the story of our city. It is tucked away in a former bookbinder’s storefront at 2119 West Roscoe. The studio is owned and operated by Tom Greensfelder, an erstwhile calligrapher who made his mark as a graphic designer for the Broadway in Chicago production company.
His studio is also filled with 175 vintage and replica paper models of fairgrounds, gas stations, boats, trucks, castles, a chicken in a coop, and more. They are carefully constructed with eyes cast on history and fantasy. Visitors smile at the colorful fabrications at every turn of the head. Life is more than a paper moon.
The sky’s the limit for Greensfelder.
Greensfelder owns more than 7,000 paper models from around the world. His uncut versions are stored in baker’s trays on the east wall of his studio. And more in the metal flat files on the south wall. And still more in the wooden flat files on the west wall. And more in his North Side home.
Greensfelder came to Chicago from Berkeley, California in 1978 when he was twenty-eight years old. He became the art director for the progressive weekly newspaper In These Times. Between 1980 and 1988 he designed books and collateral materials for Chicago cartoonist Nicole Hollander (“Sylvia”). She knew Donna Dunlap, the longtime owner of the Parkview Pet Shop in Lincoln Park and the Madame X lingerie store near Wrigley Field.
Dunlap was friends with composer Warren Casey and his partner Burt Cohen. Casey co-wrote the hit musical “Grease,” based on Taft High School in Chicago. He had been a lingerie salesman before “Grease.”
In 1967 Dunlap appeared with Casey in “Ulysses in Nighttown” at the Last Stage theater in Hyde Park. By 1971, “Grease” debuted at the Kingston Mines Theatre Company. Dunlap met Cohen soon after that. He was working as an instructor at IBM.
“In the 1980s we would go to Warren and Burt’s for dinners and parties,” Greensfelder says during an afternoon conversation in his studio. “Burt was a very good cook and party host. They were in a beautiful house on Fullerton Avenue just west of Lincoln. One time Burt got out these old paper models he got on a trip in France. I had never seen anything like it. They were large. One was a house from Pompeii. The other was a little fake village (“The Queen’s Hameau”) of Marie Antoinette that she had built to play-act. The scale of them was incredible as was the subject matter. I told them they were great.”
In a phone conversation, Dunlap adds, “Warren and Burt were into quirky things. Warren’s taste ran more toward things like clocks made out of bowling balls. Burt was interested in paper. They were gay men in a period of time when one didn’t talk about being gay. The parties they gave were theater-oriented. Parties included whatever touring company was in town. Some ‘Grease’ money was coming in for Warren. It was all fun.”
Cohen and Greensfelder were also avid rubber-stamp collectors. They had a mutual friend Moira Collins, aka “The Rubber Stamp Queen,” who was also a pal of cartoonist Hollander. Then Cohen discovered paper models. Dunlap and Cohen took two trips together, one to Italy and another one to France. “Burt was meticulous about researching a trip,” she says. “In France he discovered museums that had paper objects. There was one in the South of France. There was one in Paris.” Dunlap starts laughing and continues, “He got all this information about a Paris museum with paper-model stuff. But he didn’t understand it was pornographic paper stuff. It was obscene, like S&M paper models. But from there he started collecting the paper models.”
A few years went by. Casey died of AIDS-related complications in 1988 at the age of fifty-three. Cohen died in 1994 at the age of fifty-eight.
“And Burt left four or five of them to me in his will,” Greensfelder says. “They were French, from the publisher Pelican Blanc during the 1930s. That’s when this whole madness began. It was the late 1990s by the time I received them. I was looking them up on the internet and eBay.”
He pauses and looks around his happy place. The Riverview amusement park once frolicked with Bobs and Silver Flashes a few blocks west of his studio. Its spirit now lives here. “I found that it wasn’t just old French paper models. It was old German paper models. Polish paper models. Czech paper models. Italian paper models. Japanese paper models. Spanish paper models.”
