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He’s just not on the same page

Times Staff Writer

THE backroom of Robert Sabuda’s Upper West Side office looks like a combined day-care center and sweatshop. Tall windows in two walls let sunlight splash over packed-together desks and tables where a small cadre of adults meticulously cut out little paper figures, like kids engaged in a craft project.

What they’re really doing is helping revolutionize a childhood staple: the pop-up book.

Over the last decade, Sabuda has transformed a onetime novelty for children into confounding collections of paper engineering and art, bringing light, motion and a third dimension to the printed page.

At first working alone but now running a studio with partner Matthew Reinhart, Sabuda has propelled pop-up books onto bestseller lists while building a following of readers -- adults and children -- drawn to what devotees describe as a moment of magic whenever they open one of his books.

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“He has built on traditions that have existed for hundreds of years and has been able to create new ways of having paper stand up and move,” said Ann Montanaro, head of the systems department at Rutgers University Libraries and a founder of the 12-year-old Movable Book Society of collectors. “Part of it is, he has brought an artistic view to making the paper move. He is very good structurally, but also a very good artist, so his work is very artistic.”

In the recently published “Encyclopedia Prehistorica: Dinosaurs,” voracious-looking creatures designed by Sabuda and Reinhart lunge from pages in an intricate explosion only to fold demurely back into two dimensions when the page is turned. In Sabuda’s coming “A Winter’s Tale,” a snow-laden forest comes to life as silvery fish leap away from a bear and foxes nuzzle each other in their rocky den. Sabuda has also turned the alphabet into three dimensions, explored Alice in Wonderland and reimagined “The Night Before Christmas.”

“Mr. Sabuda has greatly expanded the boundaries” of pop-up books,” said Edward Hoyenski, an art historian and assistant curator of Rare Book and Texana Collections at the University of North Texas Libraries in Denton, Texas. “He’s taken them to a new plateau. Our library has a collection going back to the 1800s, and you can chart the evolution. His are the most intricate, most far-reaching and most amazing.... As art pieces, they are amazing examples of sculptural effects. They are brilliant, interactive pieces.”

For Sabuda, 40, the books are experiments in light, shadow and motion. “As an artist and an illustrator, I like working with craft,” Sabuda said, sitting at a long table in the studio’s front room, which doubles as lunchroom and storage space. “I had wanted to do an illustrated book using light. I just had this vision of using light to illustrate ... the light and shadow and shape you could get was so cool. I just wanted to explore that.”

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Adding the element of motion -- Sabuda calls it the “fourth dimension” in pop-ups -- complicates the designs even further. Much of the work is trial and error. Ideas are tried out and modified, entire books are pieced together as prototypes to ensure pages will open as they are supposed to, then the plans are sent to a printing plant in China, where Sabuda or a staffer travels to oversee the initial production run, making adjustments as needed on the fly.

It’s a time-intensive and expensive process, and the books are in the $30-to-$35 range as a result. A hefty tab for a kid’s book, but the works are designed as much for parents as they are for children.

Sabuda’s first pop-up book, “The Christmas Alphabet,” an ambitious undertaking of 26 pop-ups for an artist new to the form, came in 1992. While there is a small library of pop-up “how-to” books and websites available now -- in part because of the interest Sabuda has helped fan -- when he began there were no guides.

“I had to teach myself,” Sabuda said. “I had to look at books and see how they worked, kind of disassemble those. I clearly remember that struggle. Working in three dimensions is completely different.” In illustration, an artist can use techniques to play with perceptions of depth and space, offering more freedom than a paper engineer encounters. “That paper,” he said, “will only obey the laws of physics.”

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Sabuda worked alone for the first few books, then began taking on interns and hired assistants to help with the laborious tasks of cutting, pasting and experimenting. One of his interns was Reinhart, an illustrator and paper engineer.

The artists’ relationship evolved professionally and romantically and they now run the studio together, overseeing a shifting crew of up to six designers and interns who are producing about four books a year.

The partnership meshes Sabuda’s groundbreaking vision and technique with Reinhart’s interest in science and biology. Reinhart, 34, has published his own pop-ups on insects and was a driving force behind the recent “Dinosaurs.”

The work looks like the kind of fine-motor-skills drills youngsters perform in school. On one early summer afternoon, Reinhart and two others carefully cut out images, then tested them to ensure they would unfold correctly. Desks and tables were buried beneath stacks of papers and art supplies, mixed in with scores of toy figures from “The Simpsons,” one of Sabuda’s favorite television shows.

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Tracing the paper trail

MOVABLE books, the precursor to pop-ups, have been around since before Gutenberg invented his printing press, though in much simpler form. Paper doors opening to reveal hidden illustrations were used in medieval anatomy texts.

The earliest known volvelles, movable paper discs, date to the 13th century, used by monks to keep track of religious holidays and astronomers to plot the skies. Antiquarian volvelles now sell for tens of thousands of dollars.

The first true pop-ups emerged in England and Germany in the late 1700s to teach artists about perspective and a century later had become staples of children’s books -- prized toys for the wealthy and the nascent middle class.

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Like most people, Sabuda was introduced to pop-ups as a child. A publishing internship while he was an art student at the Pratt Institute in New York exposed him to children’s books and illustrations, and his interest grew. His first books were 1988’s “The Fiddler’s Son” and “The Wishing Well,” parables by Eugene Coco that Sabuda illustrated using engraved linoleum blocks.

Most successful children’s illustrators, such as Eric Carle and Jan Brett, develop distinctive styles and stick with them. Sabuda, while focusing for more than a decade on pop-ups, flits among techniques in ever-changing styles. A non-pop-up, “Arthur and the Sword,” was illustrated with stained glass. His “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” builds on the original W.W. Denslow illustrations (and begins with a tornado that spins as the book opens), while “A Winter’s Tale” is an exercise in minimalism -- at least in its use of color.

“I would rather try something and fail than not try something new,” Sabuda said. He said he doesn’t envision a market niche when he designs a project: “We just make it, and if it works, it works.” The audience is anyone susceptible to the “wow effect.”

“People think that it’s magic,” Sabuda said. “There’s no electricity, no metal or screws or things that you have to plug in. It is so nontech, and you get to make the magic happen with your hands.”

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