Few artists can pinpoint the moment that started them on their career path. Fewer still have experienced such an epiphany at the dentist. But New York Times
bestselling author Robert Sabuda remembers the fateful day his mother tried to calm his anxiety with a pop-up book in a Michigan waiting room. "I was so excited I forgot all about the dentist," he glows.
Anyone who encounters the pop-up creations of Robert Sabuda and Matthew Reinhart knows just how he felt. It's hard to avoid such cliches as "eye-popping" when faced with a vine-covered temple that shoots up nearly two feet (Reinhart's The Jungle Book
) or an emerald paper balloon that inflates and rotates as it opens (Sabuda's The Wonderful Wizard of Oz
New York Times Book Review
senior editor Dwight Garner raved over two recent creations, Encyclopedia Prehistorica: Sharks and Other Sea Monsters
(Candlewick Press, $27.99) and Mommy?
, Reinhart's collaboration with Arthur Yorinks and legendary illustrator Maurice Sendak (Scholastic, $24.95). Citing Sabuda and Reinhart as leaders of a new "golden age of the pop-up book," Garner marveled, "The engineered parts leap out at you with the impact, and nearly the size, of unfolding umbrellas."
The magic begins in an unassuming seventh-floor studio on Manhattan's Upper West Side. A young Asian woman, whose bright smile gives the lie to her Goth-tinged attire, leads two guests down a bookshelf-lined hallway and into an alternate universe. Every inch of the narrow room bristles with clip lights, layered bulletin boards, drawing tables with mat boards, drafting templates, computer screens, Simpsons and Star Wars collectibles, hats (Krispy Kreme, crown, tiara) and an avalanche of paper. There are intricate pop-ups in progress on every desk, overflowing wire wastebaskets, piles of hand-painted papers in cardboard bins labeled by color. The effect is like walking into a huge pop-up, with fabulous details wherever you look: PeeWee's Playhouse goes to art school.
"This is a neat
day," Sabuda grins, stepping over a snowfall of scraps on the carpet. Reinhart sits at a computer, peering at digital photos of Skywalker Ranch, where the pair went to research their upcoming extravaganza, The Star Wars Holochron
"You just missed the Star Wars
craze. Two weeks ago we were busting our behinds to get everything out on time," Sabuda explains. "Now everyone's hustling for Narnia." He picks up a folded white mock-up for another upcoming project, based on C.S. Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia
. "We expected a lot of input from the Lewis estate, but they were thrilled. All we got was, 'Could you just add teeth to Aslan?'" He turns a page. Even in unadorned white, the great lion bursts off the page, jaws gaping and claws outstretched.
The manufacture of high-end pop-up books is a fortuitous melding of ultramodern computer technology and old-fashioned, cut-and-paste ingenuity. All paper engineering is done by hand, a laborious process involving hundreds of sheets of white cardstock, mat knives, glue, tape, and much trial and error. Sabuda observes, "It's not so much about getting it to pop up as getting it to pop shut
. When you make an origami, you fold the paper into three dimensions and it's finished. We're creating figures that become 3-D, then have to go back into 2-D. That's the real challenge."
The studio employs five fulltime assistants, all art school graduates. When Sabuda declares, "It's not necessary for us to physically make every aspect of every book—we have too many ideas," Reinhart intones in his best Alec Guinness vibrato, "I am the prime conceiver." The partners also function as executive producers, shepherding projects by staff members and other young artists: The tall, quiet man at the desk near the door is Castles
author Kyle Olmon, whose virtuoso medieval pop-ups catapulted his book onto bestseller lists and into museum gift shops, alongside Sabuda and Reinhart's.
The team may spend weeks engineering each page; finished books take anywhere from eight months to two years. Certain "pops" involve such extras as lightweight spinning dowels, fine-gauge string, clear plastic insets, even light chips for special effects. Durability counts: devotees may spend hours spinning the wrappings off Reinhart and Sendak's rotating mummy or pulling up Alice In Wonderland
's spiral rabbit hole, and a ripped pop-up book is a pitiful thing. Sabuda favors a "look, don't touch" approach with very young readers, creating a more interactive experience as parents become puppeteers, turning pages and pulling tabs, making things pop.
We're really working in four dimensions," Sabuda notes. "It's not just about making a three-dimensional image, but the time factor. Some pieces move quicker than others, sometimes there's a reveal during the transition. How does this piece arc across, will it hit this other piece, is there some way to slow it down?"
