Photo of paper engineer and author Carol Barton

1. You’re a book artist and paper engineer specializing in sculptural books. Could you tell us what those roles entail?

Some people define an artist’s book simply as a book designed by an artist, but that doesn’t tell you much about how an artist’s book is different from one you’d buy in a book store. When I design a book as an art piece, I’m approaching it as I would a painting, sculpture, or fine photograph. Of course, it’s hard to pinpoint the essence of what makes something art, but I think one of the major elements is that a successful work of art evokes an emotional response from a viewer. Not every viewer responds to every artwork because we’re all different, but there are lots of works of art out there to choose from, and there are lot’s of different kinds of artists’ books out there, too.

Some artists’ books look like regular books until you open them and see type and images combined in exciting and very unique ways on the page. Some are not made out of paper, but rather of plastics, metals, or even concrete and wood, and many people respond to these emotionally because they challenge a person’s definition of “a book,” which is, in fact, the point. Some artists’ books don’t even have pages, but refer back to very early book forms such as clay tablets and silk scrolls.

My artist’s books are very sculptural because I incorporate pop-ups – basically little paper sculptures that spring up and then collapse as a book’s pages are turned. And that’s where the paper engineering comes in – it’s a fancy name for designing pop-ups. It really does describe the process of figuring out how to cut and construct a piece of paper in order to build a three-dimensional scene that is able to fold flat when the book is closed. The process involves mechanics, spacial visualization, and functional problem-solving. Those are definitely engineering processes—it’s just that the material being used isn’t steel or wood, it’s paper.

2. So paper engineering is the process of designing pop-ups! I’ve seen so many amazing kid’s books with incredible things that spring out of the page—entire 3-D scenes! And I understand many adults are collecting these, too.

Do you do the same type of work as in these books? They look so complex.

Many of them are very complex and take months to design. Plus the commercial ones have to be engineered for the production process so that assembly line workers can easily put them together, because the assembly’s still done by hand. It’s not a process that can be mechanized. In my books, the pop-ups aren’t always as complex as the ones in the commercial books, but they’re as dramatic in the way they work with my subject matter. And I don’t have an assembly line producing them; I make them all myself. An example is my most recent book Five Luminous Towers. It was inspired by the historic towers of Italy. Every other page has a paper tower that pops off the page and also lights up in the dark. In fact, the poems about the towers light up, too, so the book can be read entirely in the dark. And the last tower has a ring of fiber optic filaments coming out of the top that create a halo of little stars circling around it.

3. I understand you teach kids how to make pop-ups, and I’ve seen on your web site the pictures of kids of all ages, standing there with big smiles on their faces and holding beautiful pop-ups they’ve constructed.

How do you get them to design a pop-up in a 40-minute classroom session? Do they have any trouble doing this?

Well, even the very complex commercial pop-ups such as those of Robert Sabuda and Matthew Reinhart, are based on some rather basic forms. I can actually teach someone how to make a simple box or triangle pop-up in about three or four minutes, and I haven’t had a failure yet. I can teach a class of 4th graders how to make four or five kinds of pop-ups in a 50-minute session, and the kids have no problem coming up with drawings that turn those pop-ups into all manner of 3-D flowers, furniture, food, and talking animals. They invent stories, too, and string the pop-ups together into narrative books. Adults are a little slower with the visuals, so in an adult class I usually concentrate just on the mechanics. Because many adults are intimidated by long-forgotten geometry formulas, I teach adult classes without any math. And in a two-day workshop, we cover about 85% of the basic pop-up structures used in commercial books. It’s easier than it looks, and a lot of fun. The hard part comes in matching a visual picture or idea to a pop-up structure, and in combining several different structures together to get the effect you want. This takes work. But to get a simple effect, that’s easy.

