Jun 012010

We all remember pop-up books from our childhood. As fascinated as we were back then, we probably never imagined how much engineering know-how went into these books. Pop-up engineer Anton Radevsky has even managed to fold a 27-kilometre particle accelerator into a book.

The customs officer put the packet down gently, stepped back a little and nervously asked me to open it. I had come to pick up a parcel from CERN and, irritated by the N in the European Organization for Nuclear Research’s name, he asked me what was in there. “A particle accelerator”, I answered truthfully. This got him worried. What a relief when the officer found out that it was only a pop-up book about the LHC particle accelerator (see engine 2/2008, ‘The Universe Machine’). I had to stand and wait while he was flipping through the pages, calling his colleagues one by one to see how the LHC’s tunnels, caves, detectors and even a whole universe were popping up from between the pages. In an instant the pop-up book had magically transformed a group of stern customs officers into children.

Anton Radevsky's pop-up version of the Atlas experiment at the LHC (Image: Cern)

The magician behind all this is Anton Radevsky, one of only a handful of pop-up or paper engineers worldwide. The shy Bulgarian had been called by CERN’s public relations department to explain the highly complex and theoretical subject of the LHC’s ATLAS experiment to the public. What would be more suitable to do so than letting Radevsky do his magic? The centuries-old art of movable books combines illustrative, tangible 3D-objects with the wide-eyed joy we remember from our childhood, when these objects miraculously appear and disappear between the pages.

From Science to Children’s Books

The first books with movable parts appeared as early as the 13th century. Long before the printing revolution, hand-drawn rotating discs, so-called volvelles, were used to illustrate astronomical or mythical correlations. In the following centuries, medical books sometimes featured paper flaps to reveal body parts.

But it was not until the beginning of the 19th century that movable books for children started to appear. Dean & Sons in London was one of the first to publish children’s books with mostly pull-the-flap mechanisms on a large scale. Later Nuremberg, with its toy and highly developed printing industry, became a centre for movable books. The witty and mechanically highly complex books of Lothar Meggendorfer, which involved many rivets and levers, mark the pinnacle of this Golden Era of movable books, which then ended with the First World War.

During the first renaissance in the 1930s, real pop-up mechanisms became widely popular. These origami-like scenes which unfolded when a double-page spread was opened were used in the many books published by Bookano in Great Britain and Blue Ribbons Books in the US, the latter of which coined the term “pop-up book”.

Most of the pop-up books we remember enjoying and wearing out as kids and still many of the movable books we find in bookstores today can be traced back to Waldo Hunt. Hunt was a producer, or packager, bringing paper designers and skilled but cheap production facilities together and selling the books to other publishers. He revived the dormant scene in the 1960s and for the next 30 years inspired his paper engineers, as he used to call them, to more and more daring designs. The idea for this flourishing business was sparked when he passed a bookstore displaying a Czech pop-up book. When he failed to import the beautiful works of Czech artist Voitech Kubasta, he simply started to produce his own. 

Kubasta was a great inspiration not only for Hunt but for many paper engineers – including Anton Radevsky. Back in his childhood days in Sofia, Radevsky used to love the Czech’s books so much that he took them apart to see how they worked. His curiosity came in handy years later, when, as a graphic arts student at the Weißensee Kunsthochschule Berlin, he had to choose his final-year project. “One of the projects was a movable children’s book for Verlag Junge Welt,” recalls Radevsky. “No-one wanted it; they probably considered it not prestigious enough. But I remembered my fondness of pop-up books and paper models and took the chance.” The book never got published, but Radevsky’s path was set.

Unfolding Assignment

After a few children’s books, his first pop-up book was finally published in 1988. Due to the many changes in Eastern Europe, he had to start all over again, but today he makes his living as a paper engineer. His books include two titles on architecture and pop-up books on spacecraft and the Wild West. Then, in 2008, he got a call from CERN.

They had seen his work and wanted to use the unique haptic and graphic qualities of pop-up books to make their ATLAS experiment at the LHC in Geneva and the theory behind it more accessible to the public, i.e. the taxpayers funding the project. Radevsky accepted.