As a calligrapher and graphic designer, Greensfelder enjoys the aesthetic nature of paper models. But he also is a history buff, which proved to be the perfect complement to his pursuit of paper models. “They are a piece of history,” he says. “There’s something a little bit miraculous about the fact they survived at all since they were intended to be cut up into something else. Maybe it is better to place them in the context of other paper ephemera like paper soldiers and paper dolls. They were all pastimes that grew out of the printing press and the widespread availability of cheap paper. I’m assuming a middle class had enough leisure time to cut out and assemble all these items. This would have been more affordable than metal or wood equivalents. And beyond the superficial intent of amusement or education, there are paper models created explicitly for publicity or propaganda.”
Greensfelder walks to a corner of his 600-square foot studio and carefully picks up a paper model of the sleek Concorde supersonic airliner (1976-2003) that was first published by Pelican Blanc. The parts of the paper-model plane were cut out from a sheet of paper and assembled and that’s generally how paper-model building works. “There are different kinds of paper models,” he explains. “Some are already punched. Some are called tab-and-slot where you don’t glue them together, you just put the tabs in the slot. This one you would have to color in.” Greensfelder is merrily describing his collection until I ask:
Why not just work with real models?
It was a gut punch.
“What are real models?” he answers in a higher voice. “This is far less toxic. There’s a lot more danger because you’re using an X-Acto knife so you have to be careful. And the subject matter is way more varied than you will ever see with plastic models. Plastic models are an investment on the part of the company that produces them. You have to make molds. The plastic has to be cast. It also has to be put in a box with instructions. These are on a single sheet of paper. Somebody had to draw and that’s it. They picked out some colors and printed thousands of them for a fraction of the cost of what it would have been for a plastic model. So you have models for things like this: a little pump. Or this, polar bears lounging in an arctic sea. They had paper models for advertising. That’s another whole thing.
“I’ve cataloged more than 7,000 but I’ve got a lot more than that. And I’ve got a lot I downloaded from the internet. Good quality scans. So I have way more digitally than I have physically.”
Greenfelder’s studio is a phosphorus blaze in a winter’s haze. He looks across a table and says, “Ah, here’s the last chapter of the life of Joan of Arc. It’s from the 1930s so it’s Art Deco. That’s where Joan is being burned at the stake. Here she is in prison being told she’s no longer the savior of France, and here’s another paper model from the same series where she is now a heretic and they’re going to kill her.”
Several years ago collector Lester Harrison in Portishead, Somerset, England was selling his beautiful old German paper models on eBay. Greensfelder says Harrison was unusual in the collector’s world because he often provided information on why the paper model was important. Greensfelder bid on Harrison’s models against two other gentlemen. “Francesc Lopez Sala was from Spain,” he says in firm tones. “And the other was from Germany. Frank-Michael Goldmann. Back then on eBay you could contact other bidders. They won’t let you do that anymore. We would make little arrangements like ‘I won’t bid against you on this one if you won’t bid against me on that one.’ Frank-Michael was outbidding us in the last few seconds which was frustrating. I tried to explain that Francesc and I became friends. He said, ‘There are no friends on eBay.’ Six months later he invited me to come to see him in Germany, which I did.
“We went to a big paper-model conference at the museum.” That was the seventeenth International Card Model Meeting at the Deutsches Schifffahrtsmuseum in Bremerhaven.
In August 2018 Greensfelder hired School of the Art Institute Chicago (SAIC) graduate Alexandra Lopez to cut and build his paper models. Lopez, twenty-eight, had taken the SAIC’s Natural History Illustration and Landscape Narratives class, taught by Greensfelder’s partner Olivia Petrides. “My problem was that I was so committed to collecting them that I only knew one aspect of them,” Greensfelder says. “They are on beautiful flat sheets of paper. I had joined paper-model forums and seen people construct these. I thought it would be good to have somebody helping me. Olivia had said Alexandra had done these amazing constructions in class. I wanted to see what these things were like built. I didn’t have time to build them myself. She’s been great.”
Together they built a trial paper model of one of “The Thousand And One Nights.” Greensfelder assessed Lopez’s skills and to also determine if she was interested in construction for someone else. “I wanted to see if it was something she liked to do,” he says. “It was a trial for both of us.”
