Author Spotlight: Belsey



Katherine Belsey, author of "Make Anything: Pop-Up Paper House" and the forthcoming "Make Anything: a handbook for saving money, living green and having fun with trash." is this month's featured author. We recently got the chance to ask her some questions about her desire to "MAKE ANYTHING" and whether there were things that we should never make. The answers may surprise you:

How did you first find out about Instructables and what inspired you to post?

I read about the new surge in DIY sites at an exhibit called Design for the other 90% at the Cooper-Hewitt Museum in 2007. When I got home I checked them out and Instructables was by far my favorite. I was amazed to discover that there were other people like myself, lots of other people, who loved making things just for the fun of it. Here was an appealingly mismatched group of people: teens still obsessed with Yu Gi Oh alongside PhD's in physics, and everyone was posting amazing projects and talking to each other as equals. I was completely intimidated at first, and I thought there was nothing I could possibly do or make which wasn't already on the site. Then you guys organized a contest for a laser cutter which I really, really wanted to win, so I scraped my brain for something unique I could make and decided I could share one of my pop-up card designs. I didn't win the contest (or even come close), but I'm still trying... I entered six instructables into this year's Epilogue Challenge, and I'm really excited that one made it as a finalist!

What prompted you to start making pop-up cards?

My brain is wired for space and volumes. I design pop-up cards the way other people do crossword puzzles (which I am completely incapable of doing myself). Drawing in 2D while conceptualizing the different 3D planes, cutting and folding paper is at once stimulating and relaxing. I started designing pop-ups when my two boys were very young. I had quit my job (I used to work in feature film production) and I was desperate to exercise my brain. Since I felt guilty spending hours doing stuff for myself, I pretended that I was making things for them, and I designed a pop-up house. The color ink and special paper were too expensive though, so I switched to a different style of cards called "origamic architecture." With this style, cutting and folding a single sheet of paper (and without using either ink or glue) you can make any image pop out of a page. Much as I admire the elaborate constructions of paper engineers like Robert Sabuda, what I love about this pop-up style is its simplicity. The fact that a whole world can spring out of a single sheet of paper -- that's magic.  

Is there anyone who has been especially influential on your work?

Masahiro Chatani invented origamic architecture in the 1980's. I love his designs, especially his abstract shapes. 

At what point did you know that you wanted to turn your pop-up house into a book?

About a year after making the first version of the house, our family fortunes having increased enough to buy more ink cartridges, I decided to improve the original design. My idea at that point was to fill the house with IKEA furniture and accessories, then sell them the design. IKEA would manufacture the paper house (if mass produced it would be incredibly cheap) and sell it all over the world. It seemed so perfect for them! Wholesome, inexpensive toy, folds flat, features their furniture, rugs, accessories and lights -- I could design a new version every year with their new collections, catering to kids' compulsion to collect. I'd be set for life. I fantasized about giant pictures of me hanging from the ceiling in IKEA warehouses with snappy little quotes about my philosophy of design. I thought some excited Swede would call and fly me to snow-covered Almhult, but instead I just got the cold shoulder. An unsigned form letter saying “thanks for whatever it was you sent, but no thanks”. That's when I decided to turn my house into a book. I knew I didn't have the means (or interest) in manufacturing, marketing and selling the finished house myself, so instead I redesigned it for the third time (taking out all things IKEA -- not out of bitterness, just for image rights purposes), and formatted it as a book which could be printed on demand. Half the fun is making the house anyway. I set up a website,, to sell both the book and PDF templates people can download and print themselves. I must warn you though, that making these pop-ups can be very addictive!

Of all of your Instructables, which one is your favorite?

What a cruel choice you're asking me to make! I think "Build a studio in an apartment building" is probably one of the best documented instructables I've done, but I feel a special affection for those instructables that didn't get as much recognition, like shy younger siblings: "Tips for the Reluctant Costume Designer" I thought was well written, "Turn a gift card into a hand-made gift" is simple but (I think) clever, and I also like "Old Fashioned Muff," because that fashion accessory is long overdue for a come-back. And my coffee table! I built it eight years ago and I still love it. But if I MUST choose one it should be "Make lipstick with crayons." The idea is so simple and easy, the photos look great, overall the instructable came out very nicely.

What is your favorite colored crayon to make lipstick out of?

