Origami Revolution

Hiroshima Atomic Bomb Memorial

I can’t recommend highly enough Susan Orleans’ profile of Origamist Robert Lang, in which she describes not only his groundbreaking technical and artistic work, but traces back the history of origami in the West and talks about the growth of origami clubs and culture in the world.

I got to hear talks, courtesy of the MIT Origami club, a few years back by Michael LaFosse and by the folder of the world’s smallest crane. There are some remarkable people out there, doing some incredible things. I’ve always been amazed at the ability to turn two-dimensional media into three-dimensional art, and if I had more time and energy, I’d really like to get better at it.

I myself got into origami out of self-defense: when my wife and I were in Yamaguchi for my graduate research, a few of her Japanese friends tried to show her how to do origami. Being blind, my wife can’t see instructions, and most people don’t really understand how to explain things non-visually; she asked me to show her a few things so that the next time it came up she’d have some idea what was going on. So we went down to the bookstore, got a few beginning books and a few packs of paper, and we began working on it. We got a lot of our practice in during those interminable NHK newscasts. I also started — and still do — carrying origami paper in my wallet so that we could practice whenever we had some time, especially while waiting at restaraunts. Our work, though basic, got better, and we delighted our relatives by using the stuff we folded for practice as packing material.

While we were in Cambridge, we joined the MIT Origami club for their annual January Seminars, where I learned how to do modular origami, geometric shapes made from simple units. That’s where we got to see some of the real masters, the people who will fold a frog for two hours, then unfold it so they can reverse the folds in the center, then fold it back up again, all to get the toes just right!

Lang has gone beyond that, in ways that just weren’t possible ten years ago: computer-aided design, laser-scored paper, mathematical modelling and new materials. The artistry is the same though: the wonderful feeling of creation, of surprise.


  1. This may seem a strange question, but have you found any origami books in Braille for the Blind? Or any origami books for the sighted to do in the dark or under a table? I’ve just been searching for some and haven’t found any and from your post it sounds like you may have a much better idea.

    Please let me know as I’m throwing around the idea of producing one. My email is clair159 @ hotmail.com

  2. Grace,

    No, to both questions. The difficulty of describing origami techniques non-visually is immense, frankly, unless you have tactile models of some kind to replace the diagrams. So there has never been, to my knowledge (and my wife’s) a book on origami targetting the visually impaired.

    On the other hand, a good origamist, once they have a pattern memorized, probably could do at least some designs by feel. (Again, my wife does all her origami this way) I wouldn’t be at all surprised to find some of the really hardcore hobbyists competing blindfolded. Under the table is trickier: it’s very, very useful to have a hard surface when you’re folding, but, again, it’s not absolutely necessary if you know what you’re doing. I’ve done origami on busses, in theaters, in airport lounges…..

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