‘Surface to Structure: Folded Forms’ Origami Exhibit in New York


Origami is the traditional Japanese art of paper folding. While paper was invented in China around 105 A.D., it was not until the 6th century when monks brought it to Japan. Initially, it was utilized solely for ceremonial functions, often religious in origin.  No one is certain when it was realized that paper could be folded and transformed. However, with this realization, paper became something above extravagance or just effectual as a page on which to write on, it became a means for artistic creation. Out of a piece of paper, emerged 3D sculptures, created without scissors or adhesives.

For the most part, the Japanese regard paper much differently than it is viewed in the Western World.  An inherent respect is evident in the laboriously handmade papers produced in the country. In Japan, origami is deemed an art that stands among the ranks of sculpture and other fine arts.

Traditional origami is characterized by “open-access folding patterns” and progressions orally passed down through the generations. The first written instructions surfaced in 1797 with Akisato Rito’s Thousand Crane Folding. By the late 1800s, the terminology for paper folding changed from the Japanese word, Orikata or “folded shapes” to Origami.

One of the forerunners of modern origami, Akira Yoshizawa, established a method of folding patterns that incorporated a set of arrows, symbols and diagrams. By the 1950s, his designs were published, paving the way towards origami’s global reach. In 1959, the Cooper Union in New York held the first origami exhibit entitled Plane, Geometry and Fancy Figures in the United States. It included works by Akira Yoshizawa, Giuseppe Baggi, and Ligia Montoya among other modern origami artists. These intricate modern origami models do not have patterns or instructions accessible to the casual hobbyist, instead, they are considered copyrightable material.

Currently, the art of origami has advanced to integrate mathematical theories. Creators like Peter Engel and Jun Maekawa created intricate and “mathematically based crease patterns” before folding, using one uncut piece of paper.


New York’s Cooper Union will once more bring artistic origami to the public from June 19 through July 4, 2014. The Surface to Structure: Folded Forms exhibition will showcase several origami pieces by artists from the 1959 show, with over 80 origami masters and contemporary artists spanning five continents. In an array and complexity of styles, the displayed origami art will illustrate the paper’s transformation, together with sculptures that push the limitations of paper art further than the time-honored traditions.

According to the exhibition curator, Uyen Nguyen, the origami artists wish to impart their “passion for this art form with the world and inspire others to take part in and contribute to the legacy of origami.”

Paper folding in the Western World does not have an extensive history like its Asian counterparts. The art’s popularity is primarily enjoyed as a craft or a pastime done as a diversion instead of artistic expression. However, no matter by what method paper is folded, according to 1959 Cooper Union curator, Edward Kallop, it is considered art.

The 19th century Spanish philosopher-playwright, Miguel de Unamuno wrote two works on paper folding and used origami figures as characters in his writings. The art of paper folding has associations with the spiritual practice of Zen. A form of origami almost certainly functioned to exemplify Leonardo da Vinci’s scientific essays. Additionally, it is used in disciplines where the result depends on the exact understanding of the principles of geometry and physics.

Origami suits our visual senses when it is the effect of creative planning of an artist’s ingeniously crafted design. To understand the many facets of the artistic technique, as seen in the New York exhibit’s 120 paper creations, is to appreciate the artistic potential found with the simple undertaking of folding a piece of paper.

By Dawn Levesque

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Surface to Structure


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