The White House: A cardboard cutout

It's the Oval Office, but not as we know it. Artist Thomas Demand built a life-sized replica – and then destroyed it. Rob Sharp finds out why

The famous carved wooden desk, the American flag, a round rug in the foreground: it could be any photograph of the Oval Office. Take a closer look, and this perception is torn up. For a start, the desk seems to have the wrong lustre. The tufts of wool on the rug resemble confetti. That is because the image is not a genuine photo of the world's most famous seat of power. It is of a life-size replica, constructed by one of the hottest contemporary artists working today. Berlin-based art photographer Thomas Demand built the scene to mark the US presidential elections last November. After the shoot, Demand destroyed the model, which wasn't hard: the office and its contents – from the pen on the desk to the ivy above the fireplace – were made from card and paper.

"Card is a material everyone knows," explains Demand. "It has a classic geometry that people know. And it's temporary – people can throw it away and as long as they recycle they don't have to feel bad about it. It can be remade into something else then can be used for something different. It's a contemporary material."

To recreate the Oval Office, Demand sifted through hundreds of vintage photographs, studying how recent US leaders furnished the room. "I saw all sorts of iconic pictures, with so many well-known figures. But it was more about the space than the person," he says of his research. "Newsprint images are often misleading, and everyone photographs using wide-angle lenses in there. The Oval Office is tinier than you might think. I couldn't get the actual dimensions of the room, so I had to work it out roughly. But the size of the desk, and even the plug sockets, are well known, so I could extrapolate other measurements from those. In the end, I melded several versions of the office – which changed every time a new president took over – into one. I wanted to create the idea of the office. What you had in your mind when you thought of it, rather than something exact."

Demand, 44, is at the top of the league of art photographers, and one of the few to have enjoyed a mid-career retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York (in 2005). His installations usually recreate empty spaces; sources of power are a theme of his works. In 2007, he rebuilt and photographed a three-dimensional card model of the Niger embassy in Rome. It was in this office that controversial forged documents – claiming Iraq had purchased nuclear material from Niger – were created, later to be leaked to the Americans. An unknown and anonymous space, it couldn't be further away from the Oval office. "The Oval Office is like the Pope's chair was in the 16th century," says Demand. "It is a place of supreme power. This change was interesting for me. You go from oblivion in the Niger project to super-exposure. It was like making a painting of the Eiffel Tower."

The construction process was painstaking, taking Demand two weeks of research and two weeks of building time. He worked with a team of 18 assistants to complete it in his Berlin studio. When complete, the life-sized reconstruction was photographed from seven different angles. The pictures vary in their conventionality. One shows the office in the most traditional way, facing the presidential desk (it was from this vantage point that the world's media recently saw George W Bush welcome all the living ex-presidents to lunch). But a shot of the presidential chair veers into more surreal territory. It tackles themes such as power; by looking upwards from the floor, it makes the seat seem supremely big.

The works were commissioned by the New York Times Magazine at the time of the presidential race, then exhibited at Spruth Magers gallery in Mayfair, west London, and will soon move to a Hamburg venue; several of the prints have already been sold to private collectors. But Demand doesn't think politics will ever be his speciality, and he won't comment on what he makes of the incoming president. "The amount of wisdom I can spread on this is the same as any bus driver," he says. "Say you're watching a talk show, and there is an actor who plays a policeman on a cop show and he starts talking about security and crime. You realise he knows nothing. I feel like that. I work with pictures."

Thomas Demand’s series was exhibited at Sprüth Magers London