Origami: Design Influences on Modern Life

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Post by Architect Karum Kiani

When I first started delving into the enthralling world of origami as an amateur enthusiast, I hadn’t expected to recognize the use of this seemingly simple art form almost everywhere in the world around me. In exploring the limitless potential of being able to make cranes, butterflies and flowers all from a single sheet of paper, I was struck by how modest it was as an art form. As I came to discover over time, it is this inherent simplicity of the practice of paper folding that results in it being adapted and tailored into diverse practical applications. In everything from art, to fashion, to the most complex machinery, origami forms and folding techniques can be found to influence all these aspects of life around us.

But if one is to properly recognize the influence of something, we first have to understand what it is and where it comes from. Origami comes from the Japanese words, oru (to fold) and kami (paper), alternatively translated as ‘the art of paper folding’. Practices similar to origami developed in Europe and China at around similar times, with the Chinese art of folding paper called Zhezhi, initially only used for ceremonial purposes. In Europe paper folding was first introduced to Spain in the 12th century where it developed into an artistic practice called Papiroflexia or Pajarita.Right: Chinese ink drawing, paper forms in ceremonial setting
Left: Carolus-Duran, Merrymakers -1870 French oil painting

It’s believed that Japan’s tradition of folding paper started soon after paper was first introduced to the region around the sixth century. As it was very expensive initially, paper folding was largely used as part of religious ceremonies or as valuable gifts, but as paper became more readily available, people began making origami figures as gifts or cards and envelopes. The popularization of what we recognize as origami today, is largely credited to the efforts of Akira Yoshizawa, also known as the “Grandmaster of Origami”, who’s estimated to have created over 50,000 different figures in his life. He published Atarashi Origami Geijutsu (New Origami Art) in 1954, the first literature to popularize origami diagramming, used today.The Grand master himself, Mr. Akira Yoshizawa

There is no single ‘correct’ form of origami, new forms and ways of folding have kept evolving though time. Although initially only using a single sheet of paper with only folds allowed, today there are a variety of techniques common in origami including cutting, using multiple sheets of paper, ‘wet folding’ (wetting the paper to allow for rounded organic forms to be made), and action origami (movable forms). Something I learned from my foray into the world of origami was that for those who devote their lives to the craft, it’s not only the generation of complex forms that attracts them to this craft. It is also about the beauty found in the simplicity of folds. The ability of a fold, the slightest possible way to manipulate the medium of paper, to lead to radical transformation, resulting in a form impossible to imagine was ever anything else. Manipulating the memory of the paper in an entirely reversible manner, resulting in forms and patterns, seems like magic in real life, the masters of the craft as mysterious as sorcerers, making something out of nothing.

In today’s world origami can be seen employed in almost every field. Intuitively utilizing the principles of geometry, physics and mathematics, making those who study it start to see the world around them in a new light. Artists converting paper into intricate forms worldwide are the best examples of this, ranging from huge sweeping parametric installations to life sized sculptural creations, the few works shown below are just the tip of the iceberg of possibilities this art form provides.

Atif Ayub Abbasi is one such artist from Pakistan who uses origami as a medium in his work.  He work consists of intricate and unique forms called Kusudama Origami, a form of modular origami in which up to 60 multiple units fit together to make a ball like form. Based in Lahore, he showcases these statement pieces at the Daachi Exhibition every year, as well as promoting them on his social media pages.Above: Swiss and South African artist Sipho Mabona’s life-sized “White Elephant” is a life sized sculpture, standing at more than 10 feet tall, folded from a single sheet paper measuring 50 by 50 feet.
Above: Artist Jacqui Symons utilizes origami in large scale installations that focus on creation of multiple modules, arranged in a manner that brings movement to the forms, seemingly suspended in air.Above: Erik Demaine, a professor at MIT, collaborates with his father Martin Demaine, an artist, on handmade, swirling, curved paper sculptures that manipulates flat paper into dynamic 3D forms that seem ‘come alive’.

There has also been an increase in the incorporation of three dimensional sculptural forms in the design of garments and accessories in the last decade. Examples shared below explore what origami inspired futuristic fashion is, in this changing world of technological innovation.Above: Although in no way the first instance of doing so, Christian Dior’s Haute Couture Spring 2007 Collection is largely credited with popularizing origami techniques into main stream fashion.
Above: Belgium designer, Alexandra Verschueren turns function into form with pieces in her collection that combine architectural shapes with origami techniques.
Above: This ‘Axis’ bag from the company Finell, utilizes the functional folds of origami to create a handbag that expands and contracts depending on how much is in it, adapting to the users need.

The sectors of Industrial and Product design have also undergone a revolution in the last decade, mostly due to prevalent way origami techniques translate into practical applications in the avenues of mechanics, space robotics, medicine, architecture, interior design and more. The folding methods derived from it are becoming the key to solutions for problems like space management, movement of interconnecting pieces in robotics, and strength and flexibility in collapsible structures. There is a small number of designers, engineers and scientists at the center of this revolution, championing the practical applications of the Japanese art through their designs.

Above: Robert Lang, a pioneer merging mathematics with aesthetics, collaborated with an engineering professor Larry L. Howell, to design a foldable Kevlar Shield that is able to protect 2-3 people at a time for the Homeland Security Agency. The form uses a Yoshimura origami crease pattern to expand around an officer, providing protection on the side in addition to protecting them in the front.
Above: The rotary-actuated dodecahedron (RAD), is a new device developed by researchers at Harvard , for deep ocean marine sampling. It utilizes a five petal, origami inspired form, which is arranged around a central point that folds down to enclose the marine life organisms into a 3D dodecahedron without harming it.Above: Japanese American artist Isamu Noguchi, an influential designer of the modernist era, designed the Prismatic Table is inspired by traditional paper folding techniques. The side table has a hexagonal top, with the aluminum sheet it’s made from, folding down to three pyramidal leg supports.



Above: The Origami Table designed by us here at MYOF has also taken direct inspiration from basic origami forms. It’s derived from a square based pyramidal shape, iterated to have a symmetric leg supports. The solid ashwood table does not have any visible joinery, seeming to have the wood folding in on itself, similar to how origami forms are folded just from one sheet of paper, avoiding any glue or bonding agents.

In recent years the culture of origami has flourished, with the younger generation taking more interest in the art form than ever before. Most of us remember learning the basic forms of the paper plane and flowers from each other in our school days, often using it to pass notes to friends. With more awareness being bought to the art form, now the craft has been elevated to a whole new level. From clubs being formed to educate people about it, to international art exhibitions and competitions are also encouraging people to explore the medium and bring new developments to it.

Aside from the personal interest I had in origami as a hobby and as a fascinating way to spend time, it was during my studies in architecture design that I was first introduced to its complex forms and tessellations as a way to understands how structures balanced loads and as examples of energy efficient shelters and designs. It was the first time the simple, childlike shapes I had made from paper came to be something more than just simple play. I came to understand how it had great potential for being the solution to the design needs of the future, awakening a new passion for the art form. In the future origami’s potential to reuse waste materials by re-purposing them into new designs, ability to make structures from green materials, and its application into space efficient and modular design, will make it a vital part of the solution to the imminent issues of the coming age.

I will remain hopeful that this art form receives more widespread recognition as a design solution, applicable to almost every aspect of modern life, and its techniques will be utilized to make revolutionary leaps in innovation and design.

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