The Art of Paper Folding. Zhezhi (China), Jong-i jeob gi (Korea).

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Paper Crane.
The classic Origami model.
Origami, the art of paper folding,
remains one of the simplest
types of art, but at the same
time one of the most intricate
and complex.

Origami: The Art of Paper Folding
History, Types, Origamists


What is Origami?
When Did Origami (Paper-Folding) Begin?
Origami in Japan
Paper Folding in Germany
Paper Folding in America
Origami Paper
Types of Origami
Leading Origamists
Related Articles

Elephant made with dollar bill.
A form known as Dollar Origami.

What is Origami?

In visual art, the Japanese term "Origami" (from the words "ori" meaning "folding", and "kami" meaning "paper") refers to the Japanese art of folding objects out of paper without cutting, glueing, pasting or marking. The goal of the origamist is to transform a flat sheet of paper into a finished model through the use of folding and sculpting techniques. One of the best-known origami shapes is the orizuru (from the words "ori" meaning "folded" and "tsuru" meaning "crane"), or paper crane. It represents the Japanese Red-crowned Crane bird which is revered in Japanese culture. The school of paper-folding that permits cuts in the paper is known in Japan as kirigami (from the words "kiru" meaning to cut, and "kami" meaning "paper"). Origami is the best-known form of paper-folding, but not necessarily the oldest. Traditional Chinese art has even more ancient roots than Japanese art, and the Chinese tradition of paper folding, known as "zhezhi", may be the original form. If so, it joins a long list of specialized crafts and exquisite decorative arts that first emerged in China and Japan, including Chinese lacquerware (4,500 BCE), jade carving (4900 BCE), bronze sculpture like the Sanxingdui Bronzes (1200 BCE), terracotta sculpture like the Chinese Terracotta Army (220 BCE), Chinese porcelain (c.600 CE), and Ukiyo-e woodblock prints (c.1670).

NOTE: For more articles on the arts and crafts of Asia, please see: Asian Art (from 38,000 BCE onwards).

When Did Origami (Paper-Folding) Begin?

The history of paper folding is very murky, and no consensus exists as to when or where it was first practiced. Some art historians believe that origami was invented by the Japanese about 1000 CE, while there is documented evidence of traditional Japanese origami being practiced since the Edo period (1603–1867). However, others consider its origins to lie in Chinese art, not least because paper itself was reputedly first invented in China, during the era of Han Dynasty art, 206 BCE - 220 CE. In addition, certain traditional ceremonies in China (and Japan) included the burning of folded paper - a practice established during the Song Dynasty (905-1125 CE) in China, and the Heian period (794–1185) in Japan. (Origami butterflies, for instance, were used in Shinto weddings to depict the bride and groom.) So a limited form of ceremonial paper folding appears to have taken root at this time, which may have been a precursor of origami or zhezhi. (See also: Chinese Art Timeline 18,000 BCE - present.)

Origami also emerged elsewhere in East Asia. Paper folding is also well known to Korean art, for instance, and in Korean schools. Known as Jong-i jeobgi, it is an important part of Korean culture. Finally, other historians think that paper-folding developed from the craft of folding cloth (pleating clothes, napkin folding), and as a result may have started in Europe rather than Asia. The details remain uncertain. All we know for sure is that there is no hard evidence that origami existed before 1600.

Origami in Japan

One reason why some art critics lean towards Japan as the original source of origami, is that by 1680, writings by the novelist and poet Ihara Saikaku suggest that paper-folding proper had already become fully integrated into Japanese culture. Indeed, one of the earliest known instruction books on how to fold paper was Hiden Senbazuru Orikata (Secret to Folding 1000 Cranes) (1797) by the Japanese expert Akisato Rito (1780-1814), who went on to write several other instruction manuals on origami, while producing a large number of beautiful and complex paper figures. Subsequently, several other master origamists emerged, such as Akira Yoshizawa (1911–2005) and Kosho Uchiyama (1912-98), both revered by many as the greatest artists of their time, whose work inspired a renaissance of the art form. Akira Yoshizawa was responsible for several important innovations, including the technique of wet-folding, as well as the Yoshizawa–Randlett diagramming system. Other Japanese master folders include Fumiaki Kawahata, Jun Maekawa, Meguro Toshiyuki and Issei Yoshino. The Japan Origami Academic Society is a particularly prestigious body in world paper folding.

