Jumping off the Page

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No longer designed and sold exclusively for kids, pop-up books are veritable 21st-century masterpieces.

By Jennifer Pappas Yennie

The first time I heard the term “paper engineer” it was 2005. Fresh out of college and fascinated with the antiquated art of letterpress printing and bookbinding, I was a volunteer at San Francisco Center for the Book. Once a week, I sorted metal type, cleaned Vandercook presses, and cut down paper in exchange for studio hours. That day, I was helping curators set up a new exhibit of limited edition pop-up books, and each masterpiece I handled seemed magical.

Today, the vocation of paper engineering is equally enchanting. Manipulating one of our oldest mediums, paper, into animation with the sole intention of delighting one’s audience seems especially noble in a world gone almost completely digital. Many people don’t realize the longstanding history and technique behind these movable books that many of us know simply as “pop-ups.”

Once Upon a Time

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“Popville” | Photo courtesy of Anouck Boisrobert-Louis Rigaud-helium, 2009

Long considered amusing novelties for children, pop-up books actually have a lengthy history, predating printed books. Experts believe the technique dates back to the 13th century in Spain. They originated as an intricate artistic method for explicating complex processes such as anatomy, astronomy, medicine and mathematics. It wasn’t until the 19th century that a number of craftsmen, mainly in London, were able to produce pop-up books on a large scale and market them to children for entertainment.

Out of this transition grew a number of different techniques, including the use of liftable flaps, transformational slats and multidimensional peep boxes, which allowed books to spring to life like never before. Early pamphlet-like books with these details went by a variety of names around the world—metamorphosis, Harlequinades and turn-up books are just a few. German artist Lothar Meggendorfer emerged as a major player at the height of a golden age for movable books when he published “Living Pictures” in 1878. His work made use of thin copper wires, metal rivets and levers to create multipart illustrations that simultaneously moved in innovative directions at the pull of a single tab. His efforts were a revelation, and are still considered some of the most intricate mechanisms ever created.

It was also in the 1880s that America entered the movable book market with the Little Showman’s Series, published by McLoughlin Brothers in New York City. Production came to a grinding halt during World War I, however, and it was not until the 1930s and 1940s that pop-ups once again flourished thanks to the availability of new materials and a global push to reinvigorate the way people bought books. London publisher S. Louis Giraud and his “living models” were at the forefront of this renaissance. Though the term was not yet in use, these affordably priced models were authentic predecessors of modern pop-up books, with dioramas that sprang up when the pages were opened and retreated as each spread closed.

A slew of pioneering publishers and artists quickly followed suit, establishing what would become a new era of movable books in Europe and the United States. Blue Ribbon Publishing, headquartered in New York and responsible for coining the term “pop-up,” struck gold by bringing to life traditional fairy tales and Walt Disney characters in pop-up format, enjoying widespread commercial success as a result. The real sea of change, however, came in the mid-1960s, when Waldo Hunt, an enterprising American, founded Graphics International, 

an independent production company specializing exclusively in pop-ups and published by Random House. By starting his own company, Hunt was able to design pop-up books domestically instead of distributing titles from overseas. After Hallmark acquired Graphics International, Hunt founded a new company called Intervisual Books in 1976, and the business went on to produce more than 1,000 pop-up classics.

Engineered for the 21st Century

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Artist Robert Sabuda with “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” art | Photo by Steven Butman

Thanks to midcentury artists like Hunt, pop-up books have become part of the modern collective childhood. Despite countless mechanical advancements, the production process remains relatively unchanged. Conceptually, authors, illustrators, paper engineers and publishers work together to build a story. On the technical front, pop-up books are assembled by hand, just as they were hundreds of years ago. A complex volume can require up to 100 individuals working in an assembly line to fold, insert tabs, align and glue—a process that is not only labor-intensive, but also costly. Inevitably, these costs have led to a decline in the number of pop-up books published in recent years.

Despite this regression, the niche community of pop-up enthusiasts continues to grow. Ann Montanaro Staples, director of the Movable Book Society, is optimistic about the future of the books and the people who make them. Organizations like hers, as a forum for collectors, artists, curators, booksellers and producers, see firsthand the enthusiasm and innovation surrounding the genre.

