The japanese art of paper folding, which usually involves creating figures (animals are very popular) from an exactly square piece of paper. Some folders favour other shapes that they claim reflect a more perfect balance (or that just look cool / make certain figures easier), such as a golden ratio rectangle, or a hexagon or an octagon, but the square is the choice most of the time.

The acknowledged (living) master of origami is Akira Yoshizawa of japan, who is amazingly prodigious and is famous for his incredible anotomically accurate depictions of animals. He has authored hundreds of books, but they represent just a small fraction of the figures he has created. Of the western school, I'd say the most significant is Peter Engel, an american folder and the author of "Folding the universe", which has 20 or so lovely figures, including his amazing butterfly, and better still, half the book is devoted to an incredible far ranging and multidisciplinary essay on origami, exploring its links to mathematics, chaos theory, calligraphy, escher, oh, everything! Very hofstadter-esque in its brilliant making of connections and the sense of wonder he brings to his craft.

Some traditional origami figures involve painted faces or the use of cuts in the paper; most serious folders adhere to a sort of purism, insisting on using only one sheet and making no cuts, and relying on the creases to convey details instead of marking the paper. Some complex figures require enormous sheets of paper in order to complete all the folds without tearing the paper or necessitating folds too tiny for human hands to manage.

Overall, I find origami has a similar appeal to ansi art: not revered for the intrinsic beauty of the medium, but appealing for the challenge involved in finding expression within the severe limitations involved, which when successful lends an aura of awe and beauty inachievable in free-er media, like the stark but deeply touching beauty of an otherwise ordinary plant that manages to flourish in a bare desert plain. Mm.

And some more origami facts (which of course, is exactly what your lives were lacking):

Spain developed its own distinct style of origami separately from those originating in Japan. After the introduction of paper by the Arabs, the Spaniards perfected their own style following the dictates of pure folding, no cutting or gluing. The oldest model attributed to Spain is the pajarita ("little bird,") which dates back to about the 16th centruy.

Origami sensei Yoshizawa spent nearly 30 years (!) perfecting his model of the cicada. The incredibly lifelike and life-sized model has all the natural features of the real thing, such as 6 legs, wings, head, antennae, thorax, and abdomen.

A banger is an origami model that makes a loud crack when snapped properly. The biggest banger ever made came from Paul Jackson, a college student doing a Performance Art project at the University of London in 1980.

In 1945, Al O'Hagan published a book called Bill Folds, which contained a hundred or so different origami models that can be folded with dollar bills.

In 1986, a contest was organized in Japan to test surgeon's handiwork by asking them to create the smallest origami models in the world. The winning entry in the "moveable model" section was A. Naito, who folded a 1/10th-inch flapping bird. But the tiniest entry of all came from Assistant Professor Y. Wantanabe. He made the world's smallest paper crane (the bird-crane, not the construction equipment-crane) by using a needle under a microscope. His model was 1/25 of an inch.

Well, that's really more than enough, isn't it?

The History of Origami

The term "origami" is something of a modernist phrase, at least in relation to the history of paper-folding. Indeed, it was only in 1958 that the use of this word really began to take hold, mainly due to Lillian Oppenheimer, who choose to use the word as opposed to the term "paper-folding" when she opened the New York Origami Center, as it was regarded as prettier. So, this history of origami can also be seen as a history of paper-folding (unless we want to get into the murky world of semantics). Please read the good write-up by yam if you want a brief description of what origami actually is. My intention here is to concentrate on how it developed and the chronology of events rather than to go into detail of the mechanics of origami.

Origins

The further back one goes, the less one can be certain as to where and when paper-folding originated. We can say with some certainty however, that East Asia was the first place that anything resembling paper-folding began. There, paper was "invented" and came into usage earlier and more frequently than in Europe. It has been suggested that China in the 1st and 2nd Centuries AD saw the first seeds of origami and that this then spread to Japan in the 6th Century. However, there is some evidence to suggest that paper was being cut and folded in Japan in the 4th Century AD in order to create symbols of "The Spirit of God" which were then used in shrines as objects that could be worshipped. We can be more definite about paper-folding during the Heian Period (741-1191) in Japan and during this time a traditional past-time emerged for both women and children to fold paper.

Japan

Japan is the place one usually thinks of if one were to attach a country to the identity of origami. This is not without justification given that much originated from there including most, (but not all), of the leading innovators of the art. Although some basis for paper-folding had been set in the Heian Period, it is suggested by various sources that it was not until the Muromachi Period (1338-1573) that paper-folding became more embedded into traditional Japanese culture. Furthermore, there was a clear distinction between two types of folding. The first was 'Ceremonial Folding' that would often be used to make objects for specific ceremonies and events. Secondly, there was 'Recreational Folding' which would be used more by children and have less importance. However, there is no evidence of this latter style of folding in Japan prior to 1600. Furthermore, the two forms of folding appear to have become merged as time progressed, with examples such as the Mecho and Ocho butterflies that are used in Shinto marriage ceremonies.

It was during the Edo/Tokugawa Period (1603-1867) that origami in Japan really began to develop into a form more recognisable to that which we see today. The variety of designs increased hugely and the objects created began to resemble things from everyday life rather than being no more than elaborately folded paper. Up to this point, paper-folding had been used as a further way of class-labelling and social standing through the way it was used in ceremonies. After 1600 the process became in a sense more democratised in that it was no longer simply for the higher classes to use the process. This was partly down to the wider availability of paper which had become vastly cheaper.

