By Alison Jacques and Kelly Blinson
Innovation is folded in our craniums, with solutions to riddles awaiting release. Origami, the art of paper folding, releases its riddle with shapes that are simple or elegantly complex.
Robert J. Lang, a physicist and engineer by trade, applies his puzzle-solving mathematical skills to origami.
Lang used his origami skills to help develop a folding algorithm for a German airbag manufacturer. And he worked with the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California on a collapsing lens for a powerful space telescope. He holds dozens of patents on semiconductor lasers, optics and integrated optoelectronics.
He’s become the world’s leading theorist of the mathematics of origami.
His intricate conceptions include dinosaurs, orchestras and insects – designs unheard of until he brought his Euclidian touch to the origami world.
“Origami’s been a hobby and a passion since childhood,” says Lang, explaining that he was forever hooked after his first-grade teacher gave him an origami book when he was 6.
“Every time I look at one of my pieces, I see the flaws. Being able to see the flaws is how you improve.”
– Robert J. Lang
Lang now lectures all over the world about origami. He was the first Westerner invited to address the Nippon (Japan) Origami Association’s annual meeting in 1992.
Several years ago a friend at Xerox PARC gave him the idea to use a laser scriber to score an origami pattern onto a piece of folding paper. Lasers offered Lang a way of transferring a very complex crease pattern that was faster and more precise than the old way of measuring and making the folds one by one. As far as he knows he was the first to use lasers for origami.
“I’m trying to accomplish something I haven’t seen before,” says Lang. “It’s very clear that everyone in origami learned from people who came before them.”
Basic origami shapes developed hundreds of years ago.
However, “99 percent of all origami designs in existence,” says Lang, “were created in the last 50 years.”
In 2001, after already writing six books about origami, he left engineering to devote himself full-time to origami. He left his physics job because he wanted to write a definitive book that could teach people how to originate an origami model, rather than the “recipe books” already available. He published Origami Design Secrets in 2003.
His work has appeared in McDonald’s and Toyota television commercials, as well as on exhibit in numerous galleries around the world, including a 16-foot origami pteranodon at the Redpath Museum in Montreal, Quebec, Canada.
The Alamo, Calif., resident also regularly gives talks about origami and its connections to art, mathematics, science, and technology, to audiences ranging from art aficionados, students, designers, and engineers.
Lang says he is trying to expand people’s ideas of what origami is. The things origami artists do today would be considered impossible 25 years ago. On a personal level Lang never feels complacent with his design success.
“Every time I look at one of my pieces,” he says, “I see the flaws. Being able to see the flaws is how you improve.”
Books By Lang
- The Complete Book of Origami; Dover Publications, 1988
- Origami Zoo (with Stephen Weiss ); St. Martin’s Press, 1989
- Origami Sea Life (with John Montroll); Dover Publications, 1990
- Origami Animals; Crescent, 1992; out of print
- Origami Insects and their Kin; Dover Publications, 1995
- Origami in Action; St. Martin’s Press, 1996
- Origami Insects II; Gallery Origami House, 2003
- Origami Design Secrets; AK Peters, Ltd., 2003
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