Taking origami into the future

March 23, 2008 12:00:00 AM PDT
Origami, the traditional Japanese art of paper folding, doesn't seem a candidate for high-technology. But one origami master in the East Bay is turning to lasers and computers. Richard Hart reports on his drive to discover new and ever-more complex shapes.

His laser is taking origami into the future.

"Origami's going in many different directions at once," says Robert Lang. There is a vast world of undiscovered origami out there that we are only now beginning to tap into."

Through most of its history, this art has been about folding a single piece of paper, without the help of scissors, into forms representing nature, like these works by masters on exhibit at Xerox's Palo Alto Research Center.

Having reached the summit in his own work -- authoring eight books, even lecturing in Japan -- Robert Lang sought a bigger challenge:

Sculpting three-dimensional geometric shapes. These bowls are an early example.

"What's challenging is that they're hard. They're hard to do well," says Lang.

How can that be? Shapes like these animals and insects often comprise thousands of creases; this bowl has only a hundred.

"There is a difference between complexity and difficulty, what draws me to this is that it's easy to do poorly but difficult to do well," says Lang.

Difficult because it's nearly impossible to fold and curve simultaneously. These objects curve in two dimensions at once.

But Lang was trained as a laser physicist. So he has written the only computer program to calculate the crease locations, and drive his new laser to draw the superfine lines -- and lightly score them for extreme folding.

"I have immense respect for him," says artist Linda Tomoko Mihara, "because he's bridged the mathematics and science with a traditional art form -- origami."

Linda Mihara is a world-renowned artist in her own right, and a member of the family behind The Paper Tree in San Francisco's Japantown, where some of Lang's work is displayed. Like other masters of tradition, she has no problem with his use of new tools.

"It's really great that he's around in our time, because he's really brought origami to a whole different level," says Mihara.

"In three-dimensional and mathematical origami," Lang predicts, "I think computers will play a much larger role, because it's almost impossible to create many of these designs by any other means."

RELATED LINKS:

  • Robert Lang's web site
  • Linda Mihara's work
  • Paper Tree Origami Center in San Francisco's Japantown
  • Palo Alto Research Center
    3333 Coyote Hill Road
    Palo Alto, CA 94304 USA
    (650)812-4000


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