The Modern Life of Origami, an Art as Old as Paper


Precision is key, whether folding a humble crane or an interlocking modular structure. So is enthusiasm.

“I would say the biggest rule is no cutting,” said Wendy Zeichner, the president and chief executive of OrigamiUSA. It’s “one piece of paper and no glue.”

OrigamiUSA is a nonprofit organization dedicated to educating the public about the art form. The group traces its roots to the 1950s, when Lillian Oppenheimer, one of its eventual founders, began to communicate with paper folders around the world, including Akira Yoshizawa in Japan, who is often credited as the father of modern origami — they would send each other diagrams explaining how to fold different shapes from a single square sheet of paper. Decades later, OrigamiUSA has around 1700 paying members, and it keeps track of nearly 90 community origami groups in the United States.

Origami as an art reaches back thousands of years. “Origami is really almost as old as paper,” Ms. Zeichner explained — it means “to fold paper” in Japanese — and paper in sheet form is thought to have been invented in China around 105 A.D. To start making shapes like cranes and frogs, it boils down to two basic techniques: mountain folds and valley folds, which are different ways to make the edges meet. After that, you can get creative.

Crimps, pleats and petal folds are just some of the ways to create different shapes. There are also sculptural techniques such as wet-folding, a process in which part of the paper is dampened, which weakens the paper fibers and makes it easier to shape. When it dries, the paper stiffens. For more advanced 3-D projects, folders will use something like Origamizer, a software that generates crease patterns.

A few years ago, NASA engineers were able to create foldable telescopes and a flower-shaped shade to block out light from distant stars by using paper-folding techniques. “If you want to send something in a rocket, it has to be packed small,” Ms. Zeichner said. “The same algorithms you would use in origami would be used in this.” The same goes for folding an airbag into a car, or creating pop-up homeless shelters.

Precision is key, whether someone is folding a humble crane or a complex modular structure with interlocking parts. So is enthusiasm. “The majority of people are either enthusiasts on the simple end or on the complex end,” said Jason Ku, a lecturer at M.I.T. and a faculty adviser to the origami club there, along with Erik Demaine, the youngest professor to be hired at M.I.T. Dr. Demaine teaches classes dedicated to geometric folding; in 2001, at the age of 20, he wrote his doctoral thesis on folding in different dimensions.

The goal is to arrive at the most efficient and elegant means of achieving a particular effect. “I want the result to be complex, but I want to simplify the process it takes to get there,” Dr. Ku said. “It reminds me of the quote in ‘Amadeus’: ‘There are simply too many notes.’”

As in math, it’s important to show your work. Sometimes this happens at origami gatherings, such as OrigaMIT’s annual convention, where paper folders from around the country come to spend a day at the school’s campus learning about new techniques. It can also happen online, in simple YouTube videos such as “How To Make a Paper Crane,” which has over 4 million views. “Showing your technique is one of the biggest aspects of origami,” said Taro Yaguchi, the founder of Taro’s Origami Studio in Brooklyn.

Before the 1950s, certain origami objects were more difficult to create, partly because diagrams weren’t standardized. Some guide books simply presented the results, without the necessary steps to get there. Yoshizawa, in Japan, and Samuel Randlett, in the United States, helped develop a set of international diagram conventions that is now referred to as the Yoshizawa-Randlett system.

“Before it got codified, it could be very confusing,” said Jeannine Mosely, a software engineer in Cambridge, Mass. Ms. Mosely is known for large-scale projects such as an origami Menger sponge, a series of cubes adding up to a giant cube, made out of business cards. At the time, the fact that she didn’t use square paper caused ripples throughout the origami community. “There were people who didn’t want anything to do with my work because I started with rectangles,” she said.

Which leads to another point: A big part of origami is the medium. “I feel my works are collaborations between paper and me,” Koshiro Hatori, a master folder in Japan, wrote in an email.

And diagrams and algorithms won’t be much help if you’re not using the right materials. “It’s a mistake a lot of beginner’s make: they go online and find the most beautiful kind of paper,” said Jewel Kawataki, a New York-based jewelry maker who creates different designs with chiyogami, a sleek fabric-like paper. “You can see their frustration in YouTube tutorials. They’ve used the wrong paper.”

But even with quality paper, it can still be tricky to figure out how to get the right result. “One time, it took me about 10 hours to do a heart,” Ms. Kawataki said. “I couldn’t understand the diagram. You just have to be persistent.”

Paper folders are as diverse as their approaches to the art. “I love the fact that origami artists range from 5 to 100, and there’s no age limit on doing it. Although I suspect some people might get pushed out by arthritis,” Ms. Mosely said, laughing.

She began folding as a child in the 1950s and ’60s, but finding origami paper was difficult (and expensive). “I folded with the lined paper you do your homework on, or blank white typing paper,” she said. “Anytime a piece of paper came into my hands I would crease it and see what it did.”

Toshiko Kobayashi, an art therapist in Manhattan who grew up folding as a child in Tokyo after World War II, believes in the art’s ability to heal. “Just after the war, there was nothing. Paper was one of the readily available toys for me,” she said.

In New York, she has been busy introducing the art to different communities through the Origami Therapy Association in Manhattan, which she founded in 2002. She has a regular session on paper-folding techniques for visually impaired patrons at the Andrew Heiskell Braille and Talking Book Library in Manhattan.

For many, the practice is embraced for its calming aspects. “It’s lessened my anxiety a lot,” Ms. Kawataki said.

Regardless of techniques, the community, whether in person or online, keeps people excited about the art form. “Origamists from around the world will meet and fold together,” Ms. Mosely said. “They might not be able to talk to each other, but they can fold.”

Surfacing is a weekly column that explores the intersection of art and life, produced by Alicia DeSantis, Jolie Ruben and Josephine Sedgwick.

Prop styling by Jocelyn Cabral.