This Book is a Planetarium (<-it is!)

“The senses are a kind of reason. Taste, touch and smell, hearing and seeing, are not merely a means to sensation, enjoyable or otherwise, but they are also a means to knowledge – and are, indeed, your only actual means to knowledge.”

— St. Thomas Aquinas

How to make an interactive experience that gets the reader closer to having a meaningful, enlightening, and memorable exchange with the physical world?

This Book is a Planetarium is my stab at answering that question. And it is finally out today! (<- you can buy it at that link… or at your neighborhood bookstore… or amazon)
*this is my first project to be available both in Japan and at your local Wal-Mart (eeee!)

It’s a book of pop-up contraptions that you can actually use. I pared-down a few everyday tech objects to their bare minimums. Expanding out of the book’s pages, you’ll find: a stringed instrument, a perpetual calendar, a decoder ring, a spiralgraph drawing generator, a smartphone speaker, and a constellation-projecting planetarium. With a little tinkering, the resulting paper objects actually work (despite of being made from “almost nothing”):


YOU: But, Kelli, we already have legit, super-functional, sophisticated technology all around us (and self-driving cars, even!)… so isn’t it a little bit hopeless/redundant/unnecessary/insane to recreate the entire universe of tech out of paper?

ME: Yes. This is all completely true.

I realized that my job as the person making this was to provide only what is necessary and sufficient for it to function (to essentially get out of the way.) The exchange between reader/user and the physical world is where the magic lives.


This project was born out of the paper record player invitation I made a few years ago (more about the process of experiencing that realization in this podcast interview with Debbie Millman.)


We made the record player “just because it felt cool” (the best reason to do anything!) But, the shocked response I received prompted quite a bit of reflection on why people were so moved by it (40 years ago it would have been considered a mere novelty.) I realized that as all of our “things” have grown more sophisticated, they also grown more opaque. Most of the gadgets we use now operate off of some kind of computer magic that most of us will never fully grasp. Even as physical beings in the world ourselves, we eventually become disconnected from the how the physical world works.

This is why I’ve been remaking the function of tech with something that most people consider trash: paper. I want to make a place where people can contemplate the wonders of the physical realm. By stripping technology bare of its complication and interfaces, I’m hoping to reveal the invisible forces behind it.

Like, we all know that music happens when you “push play.” However, the concept of sound-as-vibration (as a physical force in the world) is something which must be felt to be believed. (Alas, many abstractions and equations learned in physics class will remain in physics class for me, as there is no way to reinforce that knowledge with experience in order to make it memorable.)

But as long as humans continue to have hands, we can continue to think with them. And we can be moved, surprised, and enlightened by what our hands tell us about how materials, actions, and behaviors are structured.

Mary Oliver provides these instructions for how to live a life, which resonated with me: “Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it.” At my desk, with a giant pile of “doesn’t-works,” I would eventually stumble upon something that kinda did. Often, I felt silently blown away by just-how-little it took to build something capable of performing some minor feat. I don’t know if other people will have this same reaction, but this is the best way I’ve found to share it. It’s a pretty fun book.




Behind the Scenes of This Book is a Planetarium (aka crushing all of the magic!)


OK, here is how this sausage got made:
1) Pop-up books begin life with the author ripping apart other people’s pop-up books as a form of love, homage, and study (many friends at The Moveable Book Society have confirmed this.)

2) Then, you end up with a disgustingly soft/crappy handbuilt pop-up. It doesn’t close… or even open, really BUT THERE’S A GLIMMER OF HOPE. Like an addict, you keep going.

3) At some point in time, you feel sufficiently confident to scan your crappy-paper-form and make “dielines” which can be cut on a plotter. Refine, cut, glue, repeat.

4) When you achieve perfection, you then send your prototype to the mass-production printer, who will invariably start back at 1) again. This time, progressing through the steps to refinement is very slow, and resemble sa game of telephone.

I made a ton of paper-gadget prototypes and only a few were published. Here is a full gallery of everything I came up with.

Personal favorite is this paper karaoke-room-light-machine (physical wheels that program light are ALWAYS A+++):




For someone who is accustomed to having their fingerprints all over every object they make, mass-production was extremely challenging. It took about 4 months to design and paper-engineer the book and then the publisher and I spent 2.5 years problem-solving with the printer. But we got it done! Both: Totally worth it and I’ll probably never do it again.


The song used in the trailer is the best, most cosmic and ethereal version of ‘Major Tom’ in existence. It is by a self-taught musician named Susan Dietrich aka The Space Lady. Buy her music, it is amazing!

Thanks to: Daniel Dunnam (for the support and encouragement and sound-editing), to the team I worked with at Chronicle Books, to Kyle David Olmon and Structural Graphics (both advised on a few tricky production problems), to Alina Keay for the paper-prop production help, to Stefan Pelikan for the handmade galley assistance, to Jen Snow for the moral-support/PR help, Boris Ebzeev for editing the behind-the-scenes, and to Raul Gutierrez, Maria Popova, Debbie Millman, Daniel Morris Gardiner and Wendy MacNaughton for the invaluable feedback+support. I also worked on the book a bit during my creative residency with Adobe and during my residency at A/D/O. I consider myself so lucky to know you people! Thank you all!

No related posts.

Leave A Comment