Paper engineers start by constructing a partial mock-up, demonstrating a book's look and concept, with artwork in pencil sketch and a preliminary text. Once this is approved, they hand-make a detailed "white dummy," like the Narnia mock-up. This includes fully engineered pop-up spreads, with each individual piece computer-scanned for precision die-cutting.
The last step is full-color artwork, in watercolor and colored pencil (Cinderella, Mommy?
) or cut-paper collage (The Jungle Book
). Sabuda also designed an elegant "white series" (Twelve Days of Christmas
, A Winter's Tale
); Reinhart, whose edgier collaborations include the hilarious Pop-Up Book of Phobias
, prefers "bright, saturated colors—even my dinosaurs steer away from the browns and grays."
The text is fine-tuned during every step, though neither artist talks much about choosing the words. "Thank God for editors," Reinhart grins, noting that their Encyclopedia Prehistorica
series (Dinosaurs and Sharks and Sea Monsters
will soon be followed by Mega-Beasts
) is vetted by experts from the Museum of Natural History to assure classroom accuracy: "Every toe has been counted."
The large-format books are manufactured overseas by as many as 1,200 assemblers. An in-house video shows massive color-printing and die-cutting machines, with teams of dextrous Chinese workers in white cotton gloves hand-assembling each spread. It seems somehow apt that creating these state-of-the-art, architectural books should begin and end with teams folding paper by hand.
The partners' manner as studio tour guides mirrors the complementary styles of their books. Sabuda, in upmarket track suit and wire-rim glasses, likes to explain things in detail. The energetic, theatrical Reinhart, in black T-shirt, jeans, and silver shoes, ricochets from his desk, spouting quotable sound bytes: "We're paper hogs....We go for a you-are-there, in-your-face effect....The flattened-out art looks like roadkill."
Both men attended Brooklyn's Pratt Institute, where Sabuda now teaches. His early jobs were diverse. While establishing himself as a freelance illustrator specializing in intricate linocuts, Sabuda worked as a hardware store clerk, in a publisher's mailroom, inked coloring books, and designed women's underwear packages for J.C. Penney. "Everyone always thinks that's so funny, but I learned a lot on that job," he insists. "Working with cardstock, die-cutting, how to photograph art. I still use all those skills."
The Iowa-born Reinhart majored in toy design. He designed models and cut-outs for Nickelodeon's Blue's Clues
before joining Sabuda, first as an intern and then as his partner. In the heavily closeted world of children's literature, the two men are refreshingly open about their partnership being romantic as well as professional. Sabuda's website refers to them living together and renovating an 1830s farmhouse "upstate." "I'd say it's 95 percent done," he says of their beloved New Paltz getaway, then amends, "Is a house in the country ever done?"
When asked if they're weekenders, Sabuda rolls his eyes, bristling. "I go up on Thursdays
!" If Reinhart's not with him, he completes his commute by cab. The iconoclastic artist doesn't drive ("Not everything in this world revolves around having a driver's license," he declares with pride, causing Reinhart to hoot, "You can't even go to Target by yourself!") and refuses to carry a cell phone. His more 21st-century partner trawls Kingston's big box stores for action figures and Transformer toys, and listens to Depeche Mode, Gwen Stefani, and Madonna.
Being forthright about his identity matters a lot to Sabuda. "If you're not heterosexual and doing things with children, it's a taboo. But times have changed. I knew I was going to be open about it right from the beginning. We both have very accepting and loving families. And no one has ever, ever, commented that it's an issue. Maybe someone decides not to buy our books—that's their business. I don't live my life to please what others think I should be."
Reinhart agrees, adding, "What we do is so universal. It's not subversive in any way. We're just big kids having fun." Looking around the studio, from Darth Vader to Mr. Potatohead, it's hard to disagree. But they create singular gifts for a generation glutted by electronics, eliciting saucer-eyed awe with the simplest of materials: paper. Every kid knows the magic of folding a flat sheet of paper just so, and creating a three-dimensional airplane that actually flies
. Robert Sabuda and Matthew Reinhart make it fly to a galaxy far away.
Robert Sabuda & Matthew Reinhart will sign books at Barnes & Noble in Newburgh (1245 Rt. 300) on Sunday, December 17, at 2pm.