Paper Tale: The Life of an Origami Artist
Robert J. Lang helped take origami to the next level, developing computer software to create increasingly complex designs with applications ranging from art to engineering.
Robert J. Lang was just six when he found his first love—origami—buried in a big book of crafts. At 10, he decided to engineer a better paper boat than the traditional Japanese design. “I wanted something that looked more like a boat, and less like a canoe with a pyramid on top,” he says—in other words, a wider, more stable craft. Inspired by one of his favorite shows, McHale’s Navy, he designed a PT boat that could float down the creek in his backyard in Dayton, Ohio.
As a college student studying electrical engineering at the California Institute of Technology in the late 1970s and early ‘80s, Lang craved even more complex designs. To create them, however, he had to better understand the guiding principles of origami.
The art of origami, which the Japanese have practiced since at least the 17th century, has always been tied to geometry. Folding a single sheet of paper on certain angles, for example, is the cornerstone of all origami creations, from frogs to giraffes. The 20th century saw some practitioners attempting more elaborate designs—including Lang. He joined a growing effort to codify the principles of paper folding into a set of math-based rules. “I was trying to make things that hadn’t been done before,” Lang says.
Rather than rely on intuition, Lang and other like-minded artists began mapping out designs with simple patterns that served as building blocks for the final piece. For example, each component of a creation—such as an insect’s leg or thorax—can be represented by a circle or polygon drawn on a flat piece of paper and arranged so that, upon folding, each part will fit together correctly (a foot can’t be connected to a head). Crease lines are then drawn on the paper to govern where the sheet will fold. While those lines can be determined using a mathematical algorithm, “there are many choices that work,” says Lang. “It’s based on aesthetic considerations,” such as a thinner or thicker leg.
Lang, who published his first origami book in 1988, eventually turned to a computer to model even more difficult designs, developing software as part of a field now called computational origami. With applications ranging from fine art to engineering (depending on the software), computational origami takes folding to the extreme, enabling a designer to create complicated structures consisting of hundreds of folds instead of the mere dozens typical of more basic shapes. “He’s always eager to take origami to the next level,” says Erik Demaine, a professor of computer science at MIT, who works in computational origami and has collaborated with Lang on several academic papers. “He stands out as a pioneer in the field of computational origami.”
By the 90s, a larger community of scientists and engineers started noticing Lang’s work—and requesting his help. As one of his first origami consulting jobs, Lang worked at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California where researchers were developing a space telescope with a nearly 200-foot lens. To fit inside the launch rocket, the device needed to fold compactly. Using a model that Lang proposed, the team built a prototype (funding for the full project fell short). Another company making airbag simulation software also sought Lang’s advice. His algorithms modeled how to flatten an airbag so the simulation software could gauge how it would deploy.
A few years later, Lang left his day job as a laser physicist to finish a book he’d been mulling for years about mathematical methods used in origami. By that time, an international community had emerged around computational origami.
Today, Lang continues consulting on origami-based designs, advising clients how to fold everything from consumer packaging to medical devices. He has also been involved in more artistic endeavors, collaborating with a fellow origamist on a Mitsubishi commercial that featured origami animation. Another Lang creation—an origami Pteranodon with a 16-foot wingspan—hangs from the ceiling in the Redpath Museum in Montreal.
The enthusiasm of the boy who built a better paper boat is still palpable as he talks about the thrill of solving technical problems, whether in pursuit of art or science. “I experience joy from the results,” says Lang, who now sports a neat, graying beard. “I have a very full origami life.”
One need only visit his backyard studio in Northern California to understand Lang’s passion. The shelves brim with handmade figures from a lion to koi. His favorite project tends to be whatever he’s working on at the time; right now, it’s a hippo. While he admits that the animal is not technically challenging, “the process of folding it was fun,” he says. “I spend my days doing the things I want to do. It just so happens that coincides with my livelihood.”