“Recent books by Sam Ita, ‘Moby-Dick’ and ‘The Odyssey,’ retell well-known stories by combining graphic novels and pop-ups. Matthew Reinhart’s large book, ‘Game of Thrones,’ is a companion to the HBO series,” Montanaro Staples says. “In Reinhart’s ‘DC Super Heroes’ the characters rise inches off the printed page into spectacular pop-ups.

“In contrast, the small town in ‘Popville’ by French artists Anouck Boisrobert and Louis Rigaud slowly transforms from a farm community into a city,” she explains. “The artists’ use of simple, colorful images and box-like forms is a magnificently elegant way to show the changing landscape.”

Though contemporary paper engineers are few in number, they continue to push the boundaries integrating sophisticated multimedia aspects, sculptural twists and unexpected themes into their designs. It is because of this creativity that the appeal of pop-up books has only deepened in the face of a technological era. Unlike any other book on the shelf, audiences don’t just read a pop-up book; they participate in it.

Robert Sabuda, a best-selling artist known for his elaborate designs, realized this at an early age when he first stumbled upon a pop-up book at the dentist. He began creating books using manila file folders as a child and has gone on to give new dimensions to stories like “Beauty & the Beast,” “Cinderella” and “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.”

While pop-up books have always caught his interest, Sabuda acknowledges the challenges he and his contemporaries face. “Of course, I realize we’ve become a very technologically driven society,” he shares. “But I think humans will always love and be mesmerized by magic, and in a way that’s what a pop-up book is: a bit of magic between two covers.”

Montanaro Staples concurs, adding, “The allure of pop-up books has remained the same over the centuries; it is the wow factor. … So much can be hidden within each pop-up image. David Carter’s ‘One Red Dot’ is a good example of surprise and discovery. Hidden within each of his stunning, architectural paper sculptures is a small red dot. The challenge within each spread is to find it.”

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Sam Ita’s “Moby-Dick: A Pop-Up Book” combines a graphic novel with movable art.

It is these types of surprise elements that make pop-ups a relevant and completely unique reading experience. Despite the constant echo that print is dead, pop-up books have always found a way to persevere to the delight and admiration of children and adults. As Sabuda puts it, “I think children love the idea of [another] world, a place different from their own that is interesting or exciting. Pop-up books do that; they transport young people to a different place.”

But it isn’t just children who are enraptured by Sabuda’s creations. “Adults are just fascinated by the fact that a pop-up book works without any electricity,” Sabuda adds. “They, themselves, are the engine of turning the page and revealing the world. … I think an audience that loves to read enjoys taking a break from all their electronic devices to just sit back, relax and enjoy a good old-fashioned book, especially a pop-up.”

Pop-ups with themes that appeal to adults have even found a home in the hands of fine artists like Colette Fu, whose volumes use photography to explore ideas of culture, identity and societal norms. Dutch paper engineer Kees Moerbeek designed an elaborate book illustrating the most advanced container terminal in the world, Rotterdam’s APM Terminals, for their 2015 opening. Moerbeek also holds the distinction of having designed the largest pop-up book ever assembled. Measuring 13 feet by 19 feet when open with elements that reach 7 feet into the air, the book was used in a television advertisement for Belgian Pearle Opticiens in 2010.

Occupying a place in art, advertising and the hearts of enthusiasts of all ages, the pop-up genre rests in safe and will-
ing hands. Across the globe, networks of paper engineers, artists and movable book fans are working hard to ensure the treasure they impart to the world will not be surrendered to digitalization. The human condition, the part requiring simple pleasure and the element of surprise, guarantees it’s worth protecting. 


A Sea Island Original

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Paper engineer Robert Sabuda created “Sea Island Pops Up” a one-of-a-kind book capturing the stunning architecture and rich history of Sea Island. Delineated into five different categories including history, The Cloister, nature, recreation and traditions, each section contains supplementary pop-ups and 3-D surprises, giving readers an immersive Island experience.   

In addition to sharing the culture of Sea Island, the book is a forward-thinking example of pop-up mastery. “The last page was very challenging because I wanted to make the entire Cloister stand straight up,” Sabuda says. ”I took so long to design this mechanism because there is so much paper involved that requires both strength and flexibility.”

Get a first look at the finished product March 26 and 27, when Sabuda will be at The Cloister for a presentation on the making of the book and a signing. Guests and members can also bring home their own pop-up piece of Sea Island by purchasing the keepsake at Sea Island Shop at The Cloister, the kid’s shop, surf shop, golf shop at The Lodge and online.

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