At the end of the 18th Century, Senbazuru Orikata published a book (1797) which contributed to the rise of the phrase "A Thousand Cranes". This showed how one creates connected cranes from the same piece of paper through several cuts. This resulted in them being connected by the beak and tail. It has since become a popular past-time for people to create their own versions of "A Thousand Cranes", usually by hanging individual crane models on top of each other and connected by thread. The Japanese myth is that through creating a thousand cranes, ones wishes become true.

Also in 1797, a pamphlet became available called "Chushingura Origkata" which demonstrated how one could create figures from a popular play through the use of many cuts to the paper. Around 1800 a hand-written book was created which became known as 'Kayaragusa' and contained a great deal of designs, both of ceremonial and recreational designs. This book was discovered in the 1960s.

It may be useful now to examine the European history of origami as the two cultures begin to converge in relation to origami from the 1800s onwards.

Europe

As has been stated, paper-making occurred in East Asia long before it did in Europe. It is believed that the Moors brought the practise to Europe towards the start of the second Millennium. Despite the Japanese head-start, there is no evidence to suggest that paper-folding in Europe originated from the East, although it was most certainly influenced by it in the last couple of hundred years. Still, there is little evidence of any kind of paper-folding in Europe until the 16th and 17th Centuries. During this time, cloth-folding appears to have been a common occurance in the aristocratic classes, with objects being created for use at banquets. Often these would involve pleats and a degree of sowing.

In 1614, John Webster, an English playwright wrote a play entitled 'The Duchess of Malfi'. In this references are made to 'paper prisons', used to catch flies. These have a strong resemblance to the origami design we now know as the 'water bomb'.

The first big figure in the history of origami in the West was a German, Friedrich Froebel (1782-1852). He is most famous due to his creation of the Kindergarten Movement in Germany that was subsequently exported as a model to several other countries, including Japan. Within these schools, paper-folding was actively encouraged and Froebel himself advocated three types of folding; 'Folds of Truth' which would teach children aspect of mathematics and geometry; 'Folds of Life' which focused on living things and objects, mainly animals; and 'Folds of Beauty' which were less concerned with concrete representations of real things. It is believed that it was largely due to the Kindergartens in Japan that Western and Eastern origami first met and a merge began to take place. Furthermore, until this point the Japanese words for paper-folding had been used in Japan, namely 'orikata', 'orisui' and 'orimono'. It has been suggested by some that the term origami was an attempt at a direct translation of the German 'papierfalten'.

Further integration between the two origami cultures occurred when Japanese stage magicians began touring in the West. One of their tricks involved creating a flapping version of the crane. The connection between magic and origami seems to have strengthened and the public imagination grew. Harry Houdini, the famous escapologist and magician published a book called 'Paper Magic' in 1922.

The next figure in European origami was Miguel Unamund who was a Spanish Philosopher and Rector at Salamanca University. He became extremely interested in paper-folding and wrote several articles on the subject including from a philosophical viewpoint. He also somehow came across the bird base which until that time was relatively unknown in both Europe and Japan. The bases, for those unfamiliar with origami terminology, are basic sets of initial folds from which various other objects can then be created. Through his experimentation with the bird base, Unamund created several bird and animal designs. His results are not regarded as being particularly pretty and extremely angular, but nevertheless he played an important part in furthering origami in Europe and the use of other bases. Furthermore, his designs proved popular in Argentina and a Dr. Solorzano Sagerdo subsequently published several books around 1940, inspired by Unamund.

Akira Yoshizawa

As the 20th Century progressed, many different authors published books on the subject. However, it was largely due to Akira Yoshizawa that origami truly began to make the leap forward into the most recognisable forms we have today. The 1950s can be seen as the time when major developments in the designs and theories of origami occurred and Yoshizawa was at the forefront of these. He is known as the creator of 'Sasaku Origami' which revolves around the idea of creation, but largely tries to avoid the usage of cuts to the paper. He first published a series of astrological figures in a magazine called 'Asahi Graf' in 1952. Three years later in 1955 he was given an exhibition at Amsterdam's modern art gallery, the Stadtlica Museum. Whereas Unamund before him had earnestly, but clumsily experimented with the bird base, Yoshizawa was able to create designs of vastly greater beauty and grace whilst retaining a simplicity that most people associate and look for in origami. In 1957 he published 'Origami Tokuhon' and has gone on to publish several books of designs. There have been many contemporaries to Yoshizawa, such as Kosho Uchiyama, but none have seemed able to go beyond his designs without compromising on the simplicity of their designs.

So, with Yoshizawa we are taken back to the present and origami today, that is generally used as an occasional play-thing of both children and adults. Nevertheless, it should be noted that there are many origami artists who do regard the practise as an art, or like Unamund, see it as having philosophical aspects. There are various opinions as to what actually constitutes origami now. For instance, some pratitioners passionately believe the paper should not be cut at all, or only a square piece of paper should be used, whilst others see no problem in making a few cuts if the result is something greatly improved. It is somewhat pointless to become wrapped up in this kind of argument, but it need simply be said that the English translation of the word origami is: 'oru' - to fold, and 'kami' - paper.

If anyone wishes to have a go, instructions on how to make a paper crane can be found at paper crane or alternatively: http://www.opane.com/crane.html (if anyone wants some guidance, feel free to message me)

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