In a separate interview during a studio visit, Lopez says, “This place is pretty random. Olivia told me Tom was looking for someone to build paper models. I had no idea what that meant. Everyone is like that. When I talk to people about it, they go, ‘Huh?’ I was curious. I like crafting. I like making things with my hands. At SAIC I was doing diorama style and three-dimensional.
“Here, it was all trial-and-error at the beginning. I used the wrong kind of X-Acto knife, which was the basic one with the exposed metal piece. While trying to cut a thick board I hurt my hands pretty badly. Figuring out the tools that work for each person is pretty important.”
A native of the Northwest Side, Lopez went through the art program at Lane Tech High School. During my visit, she is working on a paper model from a 1930s English fairground. The original was published by Rylee Ltd. and scanned and printed from a copy where she cut out the parts. “I need to have the ultimate concentration for this,” she says. “I like to build these. Tom knows all about the history. It’s the detail and technical things that I find fun.”
At her large workstation on the south side of the studio, Lopez has a small jar of water for water coloring, a metal ruler and a scoring tool. She explains, “Tom uses laser printing so the toner rubs off when you score things. I go back in and watercolor to match the original color. It’s the same when I reinforce stuff, I like to paint the edges so it matches the original. I use Tacky Glue which is thicker than school glue. I can water my glue down to whatever consistency I need. I use cheap acrylic brushes for the glue. Depending on the size of the piece I’m working on, I’ll water down the glue and then use the appropriate brushes.”
It can take two to three hours for Lopez to build a paper model, depending on how many pieces are involved. “Even if it is one page there could be fifty tiny pieces versus one that’s just three main pieces you have to put together,” she says. “It’s a challenge to put the parts together as they were originally intended while altering the pieces to make it sturdy and last long.”
Like Lopez, Greensfelder pays attention to focus. “It goes back to calligraphy,” he says. “Focus is the same in calligraphy. When you’re doing something by hand you can’t let your mind drift. Because things go south very quickly.”
Greensfelder learned a lot of paper-model nuance from Eric Sayer Peterson, a Minneapolis-area artist and former half of the comic folk-music duo Blegen & Sayer. Greensfelder met Peterson in a paper-model forum. “We did a book together that an agent shopped around,” he says. “Nobody wanted to publish it. Each section was an old paper model that showed the built model and also gave the history of the model and the publisher. Eric was amazing in terms of researching things—why did they pick a certain thing to make it a paper model?”
The magical display models in Greensfelder’s studio are finely restored, dust-free and firm. They stand tall against the winds of time. Paper modelers call this “reinforce,” and Greeensfelder says that is a technique he learned from Peterson. Most of the models, even those printed on heavy paper, are still flimsy when built. “To make them more substantial we glue the parts down to mat board or bristol board of different thicknesses,” he says. “At the very least, it is worth doing with the base. But the more you can do, especially with the freestanding figures, the more the model is likely to survive. This might explain why there are so few photos of built paper models from the past.” Greensfelder does not coat his paper models but he does dust them off with compressed air.
Greensfelder sells and trades his paper models. He has shown up on the “Paper Modelers Forum” website with his rare “Youth Mill” from a 1920s issue of the Danish magazine Illustreret Familie-Journal where a clock tells time backward. A small group of elderly figures enter the mill and then exit restored to their younger selves.
That’s sweet, but I was interested in the paper model brothel he has on the internet.
Peterson built the brothel paper model after doing extensive research on the source. He determined that the brothel model first appeared in a French newspaper in July 1904. Most of the characters in the model were loosely based on reality, including the mayor of the small town of Nevers in central France. The brothel model was likely made in reaction to a contemporaneous public issue.
“Here is a charming construction which, once completed, will bring very sweet tears to old parents confined to their armchairs by paralysis: it will evoke for them the best moments of the time when they could still walk. It represents the interior of those houses, closed like the secret box in Nevers about which so much has been said lately, where industrious and devoted women, living together, have no other objective than to procure a few innocent distractions to the notable inhabitants of the localities where they took up residence.”
