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Making Pop-up Books by Jan Pieńkowski

My first attempt at paper engineering was making a paper castle for my father, when I was seven. We then fired a practical toy cannon at it with huge success: it burnt to the ground and made a black scorch mark on the wood floor. My great achievement was not appreciated by my mother.

Ever since then, I have made things out of paper - Christmas tree decorations, greetings cards, paper-cut silhouette figures and puppets. Then I got my break: I was given the opportunity of making a pop-up book by an adventurous editor, Judith Elliott. The first try, a rough and ready dummy, made of cut up cereal packets and sticky tape emerged after much sweat and tears. Fortunately, Judith brought the great American pop-up expert, Waldo Hunt, to my studio and he saw the potential in it. He took it away and gave it the treatment. Two versions came back from the States: one cheap and cheerful, the other, the state of the art, which he referred to as the Cadillac version. Fortunately the publishers opted for that and Haunted House was born.

In order to achieve the finished effect the mechanics and art had to be created simultaneously so Tor Lokvig, the paper engineer, came and worked with me for a week designing the finished pieces. These then had to be "nested", a phrase used to describe the way the pieces are fitted together like a jigsaw puzzle on the printing sheet, so as to use the material most economically - just like a dress pattern.

When the book was printed in Colombia I was lucky enough to be there watching the books being assembled. To begin with the cutters had to be made out of steel by burly blacksmiths with hammers and leather aprons. The prototype was put together and then another paper engineer, Ines Calvache, made the necessary adjustments. Small and delicate, she was the only one who could prevail on the blacksmiths to remake the cutting dies. The books were then assembled with mind boggling speed and dexterity by a team of quick-fingered local ladies. The Colombians love to dance and the precision and rhythm comes in handy.

It took over 18 months to produce and was originally called Is Anybody In? The front door on the front cover is my own front door but the inside is very different! Haunted House won the Kate Greenaway Medal and opened the door for many other pop-up books.

Since then I have created many more pop-ups and I have had the pleasure and fun of working with several brilliant paper engineers: they include Steve Augarde, Martin Taylor and Helen Balmer. Helen came to my studio for work experience as an A'Level Student and has been coming to work here in most of her vacations since. She is a paramedic and drives and ambulance, but still finds time to fit me in her precious free time.

I suppose the most ambitious project I have undertaken was for the pop-up book called Robot. That was complicated and we were shut in a room for a week overlooking Los Angeles Airport for complete privacy (there was even a hijack at the airport!). The particulary difficult part was making the Robot lift the weights above his head whilst his trousers dropped to the floor - but we managed it. Sadly it is not in print now but you may be lucky and find one in a library.

So what about now? We have finished The First Noel and The Ninja Cat and I am now working on my 27th pop-up bok - title still a secret.

If you feel you might enjoy having a go at pop-up design, probably the simplest way is to start making cards for your family and friends. You can seen plenty of examples of simple mechanics in any good card shop.

If at first your efforts don't quite work, don't be discouraged, just use an old material you don't mind wasting and keep doing it until it does work. Then follow your prototype and creat the finished job on good paper or card. If you don't want to draw, try using snapshots, or magazine pictures.

The important thing is the dramatic impact of the pop-up. Even my dog, Bella, came to sniff at a bull dog pop-up card this morning. Have fun!

Jan Pieńkowski


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Copyright 2000 by Jan Pieńkowski - All rights reserved
MEG & MOG characters Copyright Helen Nicoll and Jan Pieńkowski