The soon to be retired Space Shuttle lives on in one of Radevsky’s pop-up books.

Together with his co-author Emma Sanders, an astrophysicist and science writer in CERN’s education and outreach team, he started the impossible task of squeezing the 27-kilometre ring of the LHC, the 100-metre deep cave for the ATLAS experiment, the 7000-ton detector and a Big Bang as a bonus between the pages of a book. The two had endless discussions, suggesting this, trying that, rejecting most of it, and starting all over again. While Sanders became fond of pop-up books during the process and started to collect them, Radevsky has to admit a little secret: “Even after all these months working on the project, I still don’t understand what the book is actually about. It’s probably not a very artistic book, but, still, the physicists like it a lot.”

The reason for this appreciation is probably because unfolding paper can be as challenging as unfolding atoms. Only that Radevsky’s tools of trade are slightly more simple: a pair of scissors, paper and glue. “Once I see an object, I can envision the parts and folds necessary to make it pop up. The object dictates the design,” he says, describing the construction process. After that, it’s cutting and folding, cutting and gluing, trying and trying – a classic handicraft completely without the use of CAD or 3D-graphics – except maybe as input: During a visit to Geneva, Radevsky found the LHC and ATLAS experiment so mind-boggling that from then on he preferred to work from computer models.

When asked to reveal some paper engineering basics and the secrets of his trade, Radevsky answers evasively: “Paper engineering isn’t something you can learn at a university or in a course. You have to study the work of others thoroughly; you need to know paper, its strengths and weaknesses, what you can do with it and what you can’t.” Spoken as a true artist.

Made by Skilful Hands

Once a white prototype of a book is finished, it has to stand up to several tests: Is it an accurate representation of the original object? Does it fold and unfold properly and reliably? And, is it easy and economical to manufacture? The assembly of a pop-up book is, except for the printing and punching, a purely manual process. Each fold, flap, glue point or string is set by skilful, mostly female hands. “Some years ago, pop-up books were assembled by experienced and specialised workers in Colombia, but nowadays most books come from China or Taiwan. The quality isn’t what it used to be and our designs have to be more foolproof,” laments Radevsky.

When, after much back and forth and endless negotiations, the white prototype is finally accepted, the Bulgarian disassembles it and starts on the artwork. A commercial artist all his life, he prefers to draw and illustrate by hand and uses the computer only to enhance or adjust his drawings. At last the pop-up book is ready for production. Making a pop-up book is a laborious process for everybody involved, it asks for patience and diligence from the designer as well as the manufacturer and the packager.

Granted, in the age of Flash animations, 3D-graphics and virtual reality, there’s probably nothing more outdated than a pop-up book. And the ATLAS experiment surely could be much better explained through an interactive website or CD-ROM. But in all their sterile perfection, these computer presentations lack one thing: magic. The magic that large, but delicate, seemingly solid objects appear and disappear between pages at our will. The magic that, although we can clearly see how it works, we still can’t fully grasp it. A magic that enchants children, physicists – and even customs officers – alike.

Matthias Meier


Die Movable Book Society ist die Anlaufstelle für Künstler und Sammler von Pop-up Büchern. Leider mit wenig Informationen für Nicht-Mitglieder.

Zwei sehr gute Webseiten über die Geschichte der Pop-up Bücher von den Anfängen im 13. Jahrhundert bis heute.

Link- und Bücherliste zum Thema Pop-up Bücher.

Homepage von Pop-up Künstler Robert Sabuda mit vielen Bastelanleitungen zum Selbermachen.

www.facebook.com/pages/Pop-up-Voyage-to-the-Heart-of-Matter/153102255147 www.youtube.com/watch?v=4XK9fdLM8Y8
Web- und Facebookseite und Youtube-Video des im Text beschriebenen Buchs ‘Voyage to the Heart of the Matter – the ATLAS experiment at CERN’.

Mehr Infos zum ATLAS Experiment.


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