Origami Heaven

Origami Heaven is the website of paperfolding designer, author and illustrator David Mitchell

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A brief outline of origami design history
 

This page was written in the late 1990's and is now badly in need of updating in respect of the general flow of early origami design history. I will get around to it sometime! Meanwhile much more detail about what is known about some traditional designs can be found on the individual pages dedicated to those topics.

 
Origami

Origami is a Japanese word meaning 'folding paper' that has been adopted into English and many other languages. The Japanese word origami and the English word paperfolding mean exactly the same thing.

The Invention of Paper

According to Chinese tradition paper was first invented by T'sai Lun, a senior court official working for the Chinese Emperor Yuan Hsing, in AD 105. His paper was made from fibres obtained from bark, rags and old fish nets and was intended to be used as a medium for writing on (though the Chinese also used other mediums, such as flattened bamboo strips, for this purpose). Tradition, however, as is usually the case, is unreliable, and recent archaeological discoveries have shown that paper is much older than previouysly thought.

Since folding paper is such a natural thing to do, it is likely that paperfolding, in its broadest sense, is almost as old as paper itself, though this paperfolding was probably only of the kind that can be called 'everyday origami' where paper is folded for purely practical purposes such as creating simple packaging or concealing the contents of a letter.

The Japanese tradition

According to Japanese tradition, knowledge of how to make paper was first brought to Japan in AD 610 by the Buddhist monk Dokyo. The plant fibres available to papermakers in Japan soon enabled them to produce strong, crisp papers of exceptionally high quality. Paper of this kind folds well, and over the next 1000 years a tradition of craft paperfolding slowly evolved.

At first much of Japanese paperfolding was ceremonial in nature, largely concerned with the folding of wrappers, known as 'tsutsumi' or 'noshi', which were used to contain and decorate gifts, especially gifts (offerings?) of flowers associated with religious festivals. This practise still survives in the design of some gift wrappings in Japan today.

During the same period folded paper butterflies, known as ocho and mecho, began to be used to decorate sake containers. (Sake is a Japanese alcoholic drink.) These butterflies may well have been the earliest representational origami designs.

Gradually, probably by a process of purely serendipitious discovery, this ceremonial type of paperfolding gave rise to a folk tradition of folding paper into simple representational and practical designs, such as the well-known crane (tsuru), the man-servant (yakkosan) and the masu box. By 1728 sufficient folds were known to enable them to be collected into the Go-hyaku Oribako or Box of 500 Folds. Unfortunately the folds themselves have not survived so we have no idea which designs were included in the collection.

Folding 1000 Cranes

1797 saw the publication of two books of origami designs which have survived. The most important of these was called the Senbazuru Orikata (Folding 1000 Cranes). The book explains many ways to fold a group of connected cranes from a single sheet of paper which has been turned into an interconnected network of smaller squares by means of carefully placed slits. This type of paperfolding is sometimes called Rokoan style. It is not clear whether the Senzaburu Orikata is a collection of traditional designs or an explanation of the design work of one particular paperfolder. Perhaps it is both.

The Kayaragusa

Another interesting collection of diagrams for origami designs, the Kayaragusa (aka the Kan No Mado or Window on Midwinter), was compiled in 1845 (though it was not published until 1961). This compilation contains a much more varied collection of models, including a dragonfly, lobster, octopus, snail and various human figures, and evidences the existence of a vibrant paperfolding tradition in which a large variety of creative techniques were in use. Most of the arms and legs for the complex figures are obtained by cutting slits into the starting shape used, but the ms also contains instructions for important uncut designs such as the traditional Frog. Many of the designs in the Kayagarusa make use of the 'blow-up' technique in which a hollow section of the design is inflated to form, for instance, the head or body of the subject.

One river, two streams

It is clear that at the time the Kayagarusa was compiled the craft paperfolding river has already split into two quite distinct streams. On the one bank we have the exploratory origami stream, still powerful at this point, where paper is folded to discover what folding paper will do. On the other bank we have a lesser stream, the model-making origami stream, which begins with a tangible aim in view, to model a dragonfly or a lobster, for instance, by folding paper, and seeks to find out how to do it.

