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The future of origami

Not another swan, a personal view of the likely future of origami

The paradox.

The number of shapes that can be created from just a single square of paper may well be infinite. Yet, for many creators, there does seem to be a problem. I have heard innovators of geometric modules say that there is really nothing new to be found. Perhaps the most common animal folds attempted are birds, almost every creative holder seems to have invented a Swan and in some cases several swans. But, after all, how many new swans do we really need? Perhaps one can be forgiven for saying,' not another swan'! Are there yet more fine horses still waiting to be brought into being?

Eric Kenneway in 1976, in his introduction to Origami 4, reviewed the developments in technique, changes in taste, and a growing number of adherents, then posed the question, ์Where will it all end?๎ and went on to say that there was no reason to suppose that it ever would. Over twenty years have elapsed since Eric wrote these words. Perhaps, it is time to ask the question again ์where will it all end?๎ 

Looking back over the last 30 years one may be forgiven for posing the question are we at the end of Origami ? In this article I want to take a broad look at paper folding and I hope to show that far from the end of paper folding development, we may well be only just starting to tap its richness. 

Traditional family folding.

Froebel, who was the originator of the Kindergarten movement, in a letter to his brother, recalled the happy evenings when the whole family was gathered together and paper-folding was one of the diversions which they enjoyed. Froebel was born in 1782 in Germany, and thus we have a clear reference to a paper-folding tradition within the family, some two hundred years ago. Indeed paper toys, like the water bomb, were almost certainly known in England nearly four hundred years ago.

The use of simple diversions and entertainments such as paper folding handed down in the family has been largely replaced by T V and electronic games etc. But from time to time TV and publishers seem to rediscover the simple delights of folk-craft type folding. The organisers of children's entertainment may well include folding as one of the activities. Thus there are ways that may help to keep the knowledge of folding as a diversion alive.

On balance, in spite of the competition, I believe paper folding of simple toys and utilities will still continue to practised in the years ahead.

Organised Origami

Societies for devotees of paper-folding are relatively new, most of them have been formed in the last 30 years. Although paper-folding is widely known and practised on occasions by many people, societies are the organisations essentially of enthusiasts. There are many crafts and customs which almost demand formal membership of an organisation in order to enjoy the necessary facilities, for example, fishing, football, judo and so on. But where the activity can easily be practised alone or with little assistance I suggest membership of such organisations tends to be very limited. Thus photography, is practised by a very large number of people, but the proportion in societies must be very small. 

Paper-folding for most people is an occasional diversion, a rather ephemeral activity where one folds a few classical toys or utilities mainly to entertain children, rather than a subject for serious participation . On this basis I would not expect a large proportion of people to join a society for paper-folding.

An example of this is that in spite of Bob Harbin's paper-back books selling in hundreds of thousands in the UK and giving the BOS address, membership of the B O S in the UK has never exceeded a few hundred.

So what of the future of Origami societies? I have argued that they are for enthusiasts, but even more to the point is that the setting up and administration of such societies depends on what I might call super enthusiasts. Without these highly motivated and dedicated people, willing to give up their time to organise there would be no societies at all.

What of the future? I think we will see more and more societies being formed across the world but they are unlikely to sustain large memberships. Certainly paper- folders are a gregarious and sharing community and they need their societies and meetings and will nourish and support them and thus guarantee their survival.

Enthusiastic folders

I have argued that societies depend for their existence on enthusiasts but will they continue to arrive in sufficient numbers? Enthusiasts enjoy folding for its own sake and tend to look for new challenges, so perhaps we should consider the number of models available to challenge the enthusiasts. As a low estimate I would put the creators of new models past and present, at not less than one hundred people worldwide. I estimate that on average they will have created a minimum of 100 new models each. So I estimate for the enthusiastic seeking new challenges there will be not less than ten thousand models to fold. Perhaps not less than one thousand of these will be of considerable complexity. So even folding one complicated model each day there will still be three years folding at least for an enthusiast. It is true that it is often difficult to get the diagrams but they usually exist. As an example I have in my library over four hundred books of Origami. They include diagrams for over fourteen thousand models. Assuming that there is fifty per cent duplication this means that I have diagrams for over seven thousand models. Of course my collection of Origami books is incomplete and so I suspect that there may well be ten thousand or more published models available.

Thus for the existing enthusiasts there is plenty of challenge available. But will the number of enthusiasts increase or not over time? This largely depends on the extent to which potential enthusiasts are likely to discover paper folding. It is true there are books, occasional displays, Internet pages, and a limited amount on T V of Origami exposure. But I think we have to recognise that the various media is unlikely to give more time to Origami in the future than they have in the recent past. On this basis I do not expect to see much of an increase in the number of active enthusiasts.

Enthusiasts (creators)

I have distinguished this special group who certainly enjoy folding but also create new models. They constitute, perhaps, ten percent of total enthusiasts. I have argued that enthusiasts are the power source of organised Origami, but amongst the enthusiasts at the cutting edge are the leaders, the innovators, the creators who motivate and stimulate the enthusiasts by their new creations.

