• August 2011

Orgamai Artist Michael LaFosse Spreads His Wings

By Michael Gibbs
Michael Gibbs Illustration & Design

The traditional Japanese art of paper-folding, which began in the 17th century AD, has evolved into a modern art form. By transforming a single square of paper into a finished sculpture using modern strategies, today’s origami artists make magic from folding.

This art wasn’t lost on Guy Kawasaki, who was looking for a great cover for his book, “Enchantment.” After crowd-sourcing the concept, and picking a winner from a national contest, he knew the cover would feature a butterfly. Kawasaki’s book editors loved the idea, but vetoed the original artwork.

Enter Michael LaFosse, (pictured above), biologist turned origami artist. With his business partner, Richard Alexander (pictured right), he founded Boston-based Origamido Studio in 1996. We recently talked with LaFosse about his work, philosophy, and how it feels to be the creator of the Kawasaki Butterfly.


Michael Gibbs: How did the opportunity come about to create the Kawasaki Butterfly for Guy’s book, “Enchantment?” Were you thrilled? Intimidated? Excited?

Michael LaFosse: Richard and I are always excited when people seek out our work. We met in 1988, and formed the Origamido Studio to develop our designs, projects, exhibitions, and publications, but never expected much from initial inquiries, since most people know so little about origami that every job becomes a public education effort for us.

Guy is an exceptional person. He understood what we do, how we do it, and what we could do for him, and everything became fun and easy.

Because of Guy’s Japanese heritage, he considered an origami butterfly, and so he searched the Internet for images of origami butterflies. His attention was caught by a design folded from beautifully patterned Japanese paper and he