4. So I guess there’s a lot of trial and error. Does this frustrate your students?

The philosopher Alan Watts once said “If you want to succeed, double your failure rate,” and one of the most important things I teach is that failure’s OK. In fact, it’s a necessary part of the design process. Unfortunately, many kids have been led to think that failure of any kind is intolerable, but in fact it’s part of learning. You’re not going to get everything right the first time you try it, especially when it involves inventing and building things. Trial and error is part of functional problem-solving. Ask any architect, engineer, inventor. Design is an evolving thought process. And with the right attitude, it’s not a frustrating process at all. It’s a form of play. We play, we test, we try, we fail, we try again, an eventually we figure something out.

5. You also teach at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. How does paper engineering fit into your students’ work there? Are they all graphic arts majors?

I love teaching at the university level, especially at an art university, because I get students from all the different media, not just the graphic arts. I have students in my classes majoring in metalworking, textile design, photography, sculpture, illustration, industrial design, and of course, the book arts. My course is called “book structures,” and it includes paper engineering, some package design, and some unusual types of sculptural books.

Students from different departments bring their unique insights to the class, and we end up with some very exciting artists’ books using a mix of materials and printing techniques. Again, the emphasis is on learning how to see and solve design problems – on process rather than finished product – and we do a lot of model-making. By breaking the complexity of books down into simple models, say, one for the story, one for the structure, one for the visuals, it makes the whole design process less overwhelming.

6. Does paper engineering require a lot of special tools?

No, one of the best things about it is that it can be done with just a few simple tools: a pair of scissors, a glue stick, almost any type of paper (even 8 1/2 x 11 office paper!) and a bone folder. For those unfamiliar with this tool, a bone folder is a flat piece of real animal bone, usually rounded on one end, used for pressing down folds. If you don’t have one, you can use your finger nail, a wooden tongue depressor, or a pop sickle stick. Some of the more complex forms require the use of a single-edged cutting tool such as an X-acto knife, but the most basic pop-ups can all be cut with a pair of scissors.

7. What’s the most unusual place you’ve ever taught?

One of them is the chemo ward at Georgetown University Hospital here in Washington, D.C. The hospital has an art activities director, Nancy Morgan, and she invites artists to work with patients while they’re waiting for treatment. It gives them something to do and gets their minds off the therapy. Another was in Brazil, where I was an artist-in-residence with the Sacatar Foundation there. I was working on my book The Pocket Paper Engineer, How to Make Pop-Ups Step-by-Step and at the same time was working with a group of local kids to teach them some paper engineering. I don’t speak Portuguese, and I figured if I could teach them through the drawings I was doing for my book despite the language barrier, my visual instructions were clear.

8. What type of people sign up for your adult classes?

All types. I get a lot of people who are artists – graphic designers, illustrators, children’s book authors. But I also get people who just want to take the class for enjoyment – nurses, accountants, parents and grandparents with children and grandchildren, lawyers (when they’re not litigating), landscape designers, people from all walks of life. It’s popular with architects. I’ve had an engineer from Nike take the class twice, and I’ve taught classes for the designers at Mattel Toys.

9. You began your artistic career as a painter. How did you become interested in paper engineering?

Did you have pop-up books as a kid?

After attending Washington University School of Fine Arts in St. Louis in painting, I moved to Washington, D.C. for a job. I worked at an art center called Glen Echo Park, and one of the resident groups at the park, the Writer’s Center, had a small offset press that several artists were using as a printing tool. I learned how to prepare my own illustrations for press and how to typeset, and when the center received a National Endowment grant to produce 20 artists’ books, the Writer’s Center invited me to be one of those artists. It was the easiest grant I ever got – no application required.

I didn’t include any pop-ups in that first book, but each page had die-cut window or door that led into the next page and back into the previous page. The book was titled Beyond the Page. After working on it for a year, I said I’d never make another book. But soon after, a friend showed me a “carousel book” she’d found at a used book sale. A carousel book is a type of pop-up book with layered pages. The pages can be turned like a regular book, or the entire book can be pulled into a circle for display (hence the name). The book my friend found was an Italian edition of Sleeping Beauty and it had layered pages showing each of the important scenes in the story. After seeing this book, I was hooked. I began researching the history of movable books in the Smithsonian Libraries and the Library of Congress, and my career grew from there. Interestingly, I can’t remember playing with any pop-up books as a child. My fascination with them as an adult was more with the mechanics and sculptural qualities of the pop-ups, rather than from any residual interest from my youth.

