Paper Work: Barton has taught the art of paper engineering for more than 20 years.
Paper Work: Barton has taught the art of paper engineering for more than 20 years. Credit: Photograph by Charles Steck

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Carol Barton makes pop-up books, but she bristles at being classified as a children’s author. “I’m an artist that makes books,” she explains. “They’re not children’s books.”

For nearly two decades, the 53-year-old Glen Echo resident has been working in the “paper-engineering” medium—or pop-up books to the uninitiated. Barton’s books have been displayed in collections around the world, including the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. She created her last major work, Five Luminous Towers: A Book to Be Read in the Dark, in the summer of 2000 while serving an artist’s residency in Italy and featured designs that were unlike anything you’d find in the kiddie section at Borders. “The whole book lights up,” Barton says. “The text lights up, too. There’s a lookout, a bell tower, and a lighthouse with fiber-optic filaments.”

Copies of Five Luminous Towers, which sell for $2,000 apiece at Barton’s Web site (, are made to order. “Usually I do runs of 100 to 500, but with that one I only did 50 because it was so hard to make,” she says.

More affordable copies of Barton’s work, however, can now be found on the shelves. In 2005 the artist published her first mass-produced commercial work, The Pocket Paper Engineer: How to Make Pop-Ups Step-by-Step, through her own Popular Kinetics Press imprint. Originally, Barton sold the book herself, but she’s recently gained national distribution through Independent Publishers Group. The Pocket Paper Engineer is the first in a series of instructional books intended to teach the art of the pop-up and is now widely available.

Barton has been teaching classes on pop-up design since shortly after she finished her first 3-D work, Tunnel Map, in 1986. Barton—who also holds a faculty position at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia—now spends much of her time on the road teaching workshops to anyone from children to architects to grandparents to Mattel Company designers.

According to Barton, the key to teaching pop-up book design is to tone down the math—specifically geometry, which plays a large role in the process. “I had to figure out how to present this information in a way that people could understand without being intimidated,” Barton says. “A lot of people haven’t developed 3-D design skills; they aren’t something you learn regularly.”

For The Pocket Paper Engineer, Barton drew from her years of teaching experience to lay out the basics in easy-to-follow steps. The simple instructions printed on the book’s fold-out cards guide you through creating any number of basic pop-up forms—such as a page of grinning faces or a 3-D crab. Two future volumes featuring more advanced designs are currently in the works, she says.

Still, Barton has a few designs that probably won’t be making an appearance in the series, including a flier she created for the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. “I’m friends with the head of publications,” says Barton. “She was complaining that teens never looked at the contraception brochure—so we joked about having me design one.” When asked what exactly the 3-D work depicts, Barton gets a little giggly. “There was a penis, a womb, all of the birth contraception devices.”