He has created his own version of Noah’s Ark. He made Charlie and the Chocolate Factory come to life on the page and his water lilies for Iggesund are breathtaking. Meet British paper engineer Iain Smyth.
We’re in a conference room in Gothenburg. The room is slowly emptying of people wearing black and carrying shiny white water lilies. But make no mistake; this is not a funeral. Those leaving are all smiling proudly, having completed an inspiring workshop hosted by British paper engineer Iain Smyth.
“I enjoy the entire process. It's always challenging creating a brand new mechanism, but I also enjoy the tweaking that goes on in order to make something as impressive as it can be, within the constraints of budgets and time"
Smyth had flown in from Bristol on the previous day. That’s where he, his wife Alison and their company Papersmyths are based, making bestselling pop-up books and promotional pop-up items for clients around the world.
How did you first enter the world of pop ups?
“I have always had a fascination for paper folding. A year or two after attending art college in Bristol I started doing simple pop-up promotional items, like a rubber band-powered pyramid with a corporate message on it. I soon started doing more complex things: a girl jumping out of a cake, a big house with die-cut windows so you could peek inside. From there we went into greeting cards. The first was a Noah’s Ark which rocked from side to side with all the animals poking their heads out, beautifully illustrated by Jane Ray. This meant we had something eye catching to show publishers and that's really how we got into pop-up books.”
What was your first pop-up book?
“My first book was The Mystery of the Russian Ruby - a pop-up whodunnit. It was printed in several languages in many territories. I followed it up with two more pop-up whodunnits and started working for many different publishers on all sorts of books. Over the years I have paper engineered lots of things. For example, one of the more challenging books was Alive, published by Dorling Kindersley. It included a complete pop-up skull on one spread, which was very complex. We designed a unique cover with a skull cut away to show the various layers within and it included a glass eye and brain synapses which lit up. I still do paper engineering for publishers; we recently did a pop-up book showing food for a restaurant in Istanbul.”
And then of course you also did Charlie and the Chocolate Factory…
“Yes we did. Using Roald Dahl’s approved shortened text and Quentin Blake’s fabulous illustrations we condensed the story into ten spreads, each one showing how every one of the children gets their comeuppance.”
What makes a good pop-up?
“I think a good pop-up is one that engages you – one that wows you with a moment of astonishment. I also think it is important how it is represented: the graphics, the illustration, the production, how well it’s made and how smoothly it works are also important.”
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Where do you look for inspiration?
Inspiration usually comes from whatever I am working on at the time. A problem can appear to be quite impossible to resolve but over time your subconscious mind somehow wrestles with it and quite suddenly and without realising quite how, the solution is there. I have always been interested in how things work: in paper novelties, cardboard boxes and packaging and how ingenious some of it is. I have always enjoyed puzzles and magic and I suppose it’s curiosity that gives me inspiration.”
What do you enjoy the most, refining things you’ve tried before or indulging in entirely new constructions?
“I enjoy the entire process. It's always challenging creating a brand new mechanism, but I also enjoy the tweaking that goes on in order to make something as impressive as it can be, within the constraints of budgets and time. I was asked today how I created the water lily and I had to admit that it took many, many versions.”
All in all, what is the most complex paper construction you have made to date?
“Great question. Something I was secretly very proud of was a mechanic in Angelina Ballerina’s Pop-up and Play Musical Theatre. (The Angelina books are a series of books about a little mouse who is a ballerina). In the finale, Angelina is dancing on stage and I designed a pull tab that made her spin three hundred and sixty degrees – no one will ever know the work that went into that!”
What is it that keeps you intrigued about paper and paperboard in general?
“I like the whiteness of it when it hasn’t been printed on, its purity. And of course when you cover it in print it becomes so different and powerful. Invercote is really the weapon of choice – it’s the best paperboard there is for pop-ups.”
What makes it so good?
“Its qualities are that it’s stiff and folds so well. When I am working I crease it with the back of a scalpel first. It doesn’t crack when you fold it. If you use a softer board it will tend to be floppy. Pop-ups have to work in many different environments. The better the board, the better the pop-up.”
TEXT: JOHAN LINDBERG PHOTO: ERIK ABEL