“Learn rules. Break rules. Make new rules. Repeat.”
In between working on releases from the Lego, Game of Thrones and Star Wars series, Matthew Reinhart found time to discuss the secrets of pop-up magic from his studio in the West Village, New York City.
When Matthew Reinhart describes his weekday, he paints an idyllic and stereotypical picture of an artist living in New York. His alarm clock rings at 05.00 and he begins his day in the gym then he cycles to the studio that he shares with a small group of contemporaries in the West Village. But once he gets inside the stereotypes end – and he creates something completely unique.
What are you working on right now, Matthew?
“I’ve just finished up two huge projects to be released in fall 2016, Lego Pop-Up: A Journey Through the Lego Universe with Scholastic, and Frozen: A Pop-Up Adventure with Disney Publishing. Both were wonderful to be a part of. Both projects stretched my abilities creatively, they were really hard to make.”
“A need to express myself artistically, or ‘make stuff’ as I typically and much less eloquently phrase it, has been with me since before I can remember.”
Where did your creativity and talent for art come from?
“A need to express myself artistically, or ‘make stuff’ as I typically and much less eloquently phrase it, has been with me since before I can remember. Whether it was stealing all of my Grandma’s typing paper to draw my own animal books, cutting up cardboard boxes to make cities for my action figures or building creature masks from poster board and tin foil. And now, here I am, forty years later doing the same thing, just in a more complicated way.”
When did you first realize that you had enough creative and artistic talent to be able to work as a pop up-artist?
“I did well in school and was interested in biology, so I started on a path to medical school, but all the while I kept sketchbooks and painted. After college I was accepted into medical school but I was able to defer a year to live in New York so I could experience life in a big city. That entire year, I realized medical school was not for me – I dreaded it! Having met so many designers, writers and artists in the city, I was able to come up with a better career path for me, one that challenged me creatively and could provide me with a living.
When did you realize that pop-ups were your passion?
“To be honest, pop-ups really weren’t on my radar until I was about 24 years old. I had one or two pop-up books as a kid, and my little sister always tore right into them, quite literally, I’m afraid. My time as an assistant to the very accomplished and talented paper engineer, Robert Sabuda, really got me interested in paper engineering, but it wasn’t an immediate love affair. In time, the rules for cutting and folding started to ‘click’ in my head, and I started to have the confidence to present new ideas of my own.”
How do you go about creating your books?
“You can’t have a book without a story, and even though my books are not heavy on text I must always write the manuscript first, because it gives me ideas for the pop-ups that will hopefully be inside. From there, I will create an outline of what pops should occur on each page, small and large. Only words, not elaborate sketches, help me begin the process of paper engineering each pop for the book. Then I begin to cut, fold and tape together paper and see how all the pieces work in very rough mock-up pops.”
Is any of the process computerized or is everything made by hand?
“Every pop-up begins with actual cutting and folding, discerning which parts fit or catch, all by hand. After I’ve designed a first prototype I’ll carefully take it apart, scan the pieces and trace them using Adobe Illustrator. Once the pops are perfected, the next step is creating the colour artwork, a stage that I complete myself or collaborate on with someone else. Once all of the stages have been completed, digital files are sent to the manufacturer. Each book is a handmade piece of art – one that goes from my hands creating it, to the manufacturer’s hands and finally to the readers’ hands.
When you try out new pop-up ideas, is there any theoretical foundation to your work or is it more of a trial and error approach?
“It’s more trial and error, actually. You have to take into account many different factors: the restraints of materials, the complexity of a mechanic, gravity, paper friction and how all those factors interact. Math, more specifically geometry, is an essential element of what I do – but it’s usually the basics, knowing angles and shape measurements. The motto I try to live by is: “Learn rules. Break rules. Make new rules. Repeat.”
Your work includes impressive titles such as Star Wars and Games of Thrones. What was it like working with those high-profile projects?
“I feel like I’m the luckiest nerd in the world to be involved with things like Star Wars, Game of Thrones, Transformers and even My Little Pony. I’m a fan of them all. I have that obsessive, ‘need to know everything’ sort of mind for things like superheroes, robots, fantasy, science fiction, toys, mythology, dinosaurs …the list continues to grow!”
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Focusing on the Games of Thrones pop-up: how did you come up with the concept?
“As soon as I was approached about the book, my answer was ‘yes’ – I was already a huge fan. I was told to make the castles of Westeros, which was easy for me, but I thought to myself, ‘how can I make this book different?’. I suggested we push the limit of how the book could be deconstructed and how the individual spreads could interact. I made a rough working prototype of the book complete with magnets to hold the book together in a form that allowed it to be unfolded into a table-sized map as well. The folks at HBO were blown away. As was I, since I didn’t think it could happen either. I’m very proud of the final result.”
What do you think the future of paper, books and pop-ups is in our digital world? Do you think there will still be artists like yourself in, say, fifty years?
“Yes, I think there will. Perhaps there will be fewer paper engineers than now. An appreciation in some manner of the traditional book, of paper arts and paper engineering, though, will continue to exist.”
TEXT JOHAN ÅBERG