Images and review by Daniel Stillman
With 30 years of origami experience, one of my first concerns in reviewing Paul Jackson's newest book Folding Techniques for Designers: From Sheet to Form is the fact that origami is a 3D art. Translating 2D instructions into form is no trivial matter. Like Ikea instructions, origami diagrams are a language into themselves. This book is the distillation of years of teaching this material to design students. To get some practical benefit from it, I would suggest that you spend at least several hours, playing with the forms and techniques introduced here. As part of my review, I've asked my friend and leather jewelry designer Melissa Zook—someone with zero origami experience—to print out some templates, make some folds, and get inspired by the book.
Part One: Why it is Awesome
As soon as I saw this book cover, I was excited. Paul Jackson has been pushing the boundaries of origami for years. As a boy, I geeked out to many of his awesome models—his horse from an equilateral triangle first offended me for its lack of purity (origami was from squares!) but won me over for its elegance. His lidded box taught me how to divide a square into fifths using my eyes and an algorithm. Both were committed to memory at one point in my life. While I loved his representational designs, I was amused and bewildered by his more artistic endeavors that played with form and shadow, but had no legs. More and better representational origami was my main goal, and the goal of much of the origami world. Then I grew up, and so did origami.
Peter Engel's book, Origami from Angelfish to Zen, was the first origami book that blew my mind. It showed me that origami was about form, topology, creativity, dreams and math. And nature is math. So I began to realize that my paper doodlings were pointing at something deeper—something about the real nature of the world. Engel got me reading the work of mathematical biologist D'Arcy Wentworth Thompson and thinking about my own origami designs. Creation was about algorithms, reflection, repetitions, alterations. Nature finds a good nugget of design and uses it over and over again, riffing on it like Jazz. We're all made of cells. Origami is just made of triangles, really, and those triangles can multiply like bacteria across a sheet, creating new organisms as they multiply.
This book is a deep meditation on those cells and all the ways they can be combined and recombined to make forms.
Years ago, Jackson wrote an Encyclopedia of Origami and Papercraft Techniques which showed me the power and breadth of the medium of paper. This book is pushing way beyond that. Paper is just one type of sheet material. Anything thin—leather, metal, fabric—can be explored using these techniques. When you break the plane, you create dimension and form. And the study of form should be of interest to any designer. I think it should inspire the reader to take something good—a sketch, a form "module" if you will—and find out how far it can go, how else it can be applied and transformed.
In my graduate ID degree at Pratt, we spent a year going through many of the exercises in The Elements of Design, which grew out of Rowena Reed Kostellow's work. The exercises in the book really complement this approach and I think would sit nicely alongside the plaster concavities and wire problems of that process. Really wonderful stuff. In fact, I think Jackson's exercises on one-crease folding have some advantages over Kostellow's paper projects.
Part Two: What's Inside
Looking through the book, it is clear that a lot of love and thought went into it—it's well made, well photographed and just plain lovely. Sadly, the CD is bare-bones. I was hoping for some interactivity, but it is a bunch of files, a digital translation of the meat of the book into PDF form. There's a bunch of folders indexed to the pages. Each folder has PDFs of the folding patterns from the book. If you want to get all cheat-y, you can just print and fold—no need to learn how to fold paper divisions. The CD is handy for that—but for some of the projects, printer paper is not going to cut it. So get comfortable with making 16th divisions by hand!
The sections on pleating are a great example of his method—showing how reflection and rotation of design motifs can affect a design concept and form and radically alter a form, while retaining an essential character.
Here, I took the hyperbolic parabola pattern and folded it on a 1 X 2 sheet. It was fun to see how it made the beginnings of a spiral. A longer strip would continue the form.
The sections on crumpling (and de-crumpling) and single-fold origami are awesome. It really shows how paper can be used to explore pure form and sculptural detail. Those experiments and effects can then be transferred to any medium you like.
It's a beautiful book and worth having on your shelf if you're up to taking the time to take it off your shelf. As I said earlier, to get real benefit from the book, you would need to take several hours going through the exercises. Either way, it's both a comprehensive approach to form and a visually stunning coffee table book.
Part Three: Making it Work
I recruited my friend Melissa Zook for part three of this review. I knew she would be great for this test—she didn't have any origami experience, but works in sheet materials. Her leather jewelry already breaks out of the 2D world, so I was curious to see if Jackson's approach could give her some fresh material.
Victorian Ruffle Necklace
I met Melissa in a coffee shop to check in on her progress, a few days after she got the book. I wanted her to take a crack at it and see if the book can deliver on its promise. What quickly became clear to me, was that Melissa was frustrated! She was struggling with some patterns, some simple and some hard. Naturally, she had printed out the hedgehog-like pattern from the cover. That was impossible for her, and took me a bit to pull together. Even though it seems straightforward enough—fold toward you on the green and away from you on the red, there is a constant temptation to add extra folds. You shouldn't. Also, if you're color blind, like my friend Core77 Book Editor Rob, you should run a filter on these.
That said, she got pretty far with a lot of forms that I would have expected to be harder, like making a spiral pleated box.
She and I zeroed in on some promising forms and methods. Leather was going to be different than paper, so she promised that she would haul out her ironing board and try out some deep creasing.
One of Melissa's frustrations with the book is that it lies somewhere between inspiration and instruction. She will look at books like How to Wrap Five Eggs or Roberto Capucci: Art into Fashion for inspiration on form or at technical books on macramé or guilding for instruction on how to construct new forms. This book was frustrating for her in part, because it was lighter on the instructional sections than she had hoped. A traditional origami book is a bit more step-by-step. I think she was expecting it to be more like her macramé books than a Roberto Capucci book. But it is really a bit of both. That said, with (very) little help from me, she emerged with some fun motifs and some design directions to move forward with.
Here, you can see some of her process—working with two layers of colored leather and playing with forms.
A shot of a more final prototype form, pulled together. Those stacked pleated cups came from the book! According to Melissa, "I have plans to rework these prototypes and continue on with some ideas that I didn't have time to get to. I am at a place that the book intended: having fun, learning some basic rules and now breaking them and making the work my own!"
About Daniel Stillman
What do you do with a degree in Physics? Daniel Stillman's answer was "manage a Biology Research lab at a Natural History Museum and go swing dancing a lot." After a Masters Degree in Industrial Design at the Pratt Institute in New York, he quickly realized that he was being asked to solve Interaction Design problems at my Industrial Design job...and so he went about becoming an Interaction designer to be able to solve those problems.
Daniel Stillman is an Interaction Designer at Kaleidoscope Design. They make great products, inside and out. You can find Daniel Stillman on twitter @dastillman