When inventor Dan Kainen opens the first page of his novelty book “Safari” for me at the bar of Greenwich Village’s Knickerbocker Grill, the cheetah on the first page springs to life. A woman nursing her drink leans over. Soon, a small crowd with cocktails in hand gathers around, mesmerized by the eight pages of magically moving African animal photographs. “How the hell do they do that?” one man asks, setting down his drink to give it a go.
The answer is photicular, Kainen’s patented method of lenticular optical illusion that looks remarkably like National Geographic documentary footage. Lenticular has been around in some form since 1692, when painter Gaspard Bois-Clair first created a 3-D illusionary effect on a ribbed canvas. (If you made your way to Rosenborg Castle in Copenhagen you could see for yourself. From the right side of Bois-Clair’s Double Portrait of Frederik IV you’ll see King Frederik, and from a left angle you’d see his sister Sophie Hedevig.) Scores of lenticular patents go back to 1895. Contemporary examples include Cracker Jack toys (think winking eyes) and Rolling Stones tongue logo badges.
It’s not that Kainen was doing bupkis before “Safari.” He had a meandering career that included art school, making T-shirts, laser light shows, and high-end restaurant lighting design. But he was not doing what he wanted to be doing, which was making money off of his wackiest ideas, including his lifelong obsession with lenticular. At an age when most men are easing into retirement, the silver-haired 66-year-old Kainen says he has just started in on his to-do list. (In 1996, Kainen met Karen Dorst, who became his second wife, and he’s adamant that I mention how instrumental she was in bringing his latest achievements to fruition.)
Kainen says that with Dorst’s encouragement, he got his first lenticular application patent around the turn of the millennium. (He now has three patents.) Even so, it was hard to impress on anyone the importance of his product. “I would get comments like, ‘Ought to make money somehow.’ More often they thought I was a kook.”
Then, in 2007, Rufus Butler Seder published the lenticular novelty book “Gallop!” Seder’s groundbreaking “Scanimation” books for Workman Publishing, including “Gallop!” “Waddle!” and “Swing!” have sold over five million copies. Inspired by Seder’s success, Kainen approached Workman editor Raquel Jaramillo, who was astonished by Kainen’s prototype but felt concerned about alienating Seder by bringing another lenticular author into the fold. Seder, however, embraced his new competition.
“There is no such thing as a bullet proof pat [patent],” Seder told me from Boston. “Nefarious forces will study your pats, but won’t have your artistry. You fight what you can, but it helps to be first out. I was floored when I saw his prototype, and I immediately wanted to see it out in the world.”
Kainen is a longtime New Yorker who grew up in American University Park, near the border of Maryland and Washington, D.C., and comes from a family of innovators, most notably his father Jacob Kainen, a painter equally at home in abstraction and realism. His father exhibited with Willem de Kooning, Stuart Davis, Mark Rothko, John Graham, Arshile Gorky and Jackson Pollock. De Kooning and Gorky and Kainen were especially close in the 1930s when they were all making their livelihood via the Works Progress Administration, popularly known as the WPA. They would see the latest Kit Carson Western serial in a Times Square movie house, and then get to their studios, all near Union Square. Jacob Kainen made the painful decision to leave the scene in 1942 accepting a job offer in Washington, D.C. While still at work as an artist, Jacob Kainen became a force in the Washington art world, and a pioneering curator at the Smithsonian, which in 1993 presented a major retrospective of his painting.