The Art of Paper Folding
Origami or paper folding is the folding of an object from one sheet of uncut paper, normally a square. Up to around the 60’s, there were a few models that you could learn to fold. The more popular ones, which we learned as kids, were the traditional Japanese crane, the (blow-up) gold fish and the Chinese frog. Nowadays, there are origami artists all over the world, not only in Japan, who are able to create origami models, which are both beautiful and highly complex.
Art or Craft?
By calling ourselves origami artists, the question that naturally comes to mind is: Is origami art?
Art lacks a satisfactory definition. Rather than saying what it is, a better way would be describing how it is done. Art involves the use of skills and the imagination by practitioners in the creation of aesthetic objects, environments, or experiences that can be communicated with other people. Skills come not only from one domain, but also from outside sources. For example, the rapid rise of painting into an art form during the Renaissance period was the adaptation of skills from branches of science such as optics, perspective and anatomy. The same analogy can be found in other branches of art.
Origami is a late developer. It remained essentially a craft until the mid-20th century when it started its transformation into a fine art. Akira Yoshizawa, of whom many of us regard as the father of modern origami, started the climb with his numerous creations and a written down system of folding instructions. Initially the climb was slow. The most drastic change came later towards the end of the century. This was through the introduction of science and mathematics in the design and folding of origami models. In fact, many of the creative origami artists around the world do have a background of science, mathematics or engineering. And, many of the creations of the world's best origami artists have also found their way into famous art museums, like the Louvre in Paris, and Museum of Modern Art in New York.
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.
My jump into design without much folding experience probably gave me the advantage in designing 3D models. Besides the models designed by the more conventional method, I have also several 3D models. At the 5th International Origami Science, Mathematics and Education Conference in Singapore in 2010, I presented a paper titled “Simulation of Nonzero Gaussian Curvature in Origami by Curved-Crease Couplets”, which is now published in Origami^5.
The 6th International Origami Science, Mathematics and Education Conference will be held in Tokyo in the campus of Tokyo University in August 2014. The paper I will be presenting is “Design of Close Origami Polyhedral Surface by Straight-crease Couplets”.
An Inqusitive Youth
Looking back, my inclination towards design and creativity must have something to do with my primary and secondary school Boy Scout days. I remember when I was in Pearl’s Hill Primary School, I carved out a woggle from a wooden block for my scarf. And, later in Raffles Institution, I built a canoe which sank the moment it was launched in the Stamford Canal. That could be the reason why I took up a scholarship to study naval architecture to find out why ships float. Scout activities are, of course, full of practical action, giving the Scouts hands-on experience in how theory works.
As an origami artist, I occasionally get commercial work from advertising companies and institutions. I have also taught and conducted workshops in schools like Nanyang Polytechnic, Singapore University of Science and Technology and other institutions. The conferences and conventions I have attended are the Centro Diffusione Origami in Florence, Italy, the Centerfold in Columbus, Ohio, US. Of course, I presented a paper the 5th International Origami Science, Mathematics and Education Conference and Convention. Besides having my creations exhibited at these conventions, my origami works have also been displayed at exhibitions organised by overseas origami societies in their countries. In Singapore, together with other folders, our works are regularly displayed at community centres, libraries and occasionally at the Singapore Art Museum.
My origami works have also been presented to several prominent Singaporeans at functions and events. Among them are my Golden Arowana to Senior Minister Emeritus Mr Goh Chok Tong for a birthday back when he was still Prime Minister, and my Lobster for Prime Minister Mr Lee Hsien Loong at a grassroots function. The Lobster was an improvement on an earlier attempt to design a crustacean. Perhaps, I should also mention the giraffe presented to former EDB Chairman Teo Ming Kian, and the two Gryphons, which were presented one each to Professor Tommy Koh and to the former principal of Raffles Institution, Mrs Lim Lai Cheng, at a Scout campfire.
In summary, it has been an enjoyable short journey for me in origami. Most creative origami artists have much longer journeys than me and are more experienced, but I am steadily learning more and perfecting my origami style. I have made many friends both internationally and locally, and I will continue to experiment with new ideas and share these with them.
© Leong Cheng Chit, origami artist.
To view Cheng Chit’s wonderful origami works, please visit his Flickr here.