Origami Heaven

A paperfolding paradise

The website of writer and paperfolding designer David Mitchell

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Modular Origami
 
This page attempts to record what is known about the origin and history of the multiple sheet paperfolding technique nowadays usually known as modular origami, although it has had other names in the past. Please contact me if you know any of this information is incorrect or if you have any other information that should be added. Thank you.

I formally define modular origami as 'a two stage paperfolding technique which uses multiple sheets of paper. In the first stage each individual sheet of paper is folded into a module. In the second stage the modules are assembled into a self-integrating and stable geometric form.' I believe the requirement for modules to be self-integrating is essential to the definition of modular origami in a modern context but I have not excluded early designs from this history just because they needed to be held together using thread or glue.

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The earliest evidence for the existence of any modular origami design comes from a Japanese book by Hayato Ohoka published in 1734 called 'Ranma Zushiki' which contains prints of decorations intended to enhance sliding room dividers. One of these prints shows a group of folded paper objects, the traditional crane, Komoso, the boat now commonly made from a Newspaper Hat, The Sanbo, and a cube. The cube is pictured twice (from slightly different angles) and is identified in the accompanying text as a tematebako or 'magic treasure chest'.

Judged on the drawing alone the cube could be one of many designs but it is almost certain from the name that the design pictured in this print is the cube made from six modules developed from Menko (which can be used to hold thread and so are also sometimes known as Thread Containers). These modules have tabs and pockets, the tabs being developed by cutting a cross shaped slit into the back layer of the paper. We do not, however, know whether, at this early date, the Tematebako would have been glued together or whether the assembly would have relied on the tabs and pockets alone.

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The first modular design for which there is evidence in the West is the cube made from 6 playing cards, usually therefore known as the Playing Card Cube, which appears in this painting from 1837 by the Ukrainian artist K. Pavlov (1792 - 1852). Playing Card Cubes do not need gluing together.

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Another early essentially modular design, the Pencil Case, first appears in Des Kindes Erste Beschaftigungsbuch by E Barth and W Niederley,which was published in Bielefeld and Leipzig in 1880, although the foreword is dated 1876.

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The book 'Joujoux En Papier' by Tom Tit, which was published in Paris by Paul Lechevalier in 1924, contained diagrams for a design called 'L'Etoile A Devider' - a two part modular Star of David folded from equilateral triangles which is assembled without the need for glue.

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'Fun with Paperfolding' by William D Murray and Francis J Rigney was first published by the Fleming H Revell Company, New York in 1928. It contains diagrams for the Pagoda, a design made by stacking successively smaller, but otherwise identical, paperfolds on top of each other. The same book also contains diagrams for a Dog made by combining three 'shirtwaists', more commonly known as the jacket from the Suit of Clothes.

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Margaret Campbell's 'Paper Toy Making', first published in 1937, contained diagrams for a 'Harlequin Stamp Box' which is in fact the Tematebako under another name. The modules are provided with tabs and pockets but the now attractively quaint assembly instructions ignore the existence of the pockets altogether and direct the reader to glue the tabs together to produce a harlequin pattern (which is then completely concealed within the cube).

This book also contains instructions for making a 'Japanese Ornamental Ball' from what are effectively six blintzed bird bases. According to the text 'The Japanese make six of these, and sew them together at the points until a complete ball is made. ... A coloured bead finishes off each corner.' This is the earliest mention of a design that could possibly be thought of as a kusudama.

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The abridged edition of Isao Honda's book 'The World of Origami', first published by Japan Publications in 1965 contains several modular designs, a Cubical Box (the Tematebako), a Six-sided Box which becomes a Hanging Ornament (see picture below), a Mystery Box made from 5x1 rectangles, a Hot Plate Holder, made from folded postcards, and a Woven Mat made from folded and interwoven strips. The Hanging Ornament is provided with tassles and has all the characteristics of a kusudama.

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According to the book 'Japan and Things Japanese' by Mock Joya, published by Kegan Paul Ltd and Columbia University Press in 2006, kusudama 'originated in the Heian period (794-1192). At first fragrant woods and herbs were placed in a small cloth bag, which was decorated with the blossom of shobu or iris or other flowers. Long silks of five different colours were attached to it. This was hung in the house on May 5th to dispel evil spirits and disease.'

A traditional kusudama of this kind is pictured in this undated print 'Tosei Kusudama Go-sekku' by the artist Kikugawa Eizan (1787-1867) which is in the collection of the British Museum.

At some point - and I do not know when - the word kusudama also began to be used to describe hanging balls of flowers made from folded paper, which were often glued or sewn together. This is said to be one of the roots of modular origami but hard information from historical sources to confirm this is currently lacking.

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Eric Kenneway's 'Complete Origami', first published in 1987 contains diagrams for the now familiar kusudama pictured below. According to Kenneway diagrams for this design first appeared in the Nippon Origami Association's journal 'Origami' in April 1978.