10. So what is the history of pop-ups? Have they been around for a long time?

Before I answer that, I should make a distinction between two different types of paper engineering, pop-ups and movables. Movables are devices in books like pull tabs and rotating paper wheels, things that the viewer has to manipulate in order for them to work. They’re quite old. The earliest I’ve seen is a turning wheel illustration, called a volvelle, that dates to the 1300’s in a book made not of paper but of vellum or skin. It’s in the collection of the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, and it illustrates the changing phases of the moon when the wheel is turned.

Pop-ups are a much more recent form. They first appeared in the early 1850’s in books published by Dean and Sons in London. Dean and Sons was the first publisher set up exclusively to publish children’s books. My favorite of these is a pop-up Cinderella book, with a scene showing Cinderella trying on the glass slipper.

11. Tell us more about your own works—your artists’ books. Are they for kids? Can you describe them?

My artist’s books are often enjoyed by young people, but most of them are directed at adult audiences because they work on a lot of different emotional and intellectual levels. As I mentioned earlier, my first book Beyond the Page dealt with forward and backward time because each scene in the book has a window or door into the preceding and following pages.

After that, I became interested in an unusual historic book form called a “peepshow” or “tunnel book.” In this type of book, several paper image layers are held together with two folded paper accordion strips, and when you look in a hole in the front cover you see a dimensional scene inside. It’s similar to the shoebox dioramas that many kids make, but these fold flat. I’ve made several tunnel books, including one called Loom which combines oriental rug images with landscapes, and when you look through the viewing hole you see a dimensional picture of the earth as seen from outer space—a NASA shot. That book is based on an anonymous Persian verse, “No one yet hath unraveled a knot from the skein of the universe, and each who came and essayed the same but made the tangle worse.”

12. You’ve worked on some interesting projects, including an article for National Geographic Magazine featuring illustrations of pop-ups of the town where you live. Tell us about that project.

I was approached by a friend who’s a photo editor at National Geographic about doing pop-up illustrations for one of the zip code articles that appear every month in the magazine. Each article highlights a certain place in the United States that’s identified by its postal code. Well, we couldn’t figure out what zip code would be appropriate for pop-ups. While brainstorming, we hit upon the idea of an amusement park. Suddenly we realized that the little town where I live, Glen Echo, might be perfect.

The town was founded as a Chautauqua (19th-century educational summer camp), then became an amusement park that operated through the 1960’s. After that, it became an arts and educational center again, with art studios operating in the funky old amusement park buildings. And I live in the adjoining township.

I worked with a Geographic photo intern, Mike Brown. He took pictures that I adjusted on the computer in Photoshop and printed out in layers to be turned into large pop-ups of four Glen Echo scenes. Then the photographers at Geographic photographed them flat to appear in the magazine, but the flat images have a very surreal quality because of the pop-up constructions. It was a fun and extremely challenging project, and it appeared in the July 2005 National Geographic issue.

13. Paper engineering seems like such an unusual and wonderful subject that teaches such important concepts. How can someone sign up for a class?

I teach all over the country, and at all levels from elementary school classes to university and adult workshops. You can find the classes I’ve scheduled on my web site,, and schools and organizations can contact me through the web about setting up a class. Of course, you can also learn a lot of the techniques through my Pocket Paper Engineer workbooks. I’ve tried very hard to make the books both fun and easy-to-follow, and most of my readers have reported that they’ve been able to complete each book’s 16 do-it-yourself pop-up projects without a problem.

That’s our interview with Carol Barton, paper engineer and author of The Pocket Paper Engineer workbooks on how to make pop-ups.
Again, you can find her on the web at

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