What is the best origami

"Many legs make things complicated"

SZ-Magazin: Mr. Lang, origami is the Japanese art of folding models out of a sheet of paper without using scissors. You are a professional origami artist. How can you make a living from folding bugs or birds out of paper?
Robert Lang:
Origami offers many possibilities. And I certainly have around two dozen colleagues in the USA, Canada, England and Israel who also manage to make a living from it.

What are the options?
I sell my paper models to private collectors, work to order, I get a lot of orders from the advertising industry that shoot commercials with origami figures. I give lectures, give workshops, write books, advise companies that develop products that somehow have to be folded. Since last year I have also been working increasingly with various university faculties in California that deal with industrial or military applications of origami.

Why are American universities interested in Japanese art of paper folding?
At a university, for example, I worked with students to develop a collapsible bag for medical accessories. It can be opened without touching the sterile instruments or coming into contact with non-sterile objects. For the military, I worked with colleagues to develop an expandable space telescope. Another university team is trying to develop artificial organs that are folded up and inserted into the body, where they can be opened and inserted. In experiments with pig kidneys, this has evidently worked quite well. A colleague in Oxford is working on collapsible stents that unfold as soon as they are in the right place in the heart vessels. Another colleague from MIT is researching whether proteins, if folded incorrectly, can cause Alzheimer's or BSE. Origami has a number of uses. We are only just beginning to discover them. But some inventions have already made it into our everyday lives.

Most read this week:

Where do you come across origami products in everyday life?
With the airbag. Twelve years ago, I calculated for a German company how best to fold its airbags.

You are a trained physicist and worked in research before you set up your own origami specialist twelve years ago. Did universities and industry take you seriously back then?
My colleagues and I first had to earn the respect. Back then, in my wildest dreams, I could not have imagined that today there would be 13 government-subsidized research programs in the United States alone, in which industrial applications of origami would be explored. All in all, there are now thirty to forty origami chairs with countless students who specialize in them.

Didn't you worry about not making enough money?
Not really. I had already sold individual models before. My wife also fully supported me in the step into independence.

What does a real Robert Lang cost on average?
Average is a bad word, range is more meaningful: It ranges from a few hundred dollars to several thousand.

For a little paper frog?
For large elephants or turtles made of bronze or another metal. A few years ago I also started casting some origami models in bronze. Paper origami can last forever, but it is very delicate and not easy to transport. Bronze is robust, you can also set it up outside. In the last year I've sold far more bronze figures than paper ones.

You obviously love insects, and your books are full of all kinds of beetle models.
Of my last 15 origami models, only two were insects, everything else was birds, flowers, dinosaurs, also something abstract, something similar to wool. I've designed a lot of insects, but I've become more varied.

Are insects the most difficult objects to refold?
At least there was a time when that was the case. At the beginning of the nineties, at the time of the so-called Beetle Wars, Japanese colleagues and I held veritable unofficial competitions for a few years to recreate the most difficult Beetles. Having a lot of legs complicates matters. In the meantime, however, much more complex figures have been designed: extraterrestrials from fantasy games, for example, or a dragon that a Japanese recently folded.

They even folded a cuckoo clock with a cuckoo and pendulum - without even using a pair of scissors. Can a degree of difficulty in origami be measured by the number of folding steps?

No way. A single step in the folding instructions can contain a hundred folds at the same time, which of course are much more difficult to carry out than a hundred folding steps in a row. Complexity cannot be measured exactly. Still, I can assure you that my Japanese colleague's dragon is far more complex than my cuckoo clock.

What was your most difficult model?
I have a project like this that I pull out of the drawer every few months to work on it a little, but have to put it away again soon. I'm superstitious, so I'm not going to tell you what this is now. Just this much: it will be a kind of plant.

You can fold a surfer onto his board from a dollar bill. What else?
Other than the limited size, folding bills isn't particularly difficult. Many advertisers ask me for a palm tree, a plane, or flip-flops. With nine dollars I'll fold you a lobster.

