I took up origami about fifteen years ago. It was not my first choice as a hobby to occupy my free time after stepping down from executive positions in companies. I was playing around with knotting and ribbon folding, which have a mathematical foundation and which could exercise my mind in exploring their intricacies.
By chance I came across origami. That was the time of the so called “Bug Wars” when several members of the Japanese Origami Tanteidan, and occasionally Western interlopers, sought to one-up each other with their designs of highly complex and realistic representations of insects and crustaceans. At each meeting or convention, they would show their latest creations. There was intense competition but, at the same time, a selfless sharing of ideas. The beauty and complexities of these models, certainly, were a giant leap from those we normally see in craft origami.
My interest then quickly switched to origami, and what really attracted me to it was this single-minded search among the international community of creative origami artists for new ideas and the complete willingness to share them.
My first degree was in engineering (more precisely, naval architecture) and I see in origami the element of design being the common link between what I first studied at university and what I do now as a creative origami artist. In both engineering and origami it is not only a question of assimilating knowledge, it is also a journey of discovery and applying knowledge to the production of products and services we need.
Singapore Art, or not
I have worked for Singapore’s Economic Development Board for more than twenty years since graduation. I have seen Singapore go through the different phases of economic development, namely labour intensive, skills intensive and currently, knowledge and capital intensive. The question we may ask then is, what is next? No doubt, we will and should continue to seek industrial discoveries through research and development. Yet while competing with other developed countries, Singapore too must learn to come up with new and innovative products and services through design and creativity. This would be our focus in our current phase of economic development.
This brings me to the question of the arts and its appreciation which, I think, is crucial for nurturing design and creativity. In our rush for economic development we have largely neglected its role in society. The low priority is due to the way we look at the arts as having a low functional utility. Among the arts, origami ranks lowly. A few years ago, I asked the National Arts Council for some sponsorship of an international origami conference we were organising in Singapore. We did not receive any as the council then regarded origami as a craft and not art. Although origami is taught in the community centres, and occasionally in secondary schools and other institutions, it is more focused on simple folding techniques and not as an aid to teaching mathematics, art, design and creativity. Yet origami is being taught with the incorporation of these objectives in schools in Japan, US, Israel, Hong Kong and Germany.
Engineering an Origami Piece
Soon after taking up origami, and folding a few models from books by David Brill and Peter Angels which I bought, I attempted to design my own models. I knew nothing about flat folding - the design process of first folding a flat base with the correct appendages and then shaping it to the final model. My first models were three-dimensional (3D), probably due to my experience during vacation training, during my university days, in a shipyard and my keen observation of workers shaping a ship hull. It was only later after establishing contacts with international origami artists like Dr Robert Lang and Joseph Wu that I could design models by first creating a base and later shaping it. These two are renowned origami professionals and were most generous in giving me their advice.