A tradition in decline?

Little is known about the Japanese folk origami tradition after 1845. Perhaps it continued to develop. Perhaps it went into decline. Hard evidence is lacking. We simply do not know when many traditional designs originated (or in many cases if they are truly traditional at all). In lieu of hard evidence it is probably reasonable to assume that both streams of craft origami continued to flow and that individual paperfolders continued to make serendipitious discoveries while (idly or intentionally - we cannot know) playing around with sheets of paper or established models, or, perhaps more occasionally, became sufficiently adept that they were able to create numerous designs at will.

Other paperfolding traditions

It is not impossible that there were parallel paperfolding traditions in other areas such as China and Western Europe, but detailed evidence to support this assertion is lacking.

To the extent that it existed, Chinese paperfolding may also have been largely ceremonial, mainly concerned with the production of Yuan Bao (gold nuggets) and other items to be burned at funerals. Yuan Bao are characterised by the way in which they are first folded flat and then 'three-dimensionalised' by pulling the centre of the design apart. The Chinese Junk (if it is indeed Chinese) is more probably a Yuan Bao of this kind than a representation of a ship.

Some evidence of a non-ceremonial Chinese tradition does exist. In particularly, two notable geometric origami designs, the Lazy Susan and Verdi's Vase are almost certainly of Chinese origin.

Evidence for a tradition of paperfolding in Western Europe is largely based around the folding of baptismal certificates, the work of Friedrich Froebel, and a few simple folds such as the Pajarita (Cocotte), the traditional dart, the Newspaper Hat (and the boat into which it can be turned). Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carrol) mentions such boats, together with paper pistols, several times in his letters. The popular Victorian / Edwardian parlour game known as Consequences also made use of folded paper.

Troublewit

In 1896 'The Strand' magazine reported that the illusionist David Devant had 'electrified the audience' at the Egyptian Hall (in London) with his dextrous displays of paperfolding. The paperfolding in question was a technique known as 'Troublewit' in which a large sheet of stiff paper, which has been pre-creased into a geometric grid, is quickly manipulated into many remarkable forms. Troublewit may well have originated in China.

Leo Tolstoy

In the same year, 1896, Leo Tolstoy, the famous novelist, wrote an essay entitled 'What is art?' in which he says, 'This Winter, a lady of my aquaintance taught me how to make cockerels by folding paper ... so that when you pull their tails they flap their wings. This invention comes from Japan.' There is little doubt that this is a description of the traditional paperfold now known as the Flapping Bird, though whether this fold is actually of Japanese origin is open to some doubt. Wherever it comes from, the Flapping Bird is probably the earliest known example of an action model.

Akira Yoshizawa

On 14th March 1911, Japan's most-gifted model-making paperfolder, Akira Yoshizawa, was born. By the late 1950's, working largely alone, he had revolutionised origami design and folding technique (in particular by devising ways of creating multiple points without the necessity for using cuts) and created a huge number of new and highly realistic models of animals, insects, fish and birds. His emphasis on naturalistic realism led him to abandon the traditional technique of folding paper dry in favour of the oddly misnamed technique known as 'wet-folding' in which paper is first dampened and then moulded into soft-folds, the shape of which it retains as it dries. This in turn led him to fold largely 'in the air' (rather than on a surface) and influenced his invention of the terms 'mountain' and 'valley' folds (which only make sense in the context of folding in the air).

Yoshizawa's influence on the development of origami in the modern era (since the 1950's) cannot be over-estimated.

Origami in the West

The real history of origami in the West begins with the end of Japanese political and cultural isolation in 1945. Up to that time information about things Japanese had been scarce and difficult to obtain. Now it was freely available, for those who cared to look hard enough.

