Exploring Paper
Exploratorium Magazine

Volume 23, Number 2
Exploring Origami - Page 2 of 5

Sadako Sasaki

In Japan, legend says that a person who makes a thousand origami cranes will live a long life. The legend took on new meaning in 1955, when Sadako Sasaki (shown above and below), a twelve-year-old girl who was exposed to radiation during the bombing of Hiroshima, contracted leukemia. While in the hospital, she tried to fold 1,000 cranes but died before she could finish. Sadako's statue now stands in Hiroshima's Peace Memorial Park, where it is decorated every year with thousands of origami cranes, folded by children from around the world, as a symbol of peace.

Click here for a larger image of Sadako Sasaki.

Click here to visit www.sadako.com


T he art of paper folding, like the art of papermaking, began in China, but it spread to Japan by the sixth century A.D. Over the centuries, it became an integral part of Japanese culture. Paper butterflies symbolized the bride and groom at weddings; folding a thousand paper cranes became a traditional way to ensure a long and healthy life. Animals were an especially popular theme, as "folders" developed more and more ingenious ways to make a little diamond of folded paper sprout legs or wings—and even to make it float, hop, or fly. Even so, Japanese origami evolved very slowly. According to American origami expert Peter Engel, Japanese folders invented about 150 traditional origami figures in a millennium of folding.

But in the last twenty-five years, new materials, new methods, and new ideas have transformed the traditional world of origami on both sides of the Pacific. The simple and stylized animals of the past, which relied as much on the viewer's imagination as on the folder's skill, have been joined by bugs and beasts bristling with anatomically correct legs and teeth. Some folders are exploring new subject matter, such as elaborate cuckoo clocks or working Swiss army knives. Others venture into the abstract world of mathematics, assembling spectacular interlocking polyhedra or tile mosaics, or defying straight-line geometry to sculpt graceful curves. As origamists reach out to new materials (silk, transparency film, bubblegum wrappers) and new design tools (yes, the computer age has arrived), perhaps only two things remain taboo to serious folders: scissors and glue.

"Cutting is the least aesthetic folding operation of all because it destroys the wholeness of the paper," writes Jeremy Shafer, the dynamic origamist/juggler/unicyclist who leads San Francisco's origami club, the Bay Area Rapid Folders (BARF). "I like to think of the origami paper as sacred, and from this viewpoint, I see the cutting of origami as sacrilege." Or, as Eric Eros, another BARF member, says, "Scissors make it too easy." The new origami is anything but easy. Shafer has designed a model of the Star Trek spaceship Enterprise that takes seventy-two diagrams and eleven pages to explain. It took a month for Shafer to design, and the average folder could expect to take a week to make it. Origami designer Robert Lang routinely stretches the limits of belief with critters like his computer-designed lobster, which comes fully equipped with eight legs, a tail, a head, claws, and antennae.

To origamists, their burgeoning art form is like music. Most folders begin as performers, bringing to life the work of the composers, but a restless few feel the urge to explore further. As Shafer says, "We have to come up with ideas that extend the bounds of origami, not the mounds of paper." These few—Americans like Shafer, Lang, John Montroll, and contemporary Japanese folders including Toshikazu Kawasaki and Jun Maekawa—vie to create spectacular new compositions. Yet the art is large enough to allow each designer his own style and philosophy. Just as no musician will ever confuse a Beethoven symphony with a Mozart, no origamist will ever confuse a Shafer model with a Lang. Here is a sampler of the creations of modern origamists, ranging from the gorgeous to the whimsical. Just remember, every one of these (with one exception) began as a single sheet of material, and can be folded without cutting or gluing.


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