Register Tuesday | June 19 | 2018

The Wow Factor

What happens when one man is too good at what he does?

Robert Sabuda inches open a copy of his pop-up book The Encyclopedia Prehistorica. Little paper rhombuses skate across other rhombuses, flaps rise, a string winches, and the nine-inch head of one serious fiery-red T. Rex lunges out to bare its complicated incisors. Sabuda thrusts his ear right into the punctilious paper architecture of the beast, then closes and re-opens it. He’s ecstatic about the sound of the parts as they unfurl, all the coincidental rasping and rustling. “I love that it makes a noise,” he says. “Not a roar but…it snarls a lot.”

Suffice it to say, Sabuda is attuned to pop-up books in a way most people are not. After a stint designing packaging for ladies’ panties and Rambo colouring books, he published A Christmas Alphabet in 1994. It was the first pop-up book he’d ever attempted and it quickly established him as the so-called Prince of Pop-Ups. The Encyclopedia Prehistorica, his twentieth effort, was launched in July with an initial print run of 500,000 copies—a whopping tally for any children’s book.

Sabuda is forty, with cropped, reddish hair, and has a fresh-faced Midwesterness about him. He shares his cramped New York City art studio with Matthew Reinhart, his life partner and collaborator on Encyclopedia. Reinhart is an accomplished paper engineer in his own right, currently working on a book with Where the Wild Things Are author Maurice Sendak. As business boomed in the last few years, the couple hired two assistants and a rotating cast of interns from a local art college. Yet Sabuda assures me, “There’s only two cooks in the kitchen here, and we cook it pretty much the same way.”

When I visited their studio in May, Borders Books & Music had just commissioned Sabuda to design Christmas window displays for its stores. Time was already tight—a typical Sabuda pop-up book can take as long as two years to create. Mobiles of interwoven, half-fashioned doves hung from a shelf like garlic at an Italian deli. Below, an assistant fiddled with a snow-covered steeple scene.

Sabuda’s designs begin as white, three-dimensional dummies. Some-
thing as elaborate as the T. Rex may go through ten different prototypes. “The first one: very simple, just really basic,” he explains rapidly. “Just a jaw on top of the head—and then refining and refining.” Finished full-colour pop-ups are flattened and scanned. Digital files of the entire book, with art and die lines, are sent off to a manufacturer in Thailand or China (where labour is cheap) that will produce the dies that will cut each pop-up piece. It’s then on to a hand-assembly plant.

“It’s rows and rows of tables,” says Sabuda, who often flies to Asia to oversee the printing. He slows down to describe the facility, and this underscores its apparent awesomeness. “They’re very long tables. Very long tables, holding, jeez…forty people maybe on each side”—as many as 1,200 assemblers in total. Each worker dutifully folds her little morsel of The Movable Mother Goose or A Kwanzaa Celebration and passes it on. “You know, one person will just have a whole stack of teeth,” he says. Together, the workers can knock out as many as 1,500 books per week.

 

Handmade, mass-produced objects are rare, and perhaps none are lavished with as much attention as a pop-up book. A finished book—despite travelling to Asia and back and being shuttled through thousands of hands—creates the same intimate relationship with the reader that Sabuda enjoys when he’s first futzing with his mock-up. “Even though we design it in the studio, your hands make that magic happen,” Sabuda says. “You turn the page and, all by yourself, you’re like, ‘Holy crap!’” His friends call it the Wow Factor.

In an age of video games and other more in-your-face amusements, the pop-up—an otherwise blunt, lo-fi technology whose basic mechanisms haven’t changed much in the last century—is banking on its Wow Factor for survival. “I think they fit in as part of a twenty-first century response, its backlash to technology,” Sabuda says, adding proudly that he doesn’t own a cell phone. “Connectivity to a book is completely different. ‘Oh, it’s paper,’” he says, mimicking a time-strapped urbanite having a pop-up epiphany. “‘I can feel it, I can hear it.’ You can’t underestimate that.”

Sabuda was raised with a reverence for trades and tradesmen in an 800-person hamlet in rural Michigan. His father was a mason; his grandfather, a carpenter, was so poor he had to make the bricks he used to build his own house.

Like Sabuda himself, the modern pop-up flamboyantly channels more stoic roots. A thirteenth-century Catalan mystic assembled some of the first movable books, illustrating his poetry with rotating paper discs called volvelles. Mechanical parts were later employed in anatomy manuals, but it wasn’t until the late seventeen-hundreds that versions for children emerged—and with them, the radical idea that one could enjoy an adventuresome physical interaction with a book rather than just an imaginative one. These lift-the-flap books relied on the element of surprise. In one typical example, a brother and sister feed a pig while a butcher behind them whets his knife. Lifting a flap in the middle of the page suddenly puts the siblings in a kitchen, the pig’s head on a platter and the butcher parading behind them with a helix of sausages.

