Ellen Rubin, collector of moveable books, has the most fabulous view of Central Park that I’ve ever seen. From the square window of her study, the right angles of the park’s lower half are clearly visible; a dark, lush land from whose foot skyscrapers burst out, staccato, stacked, and shining. Outside that window is the city as I’ve never seen before. Inside Rubin’s study, her collection of illustrations by Vojtěch Kubašta, a Czech illustrator whose pop-up books defined the childhood of millions of children across Europe, are gently illuminated. On the couch beneath the impressive spread of drawings lays Rubin’s most recent acquisition, sourced from a book fair in Boston. Rubin managed to unearth the manuscript for a children’s pop-up book, “An ABC Book, with lift up surprises”, designed and illustrated by Pat Paris, with paper engineering by Dick Dudley.
“I always tell the paper engineers don’t throw anything in the garbage, just send it to me,” said Rubin, as she shifted the manuscripts so that I might see them better. There are arrows and thought bubbles in red pencil, notes to the manufacturers that Dudley had jotted down, all culminating in one message: this is how the pieces fit together.
These blueprints are what Rubin likes best of all, better than original artwork or a book in its final state. She thinks it might have to do with her past work as a physician’s assistant. There is something connecting bone marrow collection and the labor of gluing paper together, apparently. “Sometimes I say it’s the doll house I never had,” she says, casting for an origin story that justifies her collection of over 10,000 volumes of moveable books. Whatever the reason, it started with this: the Book of Trucks, and the Book of Dinosaurs, two pop-up books she bought for her sons in the 70s. They transfixed her then and now she is a foremost expert in the moveable book. She has put on multiple exhibitions at the Grolier Club, and has a show up now: “Animated Advertising: 200 Years of Premiums, Promos, and Pop-ups”, constructed from 200 moveable items including ephemera and books from her collection.
This great collection has recently made a big move. It was transported from her country home, which she recently sold, to a private library she made by retrofitting a one-bedroom apartment in her building with custom-made shelves and windows treated for ultraviolet light. The kitchen cabinets open up to reveal her reference materials, the living room is home to delicate displays, such as a fragile rice paper temple, and a cardboard ballroom with paper dancers hanging on strings. The bathroom is just a bathroom.
Rubin pulls out some samples for me in what used to be the bedroom. A great, unfolding piece by Salvador Dali, which meditates on the discovery of DNA and connects that important double helix to historical symbols such as the Tower of Babel and Jacob’s Ladder. It’s just a bit of folded paper but the effect is immediate, the suggestion of a landscape, an immersive, other world. It’s a sensation that again and again the pop-up gives. But the moveable and the pop-up are two different categories. The moveable she defines as a paper object that needs to be manipulated in order to understand its full contents, while a pop-up is a subset of this umbrella category. The braille edition of Playboy counts. The first moveable, she has discovered, is an encyclopedia manuscript that is held in the University of Ghent from 1140. It possessed a gatefold, that is, a flap. That counts. Before that, she had thought the Astronomicum Caesareum was the oldest example. Commissioned by Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor, and Ferdinand II of Aragon and written by Petrus Apianus, the Astronomicum was initially published in 1540. Rubin had a copy on hand.
In a white box, she extracted this ancient thing, covers made of pig skin, and carefully leafed through it. Two-thirds of the way in was the object of her focus, a paper wheel that explained the movement of shadows that divide our hours into day and night. The Earth was placed at the center of the cosmos — represented by a circle the depicted a green land and a medieval city — that the sun and moon orbit.
When we took the elevator back to her other apartment, my ears popped. I asked her what her late husband had done, as a way of asking how she had all these things and never once mentioned their price. She waved a hand, saying “Finance, money manager.” She gave me my coat and I stole one more look out her window at the city unfolded.
Hoard is a monthly column on collectibles, collections, and collectors outside of the fine arts by Shanti Escalante-De Mattei.