Confessions of a Pop-Up Collector: Brenda Forman

Pop-up passion seized me in the late 1970s. I don't really remember how it began but I think I was captivated by Jan Pienkowski's happily hilarious Haunted House pop-up, the first entry in what I call the Great Pop-up Renaissance of the 1980s and early 1990s. True Pop-Up Fever did not seize me immediately, though. For a long time, I only collected "the ones that make my smile muscles hurt," as I put it at the time. And lord knows, there were plenty of those! Pienkowski's Haunted House, his classic Robot, and the wacky irreverence of Ray Marshall and Korky Paul are among my favorites from those early years.

But as every collector will understand, the fever grew on me steadily and before long, I was as obsessive a pop-up pursuer as you might ever wish to see. I haunted the bookstores, I pored over mail order catalogs, I hunted down pop-up magazine ads, I grabbed pop-up greeting cards and ephemera -- in short, everything remotely pop-up-ish, no matter what the shape, the form or the content.

Just as my pop-up passion had flowered fully, the Gods of Collecting smiled upon me when the National Geographic began to publish its series of two wonderful pop-ups per year. This electrifying series continued for over ten years and proved to be among the most dazzling examples of the art ever produced. In my opinion, it is one of the all-time treasures of the form. The illustrations are beautiful and the paper engineering is purely astonishing. I bought duplicates of all of them and now I can confess that while I gave the University the full series, I kept the duplicates for my very own self....

Inevitably, it got to the point where the supply of new items could no longer satisfy my collector's craving. And so it came to pass that I discovered the pop-ups of yore -- and amazing vistas opened before me. It happened this way. I was on a business trip to Boston and I had several hours to kill before my boring meeting began. And as destiny would have it, there was a book fair in town. Here I encountered my pop-up fate in the form of Popeye, a Blue Ribbon pop-up from the 1930s. I was at first shocked by the $85 price tag (which, I might note, would be easily 4-5 times as much now) and so I walked away. But I came back. And in the years to come, I pursued and eventually acquired the entire Blue Ribbon series. They are deservedly classic. The paper engineering is fairly basic but their liveliness, boldness and energy makes them one of the gems of the collection.

In those days, I would hit the book fairs when the doors opened and move briskly from booth to booth, asking, "Any pop-ups?" If they said no, I'd pass on. But if they said yes, I'd buy it, whatever it was, as long as it was somehow pop-up related. In this way, I began to accumulate a very widely varied collection.

It was at one such fair that I met my first Bookano. The copy was a touch shabby but the paper engineering was nothing short of miraculous. And nobody seemed to know anything much about it! It was obviously English but in the usual British way, it was undated. A friend knew of a provincial British museum that had recently mounted an exhibition of children's books. She suggest I write them and ask where I might find more Bookanos. The reply took months to arrive but when it did, it contained a list of a half-dozen English dealers. I wrote to all of them and not only did they produce some wonderful Bookanos but I gained a valued friendship as well with Michael and Megan Dawson of Ampersand Books. They are ardent pop-up collectors themselves but more than that, Michael is a tireless researcher into the history of this wonderful art form. He has tracked down and interviewed survivors of S. Louis Giraud, the genius who made these bewitching little miracles, and he taught me more about Bookanos than any of the US dealers at the time knew. Persistently and doggedly over the years, I acquired the entire Bookano series. They are one of the Crown Jewels of the collection.

Another inspired pop-up artist, this one Czech, is Vojtech Kubasta. I wish I had known this man because his work brims with so much laughter, happiness and vitality. I think I eventually managed to acquire all his pieces but there may well be more out there because the man's creativity and energy seem to have been inexhaustible. I began collecting him back in about 1988. I'm glad I discovered him then because he wasn't a hot item yet. A couple of years later, another dealer from whom I'd bought a good many things and who knew how much I loved Kubasta called me with an offer I couldn't refuse: Kubasta's publisher's entire archive of mint-condition pop-ups! This qualified as the Collector's Dream and it is some of those wonders that you will see on exhibit here.

And of course, I absolutely had to get hold of samples of the two reigning masters of the late 19th century: Lothar Meggendorfer and Ernst Nister. These two were almost exact contemporaries but two more opposite sensibilities you could hardly imagine. Nister is, above all, pretty. Meggen dorfer, on the other hand, is funny. These are the Old Masters of Pop-Ups. Finding examples of either is no easy matter and when you do, the price tags will definitely get your attention, but they are absolutely essential components of any serious collection. I was lucky enough to obtain some very nifty examples, some of which are on display for your delight and delectation.

My ardent collecting days probably spanned a period of about 15 years. In that time, I assembled a collection of some 7-800 pieces dating from 1858 to the present. They range from simple to immensely complex, from sentimental to wickedly irreverent, from tiny to huge, and everything in between. Sadly, the Great Pop-Up Renaissance has faded a good deal now. Making a pop-up book of any merit and complexity is an acutely labor-intensive process and in their heyday, the miracles devised by genius paper engineers were assembled by hand largely in Cali, Colombia. Then as the drug cartels began to disrupt Colombia's economy and society, that source of affordable hand labor dried up -- and pop-ups began to fade from the market. For awhile, some were printed and made in places like Singapore and Taiwan but that didn't last. The National Geographic series ended a few years back, and although occasional wonders such as Ron Sabuda's Christmas Alphabet still do appear, the glorious efflorescence of the 1980s is no longer with us.

But pop-ups have come and gone repeatedly over the past 150 years or so. After the decades of Nister and Meggendorfer, pop-ups and movables disappeared almost entirely after World War I and through the 1920s. The Bookanos and the Blue Ribbons delighted the world again in the 1930s and 1940s, and the Hallmark and Random House series kept us going through the post-World War II years until the great outburst of the 1980s. So hope need not die. One day, the Pop-Up Sun shall rise again.

And when it does, take my advice and buy early!