Designing Origami: My Personal History

Like most folders throughout the world, origami was introduced to me on the playground. Paper airplanes, "Cootie Catchers," and "Water-bombs" are 'playground folds' which we learned in elementary school and have been part of American culture for decades. For most adults, origami was simply a childhood pastime, one that they outgrew; But for me, what started out as a simple childhood pastime never left, and it grew to become a passion which is still with me to this present day. The most fulfilling aspect of origami for me has been deligning my own models and sharing them with oother folders. Origami is endless and I believe there can never be enough new origami models. Through the following writing, I hope to show people how rewarding and do-able creating new origami can be and hope to inspire folders to become designers so that we can all share the fruits of discovery and together further the world of origami.

When I was ten, my parents gave me my first advanced origami book, Origami for the Enthusiast, by John Montroll, the only advanced origami book that I would see for the next five years. The first model that I tried out of this book was the grasshopper; it was the last and most difficult model in the book. Although my finished model did not look nearly as good as the one pictured in the book, it was my first exposure to advanced folding techniques and allowed me to take off into a new world of designing origami. It was from the first folds of grasshopper that I designed my first origami model, a "five- headed bird." I figured it out by looking at the grasshopper base and noticing that it looked just like a bird base but with four extra points; I thought, why not turn these extra points into heads? The result was a five-headed bird.

I also learned from Montroll's book, origami values; I adopted the purist approach, restricting myself to always starting out with one square piece of paper and never cutting. What was surprising about my experience with the Enthusiast book was that although this book played a large role for my origami training, and I have always considered John Montroll to be my mentor, during my first six years of folding, I actually only folded a few models from the book. From playground folds and the few Montroll models I had done, I had already learned enough folding techniques to explore origami on my own. I simply liked folding by instinct rather than by following directions. I clung to the ideal of exploring my own personal unknown. I felt that the less I was influenced by other folders the more I could forge my own path and distinguish my work.

Part of what allowed me to stay away from diagrams was that my expectations of quality weren't very high. The fact that my designs were unrefined didn't bother me; it was not the final outcome of the models that was so important to me, but rather the process of designing them that I loved most. I loved the idea of folding something that probably no one had ever folded before. Most of my finished models didn't look like anything recognizable; I mostly folded imaginary creatures. My folding premise was that anything could be made into a creature, and my designing method was to keep folding a piece of paper any which way until there were enough appendages sticking out to make a creature. No matter where on the paper the appendages were or how many there were, I would turn them into arms, legs or wings, and then presto, I would have a creature... sometimes it would be even turn out to be an almost recognizable creature!

During eighth and ninth grades, I went through a phase where I would go through the dictionary and try to design origami models of whatever words had pictures by them. This is when I first started having specific forms in mind before sitting down to fold. In general, I would tend to fold animals, but I also branched out into other themes such as furniture. I used to tell myself that nothing is impossible to represent by folding one uncut square piece of paper. Of course, I was aware that some subjects are more difficult and less worthwhile to try to represent than others. So rather than trying to fold amoebas, barbed-wire fences, restaurants or shopping malls, I tended to stick to the familiar, straight-forward theme of animals

I was aware that many of the animal subjects I had been folding could already be found in other advanced books, but because I enjoyed designing my own models, I tried to keep away from these books. I was worried that if I was exposed to all of the amazing models out there, I would be less inspired to design my own models, for I would see how mediocre my own models were.

One day when I was in tenth grade I was in a bookstore and discovered the book, Folding the Universe from Angelfish to Zen, by Peter Engel. What made this book different from others I had glanced at was that not only did it contain origami diagrams, but also it had an extensive section discussing the connections between origami and such unlikely subjects as music, Buddhist philosophy, and the psychology of creativity. It looked so fascinating I could not resist buying it.

After buying that book my whole self-protective philosophy changed. I learned so much from reading it that I soon realized how silly and unproductive my abstinence from origami books actually was. I decided to go on a quest for origami knowledge. I decided that I could better forge my own path if I let myself be given the origami tools used by the experts. I went on an origami book shopping spree; I bought all of the advanced books I could find and studied the different authors' methods of folding. Although I never stopped designing my own models, after coming in contact with this garden of origami knowledge, I did end up finding myself folding fewer animal models, possibly because I felt overwhelmed by all of the exquisite, extremely polished animal designs in the books and felt that whatever animal subjects I could design had already been designed perfectly by the experts.

On the whole, these books expanded my repertoire of folding. It was no longer enough to just design a new way to fold a certain subject; the new challenge was to come up with new subjects that had never been folded. I forced myself to branch out as far as I could beyond animal themes and instead try to fold scenes, ideas and symbols. One of my main strategies was to try to fold already commonly folded subjects such as cranes, hearts and people, using only part of the paper, so that I could then use the rest of the paper to fold some sort of scene surrounding them. For instance, after discovering how to fold a person using only two corners of the square, I was able to apply this method to make a whole variety of models of people doing things. This general method of creating new models I called "isolating squares," or "isolating points."

This designing method enabled me to reach outside the existing bounds of origami and define my own style. It also enabled me to manifest a little bit of my personality into my origami models. Some common themes that would show up in my models were the 'ridiculously extreme (e.g. 25-headed crane),' the 'ridiculously oxymoronic' (e.g. Surfer on a Still Lake) and of course, the 'the just plain ridiculous (e.g. Person Stranded on a Desert Isle Watching the Sunset). These ridiculous themes I think have reflected my other interests: caricature acting, juggling, unicycling and clowning.

