Folding techniques for designers

Published:  July 14, 2011
Folding techniques for designers

All designers fold.

That is, all designers crease, pleat, bend, hem, gather, knot, hinge, corrugate, drape, twist, furl, crumple, collapse, wrinkle, facet, curve or wrap two-dimensional sheets of material and, by these processes of folding, create three-dimensional objects.

These objects will perhaps not be origami-like in appearance, or the folding may only be a detail, but most will nevertheless have been folded – wholly or in part – in some way. Since almost all objects are made from sheet materials (such as fabric, plastic, sheet metal or cardboard) or are fabricated from components used to make sheet forms (such as bricks – a brick wall is a sheet form), folding can be considered one of the most common of all design techniques.

And yet, despite being so ubiquitous, folding as a design topic is rarely studied. Perhaps this is because the folded content in a designed object is often unrecognised, or merely incidental, or because folding is synonymous with origami, with brightly coloured squares and children’s hobby crafts (an image of origami now several decades out of date). Folding is rarely an inspiration for designers.

At least, that is how it used to be. In recent years, more and more designers of all disciplines have turned to folding to create a wide range of handmade and manufactured objects, both functional and decorative. A little time spent looking through design and style magazines will reveal a significant number of folded products, from apparel to lighting and from architecture to jewellery. Origami is one of the most vibrant buzzwords in contemporary design.

For almost 30 years, I have specialised in teaching folding techniques to design students and to design professionals of all disciplines, perhaps the only such specialist teacher since the days of the Bauhaus, when Josef Albers taught paper folding as a basic topic of design.

As a teenager, my favourite hobby was origami. Later, as a student of fine art, a steady flow of my original designs was published and I became a very minor player among the small international community of origami creators. Friends who were taking courses in graphic design or industrial design occasionally asked me for origami ideas to help with their projects, and I even did a little teaching.

In 1981, I finished my postgraduate studies in London. Out in the real world and needing a job, I had an idea: maybe courses in art and design in the London area would welcome a short course on origami? I had nothing to lose except the cost of the postage, so I sent a proposal to more than a hundred courses, unsure of the response I would receive.

A few days later the phone started to ring. And ring. Within weeks I was teaching students of fashion design, textile design, graphic design and jewellery design, pleased to be working.

But there was one problem: I had no idea what to teach. Certainly I was skilled at origami, and I had excellent experience in higher education, but my subject had been fine art and I didn’t understand what I should teach to students of design. I was entirely ignorant of what design students learned. Also, my hobbyist’s knowledge of origami was confined to models – that is, representations of flora, fauna, objects and geometric forms. The one thing I did know was that students of art and design didn’t need to learn how to make an origami giraffe.

I have always admitted that my first attempts at teaching students of design were terrible. In those early days, I did little more than use selections from a list of favourite models. Slowly, though, I began to understand something that now seems very obvious to me, but which at the time required a quantum leap of my imagination – namely, that I shouldn’t be teaching the students how to make origami models, but instead, should teach them how to fold. It had never previously occurred to me that folding paper was anything other than model-making. To understand that origami could be as much about folding as about models seemed a radical departure. In time, I came to realise that it wasn’t radical at all, but a consequence of being unwittingly blinkered – brainwashed, even – by 15 years of origami practice.

The crucial educational difference was that a model was simply a model – perhaps fun to learn, but it didn’t teach the students much that they could apply creatively to their design work. By contrast, if folding techniques were taught, they could be used with any number of different materials and adapted to any number of design applications. And, when I looked around, I could find examples of folding throughout both the natural and the designed worlds.

In the few years following that epiphany, I evolved a series of self-contained mini workshops that introduced a diversity of folding techniques – pleating, crumpling, one crease and so on. I would shuffle the choice and content of the workshops to best suit each course. The workshops were usually followed by quick ‘hit and run’ creative projects.

As word spread, I began to be employed as a consultant by a number of multinational companies, to give workshops on the theory and practice of folding. I also gave workshops to a variety of design practices and to architects, structural engineers and professional bodies. These experiences fed back into my teaching, which in turn fed back into my professional experiences.

By the late 1980s, the final form of my teaching had more or less evolved. I have taught what I came to call ‘Sheet to Form’ workshops and projects to students of fashion, textiles (surface, print, knit and weave), ceramics, embroidery, product design, industrial design, engineering, architecture, jewellery, graphic design, interior design, environmental design, model-making, packaging, theatre design, fine art, printmaking, foundation courses – and probably other courses now forgotten – at all educational levels, from my local community college in north London, to the Royal College of Art and colleges in Germany, the US, Israel, Belgium and Canada. To date, I’ve taught on more than 150 courses in design in 54 colleges, some regularly for a decade or more, others for just a day.

Wherever I’ve taught, I’ve always been asked the same question: “Is this in a book?” My answer has always been “No!” and, frankly, the lack of follow-up material, or any substantial documentation, has been an embarrassment to me. Although there are hundreds of origami books, they are all about model-making, of limited use to a design student or professional. My best advice was always to keep carefully the samples made in the workshop and refer to them when working on a project.

So, finally… finally… I was given the opportunity to present the most useful of my Sheet to Form workshops in my book, Folding Techniques for Designers: From Sheet to Form. Deciding what to include or exclude, or to emphasise or skim over, has been difficult and time-consuming, and I hope I have made the right choices.

Perhaps, though, it was proper that the book was not written until now. In recent years there has been an upsurge of interest in origami, not only by designers of all disciplines, but also by mathematicians, scientists, educators and others. ‘Origami’ and ‘folding’ are very much words of our time, and though the focus will doubtless diminish, the interest and respect will remain.

Folding Techniques for Designers

Folding Techniques for Designers: From Sheet to Form
Paul Jackson
Laurence King, $49.95
2011, 224 pages

From desktop magazine.

One Response

  1. Seriously cool, I must have this.

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