Purely Origami

For centuries, origami has involved cutting, gluing, and using more than one sheet, and in many folding circles, still does. But, over the last 50 years, origami has been taken up by scientists and mathematicians, who have found it more satisfying to restrict themselves to one square, no cuts. Robert Lang recounts,

"As origami designers' abilities improved, there arose an unofficial set of rules governing what was allowed and what wasn't, particularly in the West. In general, an origami figure from an uncut sheet was better than one from a cut sheet; a single sheet was more desirable than two; and a fold from a square was preferred over any other starting shape" ("A Brief History of Origami").

As an origami designer, I am what people call an origami purist, for I strictly adhere to the above rules and regard them as a code of ethics. I subscribe to origami purism because I find this type of origami to be more aesthetically pleasing than non-pure forms, and the methods of designing more cohesive, structured and tangible. When people who have been looking over my origami models find out that all my models are from just one uncut square they are often quite surprised. "How can you do that?" they ask me, and then the more bold ask, "why?" This is similar to the response I get when I tell people that I'm vegan.

I equate origami purism and veganism, two seemingly unrelated concepts, because I have had a similar experience with each, and comparing them might help explain why I adhere to the two codes of ethics. Although for many, veganism and origami purism might seem restricting and difficult to adhere to, they have given me a foundation from which I can eat and fold to my full potential.

I used to be hamburger and hot dog junkie. I hated mixing foods, would steer clear of most vegetables and often would fill my plate with nothing but hamburger and catsup. It was clear to me that my diet was less then varied, not healthy and needed to change. When I decided to become vegetarian (eating no meat) and again when I became vegan (eating no animal products of any kind), I forced myself to start eating new and healthier plant-based foods. I discovered delicious foods that before I'd never even heard of. Although on one level, I was placing restrictions on my diet, in reality, my diet became more varied, balanced, and wholesome than I had ever imagined. Veganism set down a foundation for my diet for it made me avoid unhealthy foods and gave me simple guidelines for what foods were good for me and for the world as a whole.

Although origami purism is less political and certainly less environmental-minded than veganism, many of the ideas governing each are parallel. Both doctrines set guidelines which narrow their respective pools by ruling out elements which are less beneficial. There are already so many possible ways to fold most models using only one square and no cuts, that when you lose these restrictions you lose a sense of direction. When setting out to design a model from one square no cuts, the designer has a set of guidelines in which to work; he is aware of exactly how much paper he has to work with and has a set goal in mind, to fold the most well-proportioned, realistic-looking, efficient model using the most aesthetically pleasing, easily foldable method. If cutting or using more than one piece of paper is permitted, then the effort the designer puts into so carefully rationing out the paper to fit the different appendages becomes meaningless. For the paper cutter, it matters not how many appendages a given model requires, because with only a few cuts, the right number can easily be achieved.

Just as a vegan believes that when animal products are used, the integrity of the food is lost, an origami purist believes that when scissors are employed the integrity of the paper is lost. When non-purists cut paper, they are actually cutting up the art, destroying the wholeness of the art. The origami purist, on the other hand, sees the beauty and wonder of an endless array of life representations "flowing out of the simplest, most regular of shapes: the square" (Robert Lang). Why use scissors, or more than one sheet, when one uncut square suffices? A similar question is asked by vegans, "Why eat animal products when plant based foods suffice?"

There are few if any folding subjects that could benefit from the use of scissors (origami "confetti" comes to mind). Cutting is the least aesthetic folding operation of all because it destroys the wholeness of the paper. I like to think of the origami paper as sacred and from this viewpoint, I see the cutting of origami as sacrilege.

What did the out-of-line folder say to the purist? "Can I please have cuts?"

When people ask me how I managed to fold my models each using only one uncut square, I usually pass it off saying that I have been folding for so many years. But, when people ask me why I confine myself to such rigid origami rules, I tell them that I do not find them to be rigid at all. I tell them that practically anything can be folded from one square without cutting and that these purist guidelines have provided me with a excellent framework for designing models. I do not see the guidelines as being restrictive at all. To the contrary, most of my models and folding techniques probably would have never been discovered had I allowed myself to use scissors or more than one sheet of paper to fold my models.

Why did the almost deranged folder fold razor sharp paper? Because he wanted a paper cut. But then why would he use scissors? Because he wanted a paper cut. But then why did he take it all to a professional? Because he wanted to pay per cut.