Soon after delving into the world of origami books, I came out of the origami closet even further by putting on an origami display for the public at Kasuri Dyeworks, a decorative paper and fabric store in Berkeley (my hometown). This was the first time my origami was viewed by a wide audience. Eunice Lew, a member of the San Francisco Origami Group (now Bay Area Rapid Folders, ) saw my display, called me up and told me about the San Francisco group. I joined the club and went to the monthly meetings where for the first I folded with an actual group of 'origamists'. I was surprised, when I first went there, to find that I was one of the few who actually designed origami models. Most members of the club just folded from diagrams and were amazed to see all the models I had created myself. Before going there I hadn't realized that designing origami models was uncommon; since it was my primary experience, I was under the impression that it was what everybody did.

At the meetings I got to teach many of my original models, which gave me new insights into origami designing. I found that the more each design had clear landmarks at each step (i.e. "fully guidelined"), the easier it would be to teach. For instance, I found that instructions like, "Fold this flap about to right here..." were far less effective than instructions like, "Valley-fold the tip of the wave down to meet the right edge of the base of the wave." From trying unsuccessfully to teach some of my earlier, less-guidelined models, I learned how important was when designing to guideline each fold.

Also at the San Francisco origami group, I was told about the national origami group, The Friends of the Origami Center of America, and quickly became a member. In 1990, I attended my first origami convention, The Friends of the Origami Center of America annual convention in New York. It was overwhelming and unimaginable to be in a huge gym with hundreds of other folders sitting at tables all around, folding from diagrams or or teaching each other their favorite models. It was a dream-come-true to meet and fold with so many people, who were all there for a common purpose: to be "wrapped up" in origami. It was especially satisfying for me to meet so many origami designers for it made me realize that there were more people like me.

The biggest highlight for me was meeting my mentor, John Montroll, and actually folding with him. Before meeting him I was nervous, being aware of how famous he was in the origami world and how his book so much shaped my own path as a folder. We first met when I took his "origami chessboard" class. I found him to be very personable; he constantly made puns and light-heartedly teased everybody, including himself. Rather than interacting on a master-student level, we quickly became pals; after I completed the chessboard, we sat down for a game of chess (he beat me with ease). In addition to origami and chess, we both had common interests in math, whistling, and Gilbert and Sullivan.

While attending the New York origami convention made me aware of how popular origami was on the east coast, it also made me realize how relatively sparse it was on the west coast, at least in Berkeley, my home town, and in Santa Cruz, where I went to college. The San Francisco Origami Group was great while it lasted, but alas, it folded (I couldn't resist).

Luckily, not soon after, a new origami group, Bay Area Rapid Folders was formed by Mark Turner, an extremely outgoing and inspiring folder who, tragically, had been diagnosed with AIDS. Over his brief origami career, Mark's accomplishments were awesome. Throughout the 3 years from the time he was diagnosed with AIDS to the time he passed away, he organized the monthly BARF meetings, published a monthly BARF newsletter, organized numerous origami exhibits, and most amazing of all, learned how to design his own models and wrote his own origami book, Garden Folds.

The area of origami in which Mark and I related to each other most was designing origami. Mark was the first person to whom I tried to explain the process of origami design and who actually got it. At the 1993 origami convention, Mark and I dormed together and over the course of the weekend we spent a lot of time discussing origami design. Before the convention, Mark had folded an amazing number of highly complex models from diagrams (probably more than I had in my 10 years of folding), but he had folded practically no models of his own.

The second night of the convention, we stayed up late into the night designing a "sick man with a cane" to be displayed in the origami exhibit the next day. From deciding what base to use, to figuring out how to form the different appendages and perfect the final model, I guided him through each stage of the design. When we finished, we had a model we were both quite pleased with, and he exclaimed, "that wasn't so hard!" It seemed as if origami designing, to him, had suddenly become demystified.

I don't think that during our designing session I taught Mark anything that he didn't already understand; I think his revelation was more just a matter of finally sitting down and "going for it." While I'm sure that his previous folding experience provided him with most of the understanding needed to become an origami designer, I can honestly say that Mark became a 'prolific designer' in a single weekend, for six months later, he was at the BARF meeting selling his own origami book. My experience helping Mark take the final step into the realm of origami design has lead me to believe that there are many folders out there who are ready to take this same step and just need to 'go for it.' It has also shown me that designing origami is not as difficult as people make it out to be and is far from an innate ability that only some folders happen to have. If more advance folders would just 'go for it,' we would have a lot more origami creators as well as more origami creations in the world today.

When Mark passed away, I assumed the position of editor of the BARF Newsletter. This has been a wonderful experience for me, for it has helped keep me busy diagramming models and in at least some sense has helped keep the club together. It has been a year since Mark passed away and he would be happy to know that The Bay Area Rapid Folders is still going strong, carrying on his legacy which he so devotedly and generously put his heart into. Although it is a long commute from Santa Cruz to San Francisco, going to the monthly meetings has been well worth it for me, for I find origami folding to be way more enjoyable and self-reaffirming when done with other people. While it is satisfying for me to spend hours alone in a room designing and refining a new origami model, the real satisfaction comes when taking that model into an origami community and sharing it with other folders. I am especially grateful to Mark for forming the group, for it has kept me in touch with the local origami community, and let me know that while not as widespread as on the east coast, origami is certainly alive and well in the Bay Area.

Designing origami for me has always been a form of self expression. The process of teaching and diagramming my own models, and even following other people's diagrams has been a way for me to connect with other folders. Even more satisfying than designing origami models, has been sharing them with other people. That is why I feel extremely fortunate that my folding path eventually lead me out of the closet into a far greater, much brighter world of worldly origami.

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This page transfered to in Oct, 2021 with permission from Jeremy Shafer.
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