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A passion for paper pop-ups that led to a successful business
May 18th, 2017
Katherine Belsey (Brooklyn, NY) creates beautifully original paper pop-up designs. She says she loves the challenge that is posed by the constraints of working with folded and cut paper. Almost by chance, her passion for creating paper pop-ups led to starting a successful online business designing and selling them.

How did you get started with paper pop-ups?

I started entirely by chance. I had studied creative writing in college (though I did take a lot of art classes like glass blowing and metal working), and then I went to graduate film school. Film combined many of my interests: storytelling, visual arts, but also working with a team. Writing on its own was pretty lonely. So I worked in feature film production for a few years, but when I started a family that was no longer feasible. One day, as I was playing with my toddlers, they asked me to build them a house. Living in a small, over-stuffed apartment I thought of making one which I could fold up and put away: a pop-up paper house. Of course my kids, being very young and distractible, lost interest in the project after about 20 minutes but I was hooked. 

How did you get to where you are now?

Very gradually… and also by chance. A while back I decided I really should learn how to design websites. Because I couldn’t think of anything better to do I posted pictures of stuff I’d made, which included stained glass, sculptures, furniture, clothes, and my first pop-up cards. I wasn’t selling anything or promoting myself, I was just teaching myself web design the same way I’d taught myself to make pop-up cards. So I was kind of stunned one day when I got an email from someone in Argentina who had seen one of my pop-ups and asked me if she could buy the pattern to make it herself! It seemed so strange and wonderful that someone half way around the world had seen what I’d done and cared enough to write me. It made me realize that maybe others might be interested as well, so I set up a new website, just for the pop-up cards. I liked the idea that I could post my designs and that people could buy them and download them automatically. I wouldn’t need to invest in inventory, deal with production and shipping. All I’d have to do is what I love best: design.

What do you do to promote and grow your business?

Well that’s the problem isn’t it? Because there’s a lot more to starting and growing a business than just designing beautiful and cool things! Since my business started as a small side project I was doing for fun, I never sat down and drew up a business plan, or sought out a loan from investors. I created my website, allowed people to sign up for newsletters and slowly, more and more people discovered me on their own and I developed an audience (it helped that I offer quite a few beginner patterns for free). I kept costs very low so that anything I needed to buy I could pay for with sales, and since at the time I had a “day job” it didn’t matter that I wasn’t paying myself a salary. One time I needed more money for a new large format color printer and a CNC desktop cutter, so I launched a Kickstarter campaign. I offered the pop-up paper house as a reward, and the campaign was a huge success, which enabled me not only to buy the equipment I needed, but to produce the house as a full, ready-to-assemble kit. I sold about 500 of the kits in a month. That’s when it finally dawned on me that I could actually turn my website into a real business — but to be honest I still don’t advertise much. I’ve tried putting ads on Facebook, but besides getting some fascinating pieces of information (I’m apparently very popular with men, ages 22-45 from the United Arab Emirates) the return on the advertising investment was very poor. I do much better when I send simple newsletters to my subscribers… though of course I could always do more marketing. I do post on my business Facebook page, but I can’t bring myself to tweet much, and I only recently set up an Instagram account.

Who else’s work has influenced or inspired your work?

I first thought of making a pop-up house because I remembered a book I’d seen as a child by the father of origamic architecture, Masahiro Chatani. He had designed some pop-up stairs which had completely fascinated me. It was pure magic! A whole world could come from a single sheet of paper, with nothing added, nothing subtracted, and nothing drawn or printed. I can, and do, design more traditional pop-up cards as well, with printed graphics and multiple pieces glued or hinged together, but I am most drawn to the elegant simplicity of the white, unprinted, geometric forms, and the purity of using a single sheet of paper. Along those lines I’m also a big fan of the Danish artist Peter Callesen. Even though he doesn’t make pop-up cards, I love what he does with blank sheets of paper.

Can you tell us about your creative process?

What inspires me most are constraints, so I guess it’s no surprise I make pop-up cards which are choc-full of rules and requirements. Sometimes I’ll even add extra “optional” constraints to push myself further. For example, for a custom pop-up house I decided I’d try to make two bathrooms (based on real-life rooms) in a single pop-up card, using one sheet of paper with nothing cut or added. I also wanted to have extras like a toilet lids which could go up and down… And it worked! Another time, when I was designing a pop-up card of a violin, I decided I it would be more interesting to show it in the hands of a violinist… and to make it look like the violinist was actually playing. This design is also made in one piece, from a single sheet of paper. Basically what it all comes down to is I want to learn something new with each pop-up I make. Sometimes as I work through the drafts that means the design will become more complex than necessary, then I pare it back down to its essence.

Do you have a favorite design?

That would have to be the paper puzzle box, which isn’t even a pop-up card! I do packaging as well, and I wanted to create a really unique box — which is pretty hard to do! I have a whole collection of fidget toys by my desk, rocks, goose bones, marbles… and a Jacob’s ladder, which is a traditional toy made of small pieces of wood bound by ribbons. When you hold the top piece of wood and tilt the toy, it looks like a piece of wood travels down the “ladder.” It’s really an optical illusion, each wooden piece flips one after the other, but as I looked at it I wondered if I could translate it into a box. By widening the “ribbons” to cover the entire box area I was able to create a cube with 2 distinct sets of graphics. The box can transform from one state to the other by swiveling around itself. First I made it into a calendar (you get a month on each side of the cube, yet all 12 months fit on the box!) but then I realized it would make a perfect Rubik’s cube. One state would be scrambled, the other would show the solved puzzle. After I got a license from Rubik’s Cube Ldt (and after I filed a patent application) I posted it as a download, but I would love to produce and distribute this piece. It is is an astonishingly joyful piece of paper craft.


What areas of your work are you hoping to explore further?

I really enjoy working with others. I design custom pop-up cards for private clients, and although it can be a lot of work I love the collaboration. The end result is always better than it would have been if I’d just been designing something for myself; it pushes me out of my comfort zone, which can be scary, but it is super important — and fun. I would never have made the Citi Field pop-up on my own, but it was a blast! Anything I design for my website has to be easy enough to be a DIY project, so custom work allows me to explore more ambitious designs. I have also worked with publishers, which is even more exciting because I don’t need to explain to them how the design process works and we can get right down to business. I would love to work with more publishers, and to take on a bigger project, like a whole pop-up book. That would be awesome.

See more of Katherine's work and get started making your own pop-ups at her website,

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