Origami aesthetics vary significantly. For example, in Japan, origamists prefer to make examples of living things, like a crane bird or a pretty paper flower, but Chinese paper folders prefer making inanimate objects, like boats or small dishes.

Paper Folding in Germany

As well as the Oriental tradition of origami, the folding of paper into decorative designs was also championed by the German educational expert Friedrich Froebel (1782–1852), who introduced it into the kindergarten movement that he began in the 19th century. In particular, he is associated with three specific paper folding techniques: the Folds of Life (simple folds for beginners); the Folds of Truth (which help to teach basic principles of geometry); and the Folds of Beauty (more complex folds using squares, hexagons, and octagons). These folds were first introduced into Japanese schools about 1880, which coincided with the coining of the term "origami" to describe paper-folding in Japan. German paper folding continued at the first Waldorf school set up in Stuttgart (1919) by Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925), which championed various types of arts and crafts. It was also practiced at the renowned Bauhaus school of design (1919–33), where it was used as a way of teaching architecture and forms of design, notably by the abstract artist Josef Albers (1888-1976).

Paper folding has also blossomed in Spain and South America. The Spanish writer and philosopher Miguel de Unamuno (1864–1936) was a famous paper folder who did a huge amount to champion and popularize the craft. Paper folding also spread to South America, notably Argentina, where Vicente Solorzano Sagredo (1883–1970) was a master folder and the author of the leading Spanish books on paper folding.

Paper Folding in America

The art of origami was not introduced properly to the United States until the 1950s, when origamist Lillian Oppenheimer (1898-1992) and children's entertainer Shari Lewis popularized it on TV. Later, during the 60s and early 70s, American paper folders Fred Rohm and Neal Elias developed a range of paper objects of unprecedented complexity. During the 80s they were joined by origami artists like Robert Lang, and John Montroll. During the early 90s Lang created two computer programs (TreeMaker and ReferenceFinder) to help with the precise folding of models. Other programs include TreeMaker and Oripa. See also: Computer art.

Folding Techniques

Origami books typically begin with an outline of basic origami techniques. This features diagrams of basic folds including: valley and mountain folds, reverse folds, squash folds, pleats and sinks. There are also a number of standard "bases", which can be used to make a wide range of models, such as the square base, bird base, fish base, and frog base.

Origami Paper

Virtually any type of flat paper can be used in origami; the only requirement is that it should hold a fold/crease. Specialist origami paper, is sold in prepacked squares of differing sizes (1-10 inches or more). Usually one side is coloured, the other white. Origami paper typically is slightly lighter in weight than copy paper. On the other hand, heavier-weight paper is needed when wet-folding. Paper money (from various countries) is also used by origamists.

Traditional Japanese origami paper, known as "Washi", is made from the bark of the gampi tree, the mitsumata shrub, or the paper mulberry but can also be made using bamboo or hemp. Tougher than ordinary paper made from wood pulp, it is used in several other traditional arts, including calligraphy. Other types of special papers include unryu, lokta, gampi, kozo, saa and abaca are also extremely strong.

NOTE: Purists believe that no tool or instrument should be used when folding. That said, some tools can prove exceptionally helpful when creating more complex models. A bone folder, for instance, makes it easier to make sharp creases in the paper, while paper clips can act as extra fingers, and tweezers can help make small folds. Sprays are also useful to spray finished objects to help maintain their shape.

Types of Origami

Origami models not only include still-life objects, but also moving objects. This type of "Action Origami" includes models that fly, or, when finished, uses the kinetic energy of a person's hands to move another flap or limb: see also, Kinetic Art.

Modular Origami
This involves fixing a number of pieces together in order to form a complete model. Typically the individual pieces are simple but the final assembly may be quite complex. Chinese paper folding features a style known as "Golden Venture Folding" in which large numbers of individual pieces are combined to make elaborate models.

This is a sculptural technique used in order to create models with gentle curves (eg. animal models) rather than geometric creases and flat surfaces. The paper is first dampened to allow it to be moulded more easily, and the completed model retains its shape when it dries. An adhesive known as "size" is often applied to the paper to make modelling easier. Size is soft and flexible when wet but crisp and hard when dry.

Pureland Origami
First developed by British origamist John Smith in the 1970s, this branch of origami permits only mountain/valley folds to be used when making a model.

Origami Tessellations
A tessellation is formed when shapes are arranged side by side to create a pattern with no gaps or overlaps in between. (Tessellations are very common in patterns of floor and wall tilings.) Origami tessellations are not made from separate pieces of paper arranged side by side, but consist of a single sheet of paper folded so that it has a tessellated pattern. Pioneers and developers of Origami tessellations include Shuzo Fujimoto, Ron Resch, Chris Palmer, Robert Lang and Alex Bateman.

Origamic Architecture
This branch involves the creation of three-dimensional architectural models, using cut-out paper, usually thin paperboard. Although visually similar to "pop-ups", origamic architecture is normally cut out of a single sheet of paper, whereas most pop-ups use two or more. Leading exponents include: Keiko Nakazawa, Takaaki Kihara, Maria Garrido, Giovanni Russo and Ingrid Siliakus.

Exhibitions of origami works can be seen from time to time in several of the world's best art museums and in some of the best galleries of contemporary art.

Leading Origamists

Here is a short selection of the foremost paper folders. listed in chronological order.

Akira Yoshizawa (1911-2005)
Japanese origamist, regarded as the "grandmaster of origami", said to have raised origami from a craft to a living art. Made more than 50,000 models and wrote 18 books on Origami.

Ligia Montoya (1920-67)
Innovative Argentine paper-folding artist, specializing in bird, flower and insect designs, who played a decisive role in establishing paper-folding as an international discipline.

Florence Maria Temko (1921-2009)
A pioneer in promoting origami in America. Wrote 55 books on paper crafts and other types of folk art.

Humiaki Huzita (1924-2005)
Japanese-Italian origami artist and mathematician, best known for formulating the first six Huzita–Hatori principles outlining the mathematics of paper folding, in order to solve geometric construction problems

Samuel L Randlett (b.1930)
Origamist who co-developed (with Robert Harbin) the modern diagram system for explaining how to fold paper, as initially introduced by Akira Yoshizawa. In their book "Art of Origami" (1961) Randlett and Harbin expanded Yoshizawa's original work, creating what is now known as the Yoshizawa-Randlett system which has since been used by paper folders throughout the world.

Kunihiko Kasahara (b.1941)
Origamist who specializes in simple, elegant animals, and modular designs like polyhedra, as well as investigating exploring the mathematics and geometry of origami.

Makoto Yamaguchi (b.1944)
Chairperson of Origami House, a showcase of origami models which he launched in 1989. Closely involved with paper folding organizations in Japan and around the world: President of JOAS (Japanese Origami Academic Society); Board member of NOA (Nippon Origami Association); lifetime member of Origami USA; and a member of British Origami Society.

Toshikazu Kawasaki (b.1955)
Japanese paperfolder and theorist known as "The Father of Origami Rose", famous for his innovative geometric models, notably his series of symmetrical "roses", based on a series of twisting folds that make the petals curl outwards from the centre of the flower.

Eric Joisel (1956-2010)
French origami artist and specialist in the wet-folding method. Best known for his figurative works created without the use of adhesive or scissors.

Peter Engel (b.1959)
American origami theorist, graphic designer and architect. Author of several books on Origami, including "Origami from Angelfish to Zen".

Robert J. Lang (b.1961)
American physicist and one of the world's greatest origami experts renowned for his complex and elegant designs, notably of animals and insects. An expert in the mathematics of origami, he has made major advances in applying origami to engineering problems. Recently wowed the origami world when he created a cuckoo-clock out of folded paper - something that took 3 months of design and 6 hours of actual folding.

Satoshi Kamiya (b.1981)
One of the world's youngest origami masters in the world. His most famous design is Ryujin 3.5, a complex dragon with feelers, claws, and horns, which takes about 275 steps and up to 4 weeks to fold properly.

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• For other artistic terms, see: Art Glossary.
• For more about the evolution of arts and crafts, see: History of Art.

• For more about arts and crafts in Japan, China and SE Asia, see: Homepage.

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