I would buy this just for those instructions.
“I would sell you a copy,” he says. “I don’t have a duplicate of the original model. For the ones where I have duplicates, I would sell you the original. Prices are all over the map from $15 to $150. You can search on eBay under paper models or decoupage. Or cut-out models. I do want to turn this place into a store.”
Greensfelder has permission to name his store after his friend Salvatore Gugliara’s (formerly Toto di Totonzi) paper-model website. It will be called “Il Favoloso Mondo di Carta” (The Fabulous World of Card Models.) He hopes to have the store open later in 2023.
“Salvatore also scrounged models and designed a few of his own,” Greensfelder says. “I visited him a couple of times in Rome before he moved to Bologna to do furniture restoration. His partner, Susanna, was a seamstress and spent time in South Africa doing costumes for the [action-adventure] series ‘Black Sails’.” Greensfelder stops to gather his thoughts.
And he says, “I’m way more interested in all this than in graphic design at this point.”
Tom Greensfelder was born and raised in Oakland, California. “The Black Panthers started there, the Hells Angels started there,” he says. “But I grew up in the Oakland Hills. You’d be driving along and see motorcycles on both sides of your car.”
There are no paper-model Hells Angels—yet.
His parents were chemists. Bernard Greensfelder was director of research for Shell Oil. His wife Anne worked in the Shell Oil library and they met on the Shell campus. Greensfelder has two siblings. His sister Claire is an activist who has been working for Malcolm Margolin and his Institute for Community, Art and Nature focusing on Native American projects. His half-brother Roger is a retired geophysicist. The family subscribed to Life magazine, the New Yorker and other printed matter when Greensfelder was growing up. “I loved [Walt Kelly’s cartoon strip] Pogo, even though I didn’t understand it at the time,” he says.
Greensfelder was drawn to calligraphy in the early 1970s through the progressive vibe in Berkeley. He noticed that half the ads in the Berkeley Monthly were done in calligraphy. He recalls owning the Walter Foster book “The Little Book of Lettering & Word Design” as a kid. He soon began doing graphic design and calligraphy.
“There was a big renaissance of calligraphy in the 1970s as part of the counterculture,” he says. “Back then it was lettering that was done from the Roman era through the Renaissance. In the Renaissance, calligraphy changed because you suddenly had book printing. You didn’t need calligraphers any longer. The letterforms we see now in type evolved through calligraphy lettering over two-thousand years. Mainly I’m a graphic designer, but I’ve loved doing calligraphy. I’ve even got down into the weeds of cutting my own quills and writing that way just like they did in the middle ages.”
In 1975 Greensfelder met Thomas Ingmire, a native of Fort Wayne, Indiana who taught calligraphy in the North Beach neighborhood of San Francisco. Ingmire is known for meshing calligraphy with abstract expressionism. “Thomas is probably one of the top ten calligraphers in the world right now,” he says. “It was a real education.” In 1980 Ingmire received a Newberry Fellowship for independent study and research at the Newberry Library.
Are there any shared disciplines with calligraphy and paper modeling?
“With calligraphy it’s the lettering,” Greensfelder says. “A lot of these old paper models are raw hand-lettered. And some of the lettering is very imaginative. I enjoy that. But I’ve always been interested in old ephemera. It’s fascinating to me that we don’t know who designed a lot of these old paper models. There are a few. I have castles from a Danish magazine. They’re all done by Hans Christian Madsen. But most are anonymous. Yet somebody had that job. How do you get a three-dimensional thing onto a single two-dimensional sheet of paper? They designed that paper model. It got printed and went out into the world.”
During the mid-1970s, Greensfelder was scraping by in Berkeley with few clients in graphic design. He did production on The Daily Californian, the University of California, Berkeley’s independent newspaper. “I was living very cheaply,” he says. “I had a one-bedroom attached cottage in Berkeley for $90 a month. I was, of course, a hippie.” His sister knew Kerry Tremain, who was the art director of In These Times, founded in 1976 in Chicago. “I had seen the paper and I always wanted to do publication design,” he says. “And In These Times was unique in leftist publications at that time for being beautifully designed. I had a friend who thought I’d be back in California in a couple years. I gave it all up to work for a socialist weekly. And now it’s been over forty years.”
