Robert Crowther was born in Leeds in 1948. He went to Norwich School of Art and the Royal College of Art to study graphic design. Two projects produced at the RCA led to his career, one being the Alphabet Book and the other was a self portrait made out of biscuit in low relief. The biscuit project led to many years of freelance work with Madame Tussaud’s and the London Planetarium, as well as Chessington Zoo and Warwick Castle. Since then over 40 pop-ups have been published.
Describe something that has recently amazed you and how it made you feel.
Recently I’ve been amazed by the beauty of Cornwall and the ever changing different landscapes it has. The weather here changes quickly and a misty, wet morning can soon change as the sun peeps through the clouds and illuminates green fields into a bright shade of lime. My wife and I moved here seven years ago and we are still discovering mesmerising new views, which somehow have the power to lift one’s spirits on a difficult day.
How would you personally define wonder, awe and curiosity? And how do they relate to each other?
Wonder comes in many forms – looking at a particular landscape, a work of art or something a child says or produces in class. I’m often in awe of people, in the public eye or friends around me. If I’m reading an article about someone I get the feeling of awe when they have chosen a difficult path in their careers and succeeded. Curiosity is something that keeps us going in life – I find it gives me a positive attitude to discover more about life and try new challenges.
Tell me about your journey, how did you end up as a paper engineer?
I always liked making things throughout my boyhood: I am less good at sketching ideas and I much prefer making something in 3D. I went to art college in Norwich to do graphics and subsequently I went on to the Royal College of Art, where in the final I designed my Most Amazing Hide and Seek Alphabet Book. I used to go into bookshops and peer between the pages of pop-ups to see how they were constructed and then go back to the studio and try to recreate what I’d seen. The mistakes I made in this process often lead to finding new ways of making things move or stand up on the page.
Your Pop up Animal Alphabet and Numbers books are a treasured part of my childhood and I suspect many more people’s too. Can you tell me about the experience of producing them and the reception they’ve received?
It took five years to find a publisher for my ABC but due to its eventual success I’ve been able to stay in this area of books for over 40 years. I’ve found over time that subjects I like and know a bit about have been more successful: probably one of my favourites is Trains because I loved travelling on the railways.
It was a struggle initially to get the ABC book published because many people said you couldn’t have a children’s book that on the surface was black and white – until tabs were pulled to reveal the coloured animals. For me this was as much a book of type laid out on a page and I was reluctant to add more colour or distraction on the surface of the page: I wanted the reader to see the magic of a brightly coloured animal appearing from behind the Helvetica typeform. The reverse situation occurred in Colours, where the page was just the colour and drawings of objects in that colour were revealed by pulling one big tab. When the ABC book was published, initially by Penguin Books, it was very well received and that first Christmas in 1978 it went to the top of the childrens’ bestseller list. It did change my life and has enabled me to carry on working in pop-ups and also has meant I have visited many schools up and down the country and abroad to pass on the skills I’ve learnt over the years.
As a magician I sometimes create from an effect I have in mind and work backwards to the method behind the scenes. Sometimes the other way; I discover a fascinating method or technology and try to turn it into a trick. How do you go from an idea in your head to a final project?
I think you do need an aptitude for paper engineering, the ability to be able to think of different ways of approaching the same problem. Sometimes it takes days to come up with a solution for a particular challenge, but for me working with card and tape to assemble a new idea is the best bit of the job. There is nothing to beat the creative phase of working on a new book and deciding what goes on each page and how it all fits together. It probably comes back to your original question – how can you make something that inspires wonder and curiosity out of a piece of card. The best pop-ups are those that surprise and amuse at the same time. Sometimes you have an idea in your head but when you come to make it it doesn’t turn out as you expect: but once you’ve started you will be inspired to move onto the next rough…and the next and so on. New ideas bring new problems to solve and that’s what keeps the paper engineer going and continues to do so even at my advanced age!
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