Another reason that I object to the use of cutting in origami is that it falsely represents origami. Just as one cannot see directly the suffering and environmental harm that went into a plate of meat, most origami viewers cannot directly see that a model has been cut. I remember a long time ago when I attempted to fold the traditional crab from a beginning origami book because I thought that the crab shown in the last picture looked really neat. It was a huge let down when I came to the step where you need to make four cuts in order to turn the four legs into eight. I was so disappointed that I didn't even finish the model, for I had already developed an origami code of ethics. Moreover, all of this cutting in traditional origami makes the public view origami as a craft where cutting is okay, so that when people see the modern purist origami, they can't appreciate it as much for what it is, for they just assume that it involves cutting.

How many modular origami folders does it take to make a 20 ft. high modular sculpture?" I don't know... I can't manage to get their arms and legs to stay interlocked, and using superglue would be inhumane and impure."

Many of my arguments against cutting also apply to using more than one sheet of paper. Using two sheets is most commonly found in animal designs were the head and front legs are folded from one sheet and the body and hind legs are folded from the other. Even the world-renowned Japanese folder, Akira Yoshizawa requires two sheets to fold many of his animals, probably because it makes the models easier to fold.

But being easier to fold should not justify using more than one sheet. If you want to design a simple model, there are plenty of approaches that don't involve cheating. One approach is to use fewer appendages. For example, there is a wonderful traditional three-legged girrafe model which is also very realistic-looking. You can also simplify a design by shortening the appendages. Although this will usually make the model look more abstract, this in turn can give it a stylized more artistic look. It should be expected that if you want to design a model that is easier to fold, you will have to make it less realistic-looking. Abstract models have value for both the designer and the folders and are a much better solution to simplifying a model than using scissors or more than one piece of paper.

It all comes down to a simple question: Why fold a model out of two sheets when you can fold it out of one? American folders John Montroll and Robert Lang have demonstrated that folding practically any species of animal is not only possible, but also well worth the effort. Relating this to veganism, almost all kinds of animal- based foods have plant-based substitutes that are not only better for you, but taste better as well. Many people will argue that for many species of animals, it is easier to fold a realistic-looking final product out of two sheets of paper. But just as once you get the hang of veganism, foods are simpler and easier to prepare than animal foods, when you get the hang of using only one uncut square, it becomes easy as well.

The challenge of designing purist origami is part of what makes it so fun. Meeting that challenge is extremely satisfying, for not only have you managed to unlocked a new door for yourself but you've opened it up to the world of folders. Similarly, meeting the challenge of eating vegan in a meat-based society, is satisfying, for not only have you proven to yourself that it is possible to thrive on plant foods alone, but you show everyone else this as well and thereby help them expand their own eating prospects.

Once diagrammed, an origami model will potentially outlive its designer. That's why it is extremely important to put as much effort into the model as possible. In designing models that require cutting, one is sending out a message to future generations, "I didn't have the ability or the ambition to fold this out of one uncut square, but I hope you'll still fold it." But, if a designer is not willing meet the challenge and put in the time it takes to make an aesthetically pleasing model, then why should folders put in the time to fold it? There are plenty of designers out there who have the ability and the ambition to make origami that is worth folding and it is these folders -- not the cutters -- who further origami as an art.

For some people who are just concerned with the final product of a model and want to get to the best looking final product by the easiest, fastest folding method, I suppose that cutting the paper is what these people need. However, most origami folders realize that the folding procedure is just as important (if not more so) as the final product and that it actually can make or break a final product. For instance if a folder gets frustrated by a cumbersome, anesthetic, folding procedure then the model is likely to not come out at all.

The origami purist doctrines adhere to the idea that origami is not just an art where what you see is what you get; there are many folds hidden behind the folds that you can see, which although unseen by the viewer, contribute to the overall integrity of the design. Since there are many more folders of origami than viewers, it is of utmost importance that the folding procedure is as aesthetically pleasing as possible. Cutting is the least aesthetic folding operation of all because it destroys the wholeness of the paper. While I realize that origami involving cutting is traditional and has been viewed for centuries as a sacred craft, I see the paper cutting as a primitive attribute, ready to be outgrown. I like to think of the origami paper as sacred and from this point of view I see cutting the paper as sacrilege.

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This page transfered to https://make-origami.com/BARF/ in Oct, 2021 with permission from Jeremy Shafer.
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