“I never made my hobby a topic. I didn't tell my wife about it on the first date. "


What's your favorite piece?

Usually my last model: a bird.

Do you know exactly how many different models you have invented?

Since yesterday: 649. I only include models in my official census whose folding instructions I have documented. It doesn't have to be completely formulated, but the notes should be detailed enough to be able to fold the model again after years. I compose a lot more models, but I haven't yet documented everything that's lying around on my desk.

Compose? What does origami have to do with music?
There are certainly similarities: as in music, composition and performance can be distinguished. The performance follows the written instructions in the composition. That's why I also call my models Opus: With the Opus number, I can clearly distinguish two kites that are similar but were folded in very different ways.

Are you fascinated by origami because of its similarity to music?
Also. With origami there are endless possibilities, but very strict, limited rules: You can only fold, no edges, and I usually only use an ordinary rectangle as the basic shape. You think you can't make a lot of it, and yet, for generations, people have been inventing new shapes that would previously have been thought impossible. And the end is far from in sight.

Do you dream of new shapes, do you calculate new folding patterns or just keep folding until a new model happens to be created?

Different models are created in different ways, but most of the time I see an object and want to recreate its shape if there is something specific about it that appeals to me. For example, I've already folded a few bears, but in Alaska I've now seen a grizzly from my boat that weighed 200 kilos and was heaving a boulder on the shore in search of something to eat. That was the trigger for me in this case: I wanted to model a very supple, yet strong bear in motion. Then I thought about what it should look like. I really wanted him to have a head with ears. Then I had to think about how to get ears out of the middle of a sheet of paper. At that point the math came in. Then I started small test folds, like the ears leading to the whole head, until I finally tried my hand at the whole bear.

The paper comes into play so late?
First I sketch the design, then the first folding patterns, which never contain all the creases, but the crucial ones.

You were one of the first to consistently use mathematics in origami. How did you come up with the idea?
Mathematics describes geometric patterns and relationships in a logical way. Without an understanding of mathematics, one could never have achieved the complexity of the latest models. The first attempts at the mathematics of folding were made as early as 1930, some Japanese picked them up in 1980, I only pushed it forward. Algorithms then drastically changed origami.

What was your first passion: origami or mathematics?
I have loved origami since I was six years old. I discovered my passion for math as a teenager in high school.

Never tried a normal hobby?
But. As a child I collected coins, stamps and plants, played the piano, and for many years I also went climbing, but nothing captivated me like origami.

Is it true that as a student you kept your hobby a secret, even from your wife?
I wouldn't call it a secret, but I never made my hobby a topic. I did it because it helped me relax. I didn't tell my wife anything on the first date. But when she visited me for the first time, of course, she saw my paper models lying around there.

Did you infect your son and your wife?
No. Both of them have tried it and like it, but the fever didn't get over them. Many people try origami at some point, but very few stick with it.

Where does the saying come from about the thousand cranes that you have to fold if you want to get well?

This is an old Japanese proverb according to which after a thousand cranes you get a wish fulfilled. It became known with a novel that wrote the
told the real fate of a girl who fell ill with leukemia in the 1950s after Hiroshima. She folded the cranes and still died.

Do your Japanese colleagues take an American seriously when it comes to origami?
I think so. I never asked, I don't want to embarrass my Japanese friends. But I've exhibited in Japan many times and I'm invited to all congresses.

Where in Japan does the largest origami congress take place?
The largest convention in the world is held in New York every June, with several hundred attendees. Sometimes there are thirty workshops running at the same time.

How important is choosing the right paper for origami?

Very important. For insects you need very thin, fine paper for the many delicate legs. For the bear with its sweeping curves, I use rather strong paper. Most of the time I buy paper that wasn't even made for origami. My insect paper is actually intended for the restoration of antique books. One of my favorite papers comes from Germany, it's called elephant skin.

In your early fifties, do you have specific gymnastic exercises to keep your fingers in shape for folding?
Origami is the best workout for the fingers imaginable.

(Portrait photo: Jeffrey Cross)