Greensfelder remembers his first visit to Chicago with the spirit of innocence that connects with his affinity for paper models. “I had never seen a place like Chicago,” he says. “I didn’t know it was on a lake. We came here in February . We drove in under the Post Office and came out to Lake Shore Drive. I go, what the hell is that? It was Lake Michigan. I had never seen snow. The whole feeling of the city—it was kind of beat-down. Actually in a weird way, the people here were more tolerant than in California.”
Greensfelder was hired in 1978 as assistant art director at In These Times and moved to art director when Tremain left. “It was before computers,” he says. “It was paste-up with wax. We had our own stat camera [large format stationary camera]. We did it all ourselves down on Milwaukee Avenue in Wicker Park.
“It was an intense environment,” he says with a laugh. “I learned what it was like to work for a socialist newspaper. Everybody thought they were an Indian chief.” Greensfelder left In These Times in 1980 and began freelancing for labor unions. He landed a gig with the alumni magazine of the University of Chicago. His breakthrough came when he started doing design for local theaters. He began with Stuart Gordon’s Organic Theater. His compatriot Donna Dunlap was a producer of “Heat,” which made its world premiere in 1985 at the Organic. “In its last days, I did the poster for ‘E/R’ [1983, the company’s longest-running show] and a couple of other things,” he says. “My name got attached to doing theater graphic design. Not many people were doing that.”
Greensfelder is a mild-mannered guy. He smiles a lot. His smiles are not big and flashy, but rather the steady look of someone content with his place in the world. Greensfelder also did ad production for Michael Cullen, Sheila Henaghan and Howard Platt’s late-1980s smash musical “Pump Boys & Dinettes.” He then went to Fox Theatricals where he met Jill Hurwitz (now chief marketing officer for the Grant Park Music Festival.) “Jill moved from Fox to the Shubert Theater and I went with her,” he says. “I started doing all the ads for the Shubert.”
Hurwitz has known Greensfelder for thirty years. She was director of marketing at the Shubert and worked with Greensfelder as a freelancer between 1993 and 2000. “Tom is a very good designer because he is able to take a lot of things and make them clear and yet visual for the user,” she says in a phone conversation. “I was proud of every brochure we did together. There’s a lot of stuff you have to put in there. There were a lot of different shows. He was good at coming up with a look that worked.”
Hurwitz recalls the challenges of working hand-in-hand with Greensfelder in the pre-digital landscape. “I don’t know how he did it on his end but when we made changes it wasn’t quite as easy,” she says. “Once we were tight on a deadline. It was a holiday or something. He went above and beyond. He was very unruffled and he is very mild.”
In 2000, the Shubert joined Broadway in Chicago, which was created as a joint venture between the James M. Nederlander Organization and SFX Theatrical Group (which became Clear Channel Entertainment and then Live Nation). “I went to Broadway in Chicago. It was not known that they would keep me as a designer because it was a much bigger organization,” Greensfelder recalls. “Designer is sort of a fancier term for what I was doing which was pretty much straight-ahead production. Again, it was all pre-digital and paste up. And it was also delivering the ads to the Tribune at 10pm for the next day.” In 2005 the Shubert closed for a multimillion-dollar restoration and reopened in May 2006 as the La Salle Bank Theater.
“I always regarded my work with Broadway in Chicago as kind of a cosmic joke,” he says. “I hated musicals and was weirded out by ‘Oklahoma!’ as a child. Be careful what you wish for. I actually do like a few musicals now.”
He’s proud of his theatrical design work for Teatro Vista, the Chicago Latino theater company and the now-closed Storefront Theater in the Loop. He enjoyed the creative freedom at the theaters and wound up on the Teatro Vista board where he did the work pro bono. Greensfelder is still with Broadway in Chicago. He redesigned the marquee and all the signage at the old Shubert in 2017 when naming rights were handed off to CIBC banking. He works with design associate Kevin Dean, who lives in Madison, Wisconsin. Other clients have included the Illinois Humanities Council, singer-songwriter-activist Bucky Halker, and playwright Tom Mula.
