Make Summer Camp: Butterfly Origami

This post is part of the Make Summer Camp series, in which I’m practicing or working on various Maker projects as a way of developing the skills that I need to run the Design Lab. One of the skills I wanted to develop was with origami, the Japanese folding-paper techniques used to make charming but ephemeral sculptures. In some ways it’s a party trick; in others, it’s a way of getting adults and kids to engage in the world in a new way.  

Butterfly origamiI saw this one on Pinterest.  I have to say, the photographs of the butterfly origami pattern are much more interesting and cute than the actual fold in person, which is more ordinary-looking than I expected. It photographs well, but it’s not so impressive in person.

But again, the point is to grow in proficiency in origami. And that means, apparently, knowing a lot of folds more or less by heart, as well as being able to invent folds that lead to recognizable forms.   I don’t know that I’ll ever be able to invent folds. There’s a 2D-to-3D skill there that I don’t have nearly as much experience with as I’d like.

And yet. The things that I really admire about origami for kids and for teaching is that there are actual skills here. There’s a patience and precision, and a love of what I might call emergent geometry: each fold has consequences both beneficial and unfortunate; the resulting object(s) have a power and beauty all their own which is a result of how those consequences play out.  Some origami pieces can be folded in the ‘wrong’ order and ‘fixed’ later; others follow a precise sequence of steps which cannot be altered.

Magically, origami forms appear to belong to the Moon, to Venus, and to Mercury: there’s a personal love (that’s Venus) of the form which matters for quality results; the Mercurial quality is the result of the precision that the forms require in their ideal form; the Moon is the substance of the paper used, and how the chosen paper affects the final product.  For those less versed in the language of astrology and alchemy and magic, we might say that the physical properties of the paper (both the crispness or floppiness of the paper, and its printed patterns and ‘tooth’) help determine the final form, but the idealized diagrams of origami books are useless without personal interest and love of the creative work that it takes to translate those diagrams into reality.

My goal has been to learn the twenty-five folds in a basic origami tutorial guide that came packaged with seventy-five sheets of origami paper, of the kind usually called washi.  I think there’s a potential magic in origami, in that it can be used to make containers and boxes of various shapes, like the boxes I made last time.  I’ve made good progress. Even a few days after my first efforts, I can fold the following:

  1. The Japanese crane
  2. The Kabuto or samurai helmet
  3. The star-box
  4. The masu-box (also called the square box)
  5. The table
  6. The cup
  7. The hat
  8. The piano
  9. The house
  10. The butterfly (not part of my original list of twenty-five)

Still to come? Whales and airplanes and seals and birds, tulips and irises, swans, sailboats and cars.  And more boxes. Definitely boxes.

Why boxes? What’s the appeal of boxes?  Part of it is the magician in me— creating space set apart from the rest of the universe, with only a single piece of paper (or sometimes dozens of pieces of paper, for some of the more elaborate origami folds), opens opportunities for the recognition of subtle differences.  Part of it is that one of the things that designers are expected to do is package and set apart their work from the world in some fashion— and getting kids to think about how to present their work is part of a design thinking teacher’s job.

But the appeal of origami to a Maker program in general should be obvious.  First, paper is a low-cost material.  Second, origami and its related traditions of kirigami (cut paper) and pop-up book are all about teaching kids to take one (flat) material, and turn them into something 3D or sculptural.  It’s much cheaper than a 3D printer, frankly, and yet it teaches kids those all-importatn skills of taking a flat object, like for example a sheet of plywood, and turning it into something designed to be viewed in the round.  This is not easy for children, or for adults.  And yet it’s a simple way to connect kids to those concepts.

I’ve said in the past that drawing is a secret super-power for designers. But it occurs to me that thinking in terms of taking materials and moving them from parts to product is another superpower.   Origami is a way to do that with younger children, and I hope to make use of this work in the fall.

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  1. I love how you are using origami to teach yourself and your students about different skills: personal, mathematical, spacial.
    For a long time I also wondered if I would “ever be able to invent recognizable folds”. In recent years, I have started to come up with designs that I can call my own.
    What I have noticed is that the more I teach, the more I learn and memorize. Little by little the grammar of origami comes together in our minds to be able to make new relationships and start designing our own figures.

    But even if we don’t create new figures, there is always the process of re-creation. As a musician does with a score of music, there is an art in being able to interpret diagrams or instructions, making the real figures and also finding ways to present the models. There are many ways to be creative with origami!

    May I suggest you read a blog post I wrote on that? Here is the link:

    • I think that’s the case. It’s like learning an alphabet that isn’t your native one, like Greek or Sanskrit or some of the rune systems: the valley fold is A, the mountain fold is B, the petal fold is C, the reverse inverse fold is D, and so on. Each origami structure is itself a ‘spelled’ item made up of a set of folds in a given order; a different order produces a different object (which may be beautiful even if it was not what was intended to be produced).

  2. These origami posts are the best. Even though I was into it fairly heavily in middle school — had several books and spent many hours doing it — I only remembered swans, cranes, and frogs. And I never made the magical associations at all. Fascinating! I agree that isn’t “just kid stuff.” Nothing is when done with sincerity. “The master of a martial art reveals it in his every action.”

    • I remembered cranes. But now I’ve got a bunch of boxes, the koi fish fold, and a few others down fairly pat. It’s going to take a bit more to memorize them completely, but progress!

      As to magical associations— it seems to me that these boxes could be used for temporary offering bowls, or for designating offerings to deities before burning, or for creating gifts, or for holding materia for ‘mojo bags’ or similar. They’re pretty cool boxes and bags; and some of them, by their final shape, speak of whom they might belong to.

      The more animalistic/naturalistic shapes have their own power, I think.

    • Okay, you’ve reached the next level magically. Now you’re expressing correspondences in other art forms, working magic like a sculptor in a new medium. Hat’s off — you’re way ahead of me!

    • I don’t know that I’m “ahead.” That’s a very difficult concept. I have developed a range of skills that you haven’t—or have, but haven’t practiced in a while. But there are other aspects that I imagine you’re better at. We develop our range of gifts at different speeds and in different directions — it’s akin to one of those polar graphs showing improvements in various directions from a single center.

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