The American writer and researcher Gershon Legman (better known for his collections of rude limericks) was one of those who did. In 1945, while recovering from a broken ankle, he whiled away his time folding origami designs remembered from his childhood. The enthusiasm for paperfolding this wakened in him led him to research the subject in depth. His research eventually led him to discover the work of Akira Yoshizawa, and in 1955 he arranged an exhibition of Yoshizawa's designs at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam.

From seeds like this sufficient interest in origami arose in the West, notably in Britain and the USA, to enable the formation of origami clubs and organisations such as the Portfolio Society (later to metamorphose into the British Origami Society) and the Origami Centre of America (later to become Origami USA). Almost from the very first the members of these societies were concerned not only to discover as many traditional designs as possible but also to create their own original designs and to push the boundaries of what was possible in terms of subject-matter and technique.

Pure origami

By and large the early paperfolders in the west, particularly those in the UK, failed to appreciate the syncretistic nature of the Japanese tradition (of using many parallel techniques) in favour of a concentration on pure origami, in which cuts were largely anathema and in which models were developed from a single sheet of paper, usually from a square. While this may originally have been based on a misconception of the nature of traditional paperfolding there can be no doubt that the pure origami ethic drove (and continues to drive) the search for innovative folding techniques, especially in the model-making origami field.

Growth and proliferation

Since the formation of the Western origami societies a huge number of original designs have been produced, many of them of admittedly dubious quality, but many others of sufficient merit to take their place in the design portfolio familiar to many, if not most, members of the international origami community. Up until the late 1970's it was possible for an individual paperfolder to be familiar with almost every design of merit and to keep up to date with all the latest developments in design philosophy and technique. Since that time, however, the number of origami societies, and of active designers, has increased beyond the point where comprehensive knowledge is possible.

One intriguing consequence of this proliferation has been the development of origami societies in Japan. Before the growth of interest in origami in the West paperfolding in Japan was of a relatively lowly cultural status, being practised largely by mothers and their children. Even Akira Yoshizawa had difficulty getting his work recognised, or even published, at first, except in women's magazines. Western interest, however, has provoked an origami renaissance in Japan, where paperfolding is now seen as an acceptable academic hobby and practised by many intellectuals and professionals.

The cult of the designer

Every now and again talented individuals emerge who have the ability to drive origami design forwards (or sometimes backwards, depending on your point of view) and who influence the direction of future origami design to a greater or larger extent. By and large it is possible to divide these 'super-designers' into two groups, the exploratory paperfolders, and the model-makers. The difference between them is the way in which they work. Exploratory paperfolding designers tend to be process-focused, seeking to let the properties of the paper control the way their designs arise, and often stressing elegance and innovation (I belong to this group). Model-making paperfolding designers tend to be result-focused, seeking to control the way the paper folds so that the desired result is achieved, and often stressing purity and realism.

Modular origami

Although its roots are known to go back to at least 1734, modular origami is largely a modern phenomenon. Modular origami is a paperfolding technique in which individual sheets of paper are folded into modules which are then combined to create an integrated assembly such as a ring or a polyhedral model. In modern times, the modular technique was quite independently invented first by Robert Neale in the USA (Robert Neale's Octahedron) and later by Mitsonobu Sonobe in Japan (the Sonobe module and cube). Since then many paperfolding designers have expanded the modular repertoire, some of whom have specialised in modular design to the virtual exclusion of any other kind of paperfolding design. Historically, modular designers have tended, by and large, to be exploratory paperfolders, though model-making designers are increasingly getting in on the act.

The influence of mathematics

Origami is amenable to detailed mathematical analysis, both in terms of the relationships of different parts of the paper within the sheet (which, in the absence of cuts or stretching, remain fixed however the sheet is folded) and in the spatial relationships between points outside the sheet (which vary as folds are formed). As a result of an increasing understanding of these relationships model-making paperfolders have developed mathematical design tools that make it possible to create realistically proportioned designs which make highly efficient use of the paper (though they may not always be either easy or elegant to fold). Whether, in the long term, this development has a positive or a negative effect on the development of origami design remains to be seen.