In the eighteen-eighties, an intro-
verted Munich humorist named Lothar Meggendorfer virtually rein-
vented the art by engineering scenes to move in several directions and places at once. Pulling a single tab in his masterpiece International Circus makes a woman pour wine, an elephant move its trunk, monkeys play violins and a pair of poodles dance. The book has 450 separate pieces and sells today for as much as us$9,500. (“I have two Meggendorfers,” Sabuda tells me, with the demureness of a true aficionado.)

The finest movables continued to come out of Germany until the First World War. After a long dry spell, innovators like Dutchman Ron van der Meer and Polish-born Jan Pienkowski sparked a so-called second golden age of pop-ups in the nineteen-seventies with books like Monster Island and The Haunted House (the latter has sold more than one million copies). As many as 300 English-language pop-ups were being published every year, and packaging companies like California-based Intervisual Books—corporate think-tanks whose in-house engineers, illustrators, writers and market researchers fed books to publishers—rushed into a ready market. By the time Sabuda began tinkering in the early nineteen-nineties, Intervisual dominated the field.

“I gotta tell you,” Sabuda says, grimacing, “there just weren’t a lot of special books.” The pop-up business was controlled by “an old boys’ club—all these men in their late fifties. They all knew each other and all worked for one company in California,” which he is careful not to mention by name. “It seemed to me they didn’t really invite that many outsiders. That’s like, you know, China’s policy of only the boys are good and the girls aren’t. And now all the boys have to marry their cousins, because there are no girls.”

That inbreeding ultimately com-
promised the quality of the books. The market shrank, and the pop-up packaging companies are now nearly extinct. With tighter margins to meet, publishers now decide a book’s cover price before it’s even designed and work backward to dictate how many movable parts they can afford to print. In general, “the kinds of constraints and cost restrictions we have to design unfortunately result in a less impressive final product,” paper engineer Andy Baron told me. Thus, the field is now caught in a Catch-22: publishers are reticent to invest in more costly, intricate and labour-intensive books. Yet those are precisely the books most likely to dazzle readers and to re-invigorate sales—and the art form itself—back to what they were a few decades ago.

Sabuda, meanwhile, is a man apart. In September, he released Winter’s Tale, possibly the most virtuosic book of his œuvre, in which a sixteen-point buck and an icicle-bestrewn cavern of wolves materialize magisterially and sturgeon leap into the third dimension from the margins. It’s a book no other paper engineer today would likely be given the resources to make. Only the Prince, in short, has earned a licence to wow.

 

Meredith Eliassen, a librarian who specializes in the history of children’s literature, is an admirer of Sabuda’s books. When I visited her at San Francisco State University (SFSU) earlier this year, she told me she’d bought her niece and nephew two for Christmas; they were enthralled, all but ignoring their other, automated, gifts.

Still, Eliassen keeps most of SFSU’s collection of pop-ups, including ones from the golden seventies and replicas of important Gilded Age books, in a storage closet. She walked me to it, through a computer room on another floor.

It was a dim repository, filled with boxes, basketball trophies and a shovel. Loosely organized, the shelved pop-up books sat next to a haphazard congress of reel-to-reel editing machines—clunky things built at a time when electronics were wood-panelled and emblazoned with names like Quick-Trac in futuristic typefaces.

Here, the pop-ups and the film equipment, the supposed pinnacles of their respective interactive tech-
nologies, faced off in mutual exile. It was a sorry scene, proof that the Wow Factor may always be relative to the times. Just as digital-video editing undid the once illustrious Quick-Trac, Sabuda may unwittingly be relegating lesser pop-ups to this sort of boneyard. He sent his tyrannosaurus snarling into the world to clear a way for pop-ups, and it has. But it also seems to be devouring its share of the market.

 

Genius, in other words, is a double-edged sword. While Sabuda’s ingenuity helped beat back the packagers and reinstated a premium on individual, artistic vision, it has also profoundly skewed publishers’ expectations. If he’s made the bubble-gum titles of Intervisual irrelevant, he may have made almost every other paper engineer irrelevant along with them. As the publishing world becomes less and less hospitable to pop-ups, he’s not only surviving, but flourishing; that disparity is damning.

“Because such a high standard has been set for what a pop-up book looks like, if it’s not as elaborate of one of Robert’s or one of Matthew’s,” says Ann Montanaro, “it doesn’t get the same attention. And it doesn’t get the same sales.”

Montanaro is the founder of the Moveable Book Society. Very few of its 475 members, she concedes, are publishing books, despite what they’ve written on their membership cards. Only a couple of dozen engineers publish worldwide. With aspirants stuck rigging magazine ads or greeting cards, or just peering up enviously from the bottom, pop-ups may be a grimmer business than Sabuda lets on.

Instead, Sabuda strives to be a sanguine champion for the art, doing lectures, conventions and TV appear-
ances. He collects antique movable books, knowing his archives will ultimately be donated to a public trust. And by training a diverse pool of interns, he says, he’s preventing the rise of any future old boys’ clubs. The genre can’t afford to be cliquey. Otherwise, “It’s just going to shrivel up,” he says. Or worse: “I’ll be the old white guy. And that’s so not cool. That’s so totally not cool.”