Pop-up books – A painstaking feat of engineering

Pop-up books or Movable books have existed since the Middle Ages.
Pop-up books – A painstaking feat of engineering

BENGALURU:  There are engineers, and there is the paper engineer – a rare breed that uses basic tools like scissors, paper, glue and knives to make pop-up books. I always assumed pop-up books were only for kids, but then I realised that they are just as fun for adults too! I rediscovered the pop-up book after having a deeper appreciation of the engineering involved. 

Pop-up books or Movable books have existed since the Middle Ages. The earliest example is a manuscript dating to 1121, titled Liber Floridus, that illustrates the orbits of the planets around Earth. The top part of the page folds up as a gatefold to reveal the complete illustration. 

Pop-up books now have some of the most intricately crafted paper scenes from classic literature to abstract art, cultural icons to poetry, wondrous creatures and mind-bending alphabets – each book will take you on a journey through the sophisticated, multisensory world of these paper scenes. 

Matthew Reinhart is one of the masters in this field with his Star Wars: A Pop-up Guide to the Galaxy making it to the New York Times bestseller list in 2007. Creating a pop-up book can take up to two years and Reinhart has produced several, on subjects ranging from dinosaurs to Harry Potter. Although most pop-up books are now produced in China, Thailand and Laos, they have a global reach and retain their niche readership despite their steep prices. 

Robert Sabuda is another master, who created Alice in Wonderland. I have opened the book so often that a small piece of paper inevitably jets out when I try to close it. It’s one thing to open a pop-up book: it’s another to close it!  

Ellen G K Rubin is considered the final authority on pop-up books. Ellen had just completed her exhibition at Grolier Club and she very generously explained to me the history of pop-up books and her own journey as a collector. She discovered pop-up books while reading to her two sons – one was on trucks and the other, on dinosaurs. For someone who went to Yale School of Medicine and is a trained microbiologist, her esoteric passion may seem odd but she says that pop-up books are a better conversation topic at a cocktail party than bone marrow transplants!

Since she discovered movable books more than 25 years ago, Ellen Rubin has accumulated more than 11,000 books and thousands of uncatalogued movable ephemera. She now lectures and writes about her books, conducts workshops, curates exhibitions and hosts her website, The Popuplady (popuplady.com), to disseminate information on the subject. Her speech ‘A History of Pop-up and Movable Books: 700 Years of Paper Engineering’ (available on YouTube) is the best source of information on the subject. When I asked her what she would do with her collection, she said she is in the process of choosing an institution that can house it. Her mantra is ‘shop and share’! 

Animated Advertising is a lively look at an underexplored niche in the history of American marketing, graphic design and paper engineering. Drawing from Rubin’s extensive collection, the book, illustrated with 250 colour images, demonstrates how animated and dimensional paper devices have been used throughout US and European history to promote products, art, entertainment, and ideas. Rubin’s diverse examples of historical paper pop-ups show how they leaped from the pack of standard marketing materials to catch the eye of clientele and inform them about the products. 

The Movable Book Society presents the Meggendorfer Prize for Best Paper Engineering for the most outstanding commercially published pop-up or movable book at its biennial conference. In an increasingly digital world, making handmade pop-up books can be a great hobby. You can explore various online tutorials (check out Mathew Reinhart’s online pop-up-tutorials) to learn hand craftsmanship and drive your creativity. Consider making your own pop-up cards or even books as gifts for your loved ones! 

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The New Indian Express