“While Broadway in Chicago was my biggest client, it was important to keep my hand in progressive design,” Greensfelder says. He’s worked with labor unions like AFSCME 31 ,and with the Illinois Humanities Council, social justice printmaker Amos Kennedy and others. He’s also designed books on racism, such as Michael Sidney Fosberg’s “Nobody Wants to Talk About It,” and the Holocaust, particularly Fern Schumer Chapman’s “Stumbling on History: An Art Project Compels a Small German Town to Face Its Past,” “Like Finding My Twin” and “Three Stars in the Night Sky.” They collaborated between 2015 and 2018.
“Tom has a burning interest in some of the things I share such as social justice and history,” the Chicago-based Schumer Chapman says. “The books are beautiful and they all have the same design. Tom would go off on his own and find images we could use. He was so vested in the projects. He did a lot of research. He’s a creative person. Passionate. He feels the importance of the story. He really enhanced these books. Working with him was enjoyable. We talked quite a bit during those years and we haven’t talked as much in recent years. I miss him.”
Greensfelder’s manner is so much on the down-low that Hurwitz was unaware of the depths of his passion for paper models. “He once casually mentioned he was having an opening or a show,” she says. “I knew a little bit about it, but again, he is so soft-spoken. It’s [his paper-model interest] almost like [being] an architect, which is so different from how I know Tom.”
Schumer Chapman does, however, know about Greensfelder’s boundless energy for paper models. “Wow,” she says. “Okay. During the time I was working with him he was making this transition to paper modeling. I marvel that he has the patience to do that. He has such a fascination for them.”
In 1999, Greensfelder was board president of the now-defunct Columbia College Center for Book and Paper Arts. One longtime Columbia staff member and teacher was Audrey Niffenegger, an artist and author of “The Time-Traveler’s Wife.” which spun into a movie and an HBO show. Niffenegger is spearheading the new nonprofit organization Artists Book House (ABH).
Greensfelder serves on the ABH board and commissioned a paper model that was made by local designer Matt Bergstrom for an ABH fundraising event. “It was the first time I commissioned a model to be designed,” Greensfelder says. “Harley was a good candidate since it’s a very unusual building. I had confidence that Matt was the person to do it since he designed all the ‘Build Your Own Chicago’ (miniature paper) models.”
Paper-model building and collecting keep Greensfelder young because he keeps learning new things. “One of the things from Francesc is that being from Spain he had this tremendous collection that has been exhibited in Barcelona,” he explains with delight. “It’s of paper models from the Spanish Civil War. Both sides issued them as propaganda. And there are similar models throughout World War II. I have a French victory, the French paper models of the resistance. German paper models. If you want a lot of tanks, Germany is the place to go. Japan is huge now. They’re all done on the computer, but I have a whole series of Rodan, Godzilla and Ultra Man paper models. I just got one of the Bath House from [the 2001 animated Japanese fantasy film] ‘Spirited Away.’”
Because of its age, Europe has a deeper sense of history in art and music than America. Greensfelder cites an essay by the contemporary Italian artist Francesco Clemente that mentions America’s thin veneer of history. Clemente was born in Naples in 1952 and now lives in New York City. “He says that veneer is why we still have a moral sense,” Greensfelder says. “That we care about right and wrong. In Europe they’ve seen too much history and as such are more blasé about corruption and such. It’s been confirmed in a way by some of my Italian friends who felt there was no point in complaining since authorities would never do anything.
“You also learn that different nations have different characteristics with their work. Spain loves architecture. There are more architectural paper models from Spain than anywhere. But then there’s the Hernando Brothers series from Spain in the 1920s. Each one has a different story from ‘Thousand and One Nights.’ And they also have this whole series of Little Red Riding Hood, Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, and other fairy tales.”
And he smiles again.
A FEW PAPER MODEL SHEETS FROM TOM’S COLLECTION: