The Pop-Up Paper Engineer

“I always try to push myself in new directions with the engineering,” Reinhart says. “I try not to use similar mechanisms throughout my  books.”

In a small, messy studio in Chelsea, Matthew Reinhart sits at his desk, cutting paper for children’s pop-up books and listening to Howard Stern. Star Wars memorabilia and cutesy anime posters adorn the walls. Interns – along with one full-time staffer – flit in and out.

Reinhart, the author and illustrator of elaborate, awe-inspiring pop-up books like Star Wars: Pop-Up Guide to the Galaxy, typically spends about six to eight months conceiving a storyline and cutting out hundreds of pieces for one of his books, some of which are as thin as a piece of thread or as small as a speck of pepper. His newest project – a book involving large transforming robots that he is deliberately vague about – is slated to take even longer.

Many hail his work as sophisticated engineering, but Reinhart remains is bashful. “I’m just this guy who sits in a studio and cuts up paper,” he says. “I’m an art student, not a math student.”

Yet his dedication to art was not always so clearly defined. Below, the author-slash-engineer discusses how gouging out eyes from corpses at New York City morgues made him realize the importance of pursuing a career you love.

Age: 40
Graduated from: Clemson University, biology major; Pratt Institute, industrial design major
In the business for: 13 years
Based in: New York, New York

You studied biology as an undergraduate. Did you always have a hidden passion for art? I always took an interest in making things, but my parents didn’t want me to be a starving artist. They wanted me to be a doctor. So I majored in biology at Clemson, and if I ever had an elective, I took an art course. My notebooks in biology class were out of control – I drew massive ink sketches in the margins.

When did it click that you should study art instead? I got into medical school, but decided to first take a year off and live in New York. I started working at the Eye-Bank for Sight Restoration, through which I went to morgues and took out people’s eyeballs, sometimes in the middle of the night. By the time I was 22, I had been to every morgue in the New York City area. I saw a lot of dead people – a lot of whom were really young. That made me realize that life is short, and I have to do something I love.

So death inspired you to take advantage of life. [Laughs.] I went to my parents and told them I wanted to pursue art, and they were totally behind me.

Why pop-up books? I met [acclaimed children’s book author] Robert Sabuda doing volunteer work together for a local community center. When I graduated from Pratt, I began working with him on a book, and then we began co-authoring books. It grew bigger, and I started my own projects.

At the end of Star Wars, pieces of an Anakin Skywalker pop-up fold away as the light saber turns from blue to red. The pop-up fully transforms into Darth Vader.

What would people be surprised to learn about your job? It’s a lot less technical than people think. I’m an art student, not a math student. I don’t sit here with my trigonometry calculator and figure out the sine or cosine; I cut paper and see if it works.

Which comes first: pop-ups or words? Words are almost always first. Once we agree on a manuscript – which is like writing a term paper only three pages long – we outline what will go on each page. Then, I create the rough pop-ups, cutting and folding paper, which takes two or three months. Next is the cut-paper collage and placement in the digital file. One book might have 200 to 300 separate pieces.

Time span of creation, from start to finish: About six to eight months, but Star Wars took a little longer.

Tools used: 110-lb. cardstock; scissors; white artist’s tape; double-stick tape; white glue (similar to Elmer’s); scanners; and X-Acto blades. I use tweezers to pick up the really small pieces.

Do you use computers for design, or just implementation? Some people make pop-ups totally on the computer, but we don’t. You don’t know how all the pieces are going to fit together unless you’re holding them in front of you.

Last year, eBooks passed print in adult fiction for the first time. Pop-ups can’t exactly be digitized. Do you perceive that as a disadvantage? It’s a really weird time, and there’s a lot of nervousness in the publishing industry. Some of my work has slowed down, but I think kids will always play with [physical] books, especially picture books.

Do you use an eReader? My iPad is easier when I’m traveling, and I can get a lot of different comic book titles on it without worrying about collecting them. But if I find a really beautiful book about graffiti, I want the actual book.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Best part of your job: Working with amazingly creative people, like DC Comics. And I get to wear shorts to work if it’s hot.

Most challenging part of your job: Deadlines are the worst. The changing economy makes it hard to create something spectacular and also cost-appropriate.

Do you have certain ideas for pop-ups that are simply too expensive to be produced en masse? Yeah, there are certain elements. But I get to put light sabers in books, which is pretty cool.

Were you an avid reader as a kid? It’s funny – throughout my entire childhood, I didn’t really have any pop-up books. I wasn’t a big reader. I remember faking a report for A Wrinkle in Time using the liner notes on the book’s inside flap. I wasn’t even smart enough to use CliffsNotes! So now, I think about how I can pull in young readers who aren’t so interested in reading – the young versions of me.

In the New York Times, David Pogue wrote that calling your Star Wars book a pop-up book was like calling the Great Wall of China a partition. That was one of the most amazing things to have ever been written about me. I truly love this work, and sure, there are times when I’ve neglected my social life or personal life for it. But it’s very much a part of me.

One book character you’re dying to meet: The Cat in the Hat or Horton would be pretty cool. Optimus Prime would also be pretty kickass.

Your required reading: I did a book with Maurice Sendak – rest in peace – I love his work. The artwork of Mercer Mayer and Peter Spier is fantastic, too.


1. Paper engineering is a competitive field right now, especially with the emphasis on digital media. Be persistent and look around at what exists – then make sure you’re doing something completely different.

2. Acknowledge that you won’t be on top in the beginning. You’ll spend a lot of time working under someone else, paying your dues and being patient. Don’t assume, I made this book, so it should be published. [Success] doesn’t always come quickly.

3. Invest in a copy of The Elements of Pop-Up by David A. Carter and James Diaz.

Follow Matthew’s work on his blog and learn how to create your own Darth Vader pop-ups on his website.

For more crafty No Joe Schmos, check out the miniature food artist, the roller coaster engineer, and the textile jeweler.

5 thoughts on “The Pop-Up Paper Engineer

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s