I must admit something terrible: I very rarely wear lipstick. I came up with the idea for "Make lipstick with crayons" when I was trying to beef up the "cosmetics" section of a book I've been working on for the past couple years, "Make Anything: a handbook for saving money, living green and having fun with trash." After I realized crayons were the perfect source of color pigments, I experimented with all sorts of different crayons and ingredients, so for about a week or so my lips were constantly changing colors and I was kissing my kids to see what mixture stuck to my lips best. They didn't much appreciate the attention, and now if they ever see me putting on lipstick they run screaming out of the room... So I wear lipstick even less than I used to.

Do you think that growing up with a pediatrician has in any way influenced your desire to make your own home remedies? 

Not at all. My father is a pediatrician but he never practiced medicine, he worked in public health (for the World Health Organization). What influenced my desire to make home remedies was being short on cash. The ointments my husband was buying for his eczema were super expensive and they would still sometimes make him break out in rashes... Making home remedies for eczema was not only MUCH cheaper, it also turned out to be better for him. Same with Alka Seltzer. What a waste of money! Half the time people don't need the aspirin it contains, so they're taking unnecessary medication. Still, having a doctor in the family does give me the confidence to concoct home remedies: I'll always check with him first, to make sure I'm not doing something incredibly stupid or dangerous.

Are there any skills that you don't currently have that you wish you did?

Electronics, definitely. I'd love to be able to design stuff with Arduino, fiberoptics, LED arrays -- I’ve designed lights but always used off the shelf components. I’d like to be able to build my own.

Do you have any exciting new Instructables on the horizon?

Lots. I've recently begun to use Instructables as a personal project "to do" list. Whenever I think of an idea for something I start an instructable. Just the title, maybe a sketch of the idea, then I leave it online till I get around to making it or till you organize a contest which tempts me to buckle down and get to work. I usually have between seven to twelve unpublished instructables in various stages of completion at any given time. The oldest unfinished instructable I've got is called "how to stop procrastinating and get back to work." I meant to publish it last year a few weeks before April 15th (the day to file taxes in the US) -- but I  missed my deadline, and somehow I never found the time to finish it... I might not be the right person to write this instructable.

If you could give one piece of advice for someone about to embark on their first Instructable, what would that be?

Take your time. Do your research (including checking instructables for similar projects -- it's actually perfectly OK to write a similar instructable, so long as you acknowledge your predecessor and improve or build on the original idea). Don't worry if it's not perfect, you can revise and update the instructable after it's been published. AH! There I go again! This was supposed to be just ONE piece of advice. So here goes:

Instructables is much more compelling than sites like ehow because it offers more than a simple collection of recipes or "how to's." The person and the story behind each instructable are what make it interesting. What sparked the idea, what mistakes were made. So approach your instructable as if you were writing a story, because that's what it is. Keep it brief though! It's not a novel, just a short story.

While your profile proclaims "MAKE ANYTHING," is there anything that someone shouldn't ever make at home?

Please don't try to make urea. Seriously, don't. My marriage was very nearly destroyed by it, and your relationship could be too. Let me explain: 

Urea is a very interesting chemical, widely used in moisturizers and in products ranging from dishwashing detergent (it increases the solubility of protein molecules) to toothpaste (it has whitening properties) chewing gum (not sure what it does there) and even barbiturates (combined with malic acid). It was discovered back in 1773 by Hillaire Rouelle when he observed white crystals left over after all the liquid in urine had evaporated. If he could do it, surely I could too! For some reason I liked the idea of making hand and face cream with my own waste product. This experiment had to remain secret of course, because I was aware that most members of my family would not share my enthusiasm. I very discreetly started to boil down about a half a cup of pee in one of our enameled pots. Unfortunately, although the fresh urine had no odor, the fumes from the evaporation did. When urea breaks down, I soon discovered, it releases toxic fumes. The apartment became unbreathable and there was no way to hide what I'd done. No pretty white crystals for me, only a brownish, malodorous goo that my dog wanted to lick.

In our entire life together, I had never seen my husband so angry. He did not say a word. He just looked at the pot, looked at me, his face turned gray and then he stalked away without saying a word or even slamming the front door. He was gone for several hours. As I nervously flapped towels around to circulate the air, I thought I might have taken the wrong approach. Urea is now produced commercially by combining ammonia with carbon dioxide.

"Would it work if I filled a bottle with ammonia and carbonated it with my seltzer maker?" I wondered. In the interest of my marriage, I decided not to try. Please don't try either... but if you decide to experiment despite this warning, do let me know the results because I am curious!