A Brief History of Pop-Up Books


RARE’s current exhibition, “Sjoerd Hofstra with Karen O’hearn: Books in Motion,” presents a wealth of the pair’s interactive and high-concept takes on the pop-up book. The complexity of the books themselves is a testament to the richness of a technique that is now primarily used for children’s books, but has enjoyed a varied history spanning religion and high-art.

Commonly conceived of as a visual treat for children, the pop-up book—originally known as a “movable book”—was actually first employed by Benedictine monk Matthew Paris circa 1250 to track holy days. (Paris used a “volvelle,” or pivoting wheel.) In circa 1305, poet and mystic Ramon Llull introduced volvelles to the West as a means of divining spiritual answers, in the fashion of a multi-layered Ouija board.

(left: A volvelle)


This technique was only applied to children’s books in the mid-18th century, when bookseller Robert Sayer created a “lift the flap” book for children about a comic ne’er-do-well named Harlequin in 1765.

(left: A Cherokee Chief in London, 1772)





The commercial explosion of children’s books came in 1929 with the first Daily Express Children’s Annual, published by S. Louis Giraud. Priced modestly, and produced inexpensively, Giraud pushed pop-ups—which he called “living models”—to a new and mass audience.

(left: Daily Express Children’s Annual No. 2 , 1930)



The pleasantly deceptive simplicity of the pop-up book was appropriated in the later twentieth century for high-art by figures like Andy Warhol, whose Index Book featured tear-out inserts of a cardboard can of tomato paste (at left) and an inflatable balloon; one can see a similar sense of childish glee in the removable sticker on his famous design for the Velvet Underground’s debut album cover. Tony Award-winning production designer Peter Larkin has also intermittently released selections of a massive pop-up history of burlesque, twenty years in the making, called Panties Inferno. (The book remains unrealized, his vision perhaps being either too complex—or expensive—for publishers.)

Hofstra and O’hearn’s designs are of a different stripe, entirely. Like a Frank O’Hara poem come to life, they examine whimsical and odd negative spaces in city scenes, as well as enigmatic structures built upon familiar 2-D landscapes (at left, a spread from All Meadows).They probe the representation of public space, rearranging familiar scenes and urban locales with often beguiling results. The exhibit reveals a full history of the pair’s previous collaborative output, in addition to two new pop-ups created specifically for RARE and a series of nine framed, moveable wall pieces.

“Sjoerd Hofstra with Karen O’hearn: Books in Motion” is now on view at RARE through January 30, 2016.


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