There are maybe 100 people in the world who are paper engineers on a full-time basis. Houstonian Bruce Foster is one.
Foster had trained as an artist and had a solid career as an art director when a chance assignment introduced him to the world of pop-up books. Coca Cola wanted a three dimensional display and Foster was tasked with creating it. "I tried several things -- optical illusion, [working with] the red/blue glasses. At that point I had only seen one pop-up -- ever -- and that had been a [simple] cone."
Pop-up books were something of a revelation to him. "It was the perfect marriage of my three-dimensional work in art school and graphic design. When I figured out that I could take graphic design into three dimensions, it was like the clouds parted and rainbows came out. I couldn't believe it. I'd never seen a pop-up book before and here it was the perfect thing for me to do."
Foster worked with publishers on a freelance basis for seven years, all the time perfecting his skills. "I took it to heart and started studying all the pop-up books that I could find in bookstores and sales bins. I would do book autopsies where I would dissect pop-up books to see how they had been made, how they worked."
He eventually left his job as an art director and became a full-time paper engineer. His work is renowned world-wide and several of his books have won awards. "The National Parks book won several national awards and was selected as an Oprah Book of the Week. That was great." Other popular titles include the 75Th anniversary pop-up of the Wizard of Oz and a Harry Potter pop-up.What He Does:
"If someone asks me what I do, I generally, I say, 'I'm a paper engineer.' Then they say 'what does that mean?' So I say, 'I design pop-up books' and I use my hands to show them how the paper pops up.
"Most of the time they say, 'That's cool. I've never met a paper engineer.' I tell them 'There's a reason for that. There aren't very many of us.' And there aren't. For one thing there's aren't any training programs for [the profession.] It takes a really long time to get good at it. And then there's only so many pop-up books that factories can produce in a year." Most of Foster's books are hand-assembled in China and it's a slow, time-intensive process. He could easily create more books than there are factories to fill the order.
Why He Likes It: "I like imagining the trick that it plays on your mind when you see something flat transform into something three dimensional. I like telling stories in three dimensions. I like coming up with new ways to do it, new ways to make the paper dance into the story you want it to tell. Those are exciting things for me.
"The most fun is the play phase, when I'm working with very rough forms. I actually sculpt the paper, cut it and bend it, tape it. My second favorite part is when I get to show the books to people, when it's all done."
What Inspires Him: "Making paper tell a story, that's magical. For me, there aren't many things that I can't find fun in doing. You can give me any subject and I could probably have fun making it into a pop-up."
If Not This, Then What: "I could be a chef. I love to cook. Watching [cooking] shows is fun and in many of my trips across the country, I've gotten to meet some of those chefs that I see on television."
Among those encounters is a day Foster and his family spent with famed French pastry chef Pierre Herme. Preparing for a possible book on his signature creations, the famous chef picked Foster and his family up at the airport in France and took them to his private kitchens where assistants prepared pastries for three hours while Foster took pictures. "We got to taste these pastries right out of the oven. We're talking French pastries by French pastry masters, it was a once in a lifetime experience."
If Not Here, Then Where: Foster could be based anywhere since most of his work is done over the Internet and by phone. "I work with some people for a year or more and never meet them, never shake their hands. I can live anywhere. I went to school in Knoxville and I might want to get back to the mountains there."
What's Next: Foster's latest release is Woodland Christmas, a holiday book he created in collaboration with Yevgeniya Yeretskaya, (who provided the text), Neiko Ng (illustrations) and Monika Brandrup (design). Foster is currently working on a book about the White House. Several of his pop-up board games are set to be released after the new year and he's in talks to create sequels to previous projects.
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