Unfolding the Story Behind Paul Johnson’s No-Fold Pop-Up Books

Lisa Martin

A typical day for Lisa includes: getting up to see the sunrise, bicycling, interning at Make:, reading and writing short stories, and listening to audiobooks and podcasts for hours while working on projects or chores.

73 Articles

By Lisa Martin

A typical day for Lisa includes: getting up to see the sunrise, bicycling, interning at Make:, reading and writing short stories, and listening to audiobooks and podcasts for hours while working on projects or chores.

73 Articles

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The pop-up books of Paul Johnson wouldn’t look out of place in a museum or art gallery, but to really understand Johnson’s work you have to imagine seeing these pieces in a classroom. “One half is working in books. One half is teaching literacy to children,” Johnson says. For him, the pop-up books were a way to get children excited to read and write by first getting them interested in the book itself. And these books are exciting, not just as works of art, but as works of inspired engineering.

Instead of folds, these books are held together entirely by paper piano hinges and dovetail joints. Avoiding folds has many practical benefits: there’s less paper fatigue, individual pieces can be easily replaced, and the books can be packed completely flat — perfect for the many and far-flung workshops that Johnson teaches.

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Photography by Hep Svadja

Once he has an idea for a story, he begins work on the structure of the book. First comes a rough model, constructing its architecture while playing with the structure. Then the individual pieces — there can be around 200 of them in each book — of this template get traced onto large sheets of dyed watercolor paper and assembled.

One piece, when held downward, looks like a loose stack of papers. Turn it right-side up and the book expands before your eyes with little more than gravity acting upon it. “There’s an element of surprise, there’s an element of performance,” Johnson says. The same two elements, he says, are critical when it comes to teaching.

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