There seems an almost insatiable appetite from enthusiasts for the new, the latest model. It seems a necessary requirement also for each new book on Origami to contain models not published before. But are we measuring the end of creative challenges and hence new models. Have we already reached saturation with models such as horses, swans, roses, pandas and penguins? Have we reach the end of geometric modular structures? In the last ten years or so creators have searched for new challenges in the insect world, dinosaurs, and sea creatures. They have sought to represent the surface patterns and textures of animals, to include teeth and toes. The problem of tackling complex models has been aided by the use of computer programs which can produce an optimimised design for the base. But what challenges still lie ahead for the creators? 

Human figures. This seems to me to be one of the most challenging areas for creative folders. We already have some splendid masks, busts and portraits but, alas, very few human figures which are convincing. It seems strange that so little attention appears to have been paid to the folding of human beings. There are notable exceptions of course in the work of Neal Elias and of Eric Kenneway for example. But if we look at the splendid animals which have been created for example, Brill's horse, then the poverty of convincing human figures seems to me to be extraordinary.

Curved models. Nearly all of the modules with which I am familiar are either flat or three-dimensional but rarely if ever include curves. Surely there must be enormous scope for folding modules with curves induced by the creases thus opening up the range of shapes possible when they are assembled into their final form.

Pictures. Jim Weinrich has shown in his creation of the Parthenon a remarkable area of opportunity in the creation of pictures within the frame of a rectangle, the contours of the picture being formed by creases or folds.

Toys. I would like to see much more work on the development of entertaining toys for children. For example a frog who's tongue shoots out when you press it or perhaps pull its legs. Surely there are opportunities also for more sound toys where the sound is produced by movement of, or action on, the paper

Curio. I have used this term to mean curves in the paper which are induced by the folds. A superb example of its use is demonstrated in Herman van Goubergen's cat.

Crumpled folding. Paul Jackson introduced this remarkable idea as a way of stimulating new models. The paper is crumpled in some systematic way and then searched for folds which began to suggest a model.

Minimal folding. Although a number of fascinating models has been produced already by adopting the constraint of suggesting a form or creature in the minimum number of folds there are still, I believe, a great of opportunities still left for fine creations.

Ballet. I have a vision of an Origami Ballet for some time but it needs creators and performers to realise it. I like to think of an idea in which we see a stage which is dark except for but sheets of paper brilliantly illuminated that seem to fold themselves into models.

Puppets. We seem to have many attractive puppets which fit on the end of one's finger. I wonder what opportunities there are for puppets which fit on the whole hand and thus enable the fingers to manipulate head and arms for example.

Forgiving folds. I presented some work on this idea at COET 95 in New York. The challenge is to find models which are attractive but can stand inaccurate folding making them available to adults and children who have problems in folding.

New multi- forms. We are all familiar with the remarkable sequence of forms in the classical multi- form usually finishing up with the Chinese junk. There seem to me to be vast opportunities for new creations on these lines, Jeremy Schaeffer has shown some fascinating sequences and I think the ideas are well worth pursuing.

Stories and music. I like the idea which seems to have originated in Japan of folding a model instead with music. Surely there are some splendid opportunities here for creators with a musical gifts.

 I have noted above a few challenges for the innovators of new models, but there are areas where creative effort is needed to make Origami accessible to more people.

Simple sequences. Much work needs to be done in the theory of the sequence of folds to make a particular model. It is often possible to make the steps flow with eloquence and yet to be simple to follow. This would again be of value to people who have difficulties to contend with but wish to enjoy the fascination of Origami.

Education and therapy

I have no doubts at all on the benefits which Origami can offer in the fields of Education and therapy. But the practitioners who are using Origami are in my experience already paper folding enthusiasts. I have been very disappointed by the response of general practitioners to be benefits of paper folding.

Historical Research. Much work still needs to be done into research of the Origami world. Although a great deal of valuable research has been done into recent history, notably by David Lister, there is a great deal of work still needed into the very earliest forms of paper folding in Europe and Japan. Perhaps it may seem strange to consider this as a highly creative activity but I am convinced that it does call for just such attributes. 

Origami as an art form

But what about the acceptance of Origami models as art? My own belief is that Origami artifacts are unlikely to be widely marketable as a form of visual art. There is no doubt in my mind that Origami can be art, but by the very nature of its chosen constraints, (paper and just folding), there are serious limitations to its use as an expressive medium for visual arts. Of course, from time to time, people may pay reasonable amounts of money for Origami models, but this does not imply wide acceptance and high prices as collectable art. So I do not see the attempt to move Origami into the art world as likely to achieve much impact.

So I can put away my crystal ball in the belief that our magical beautiful art will continue to delight us in the next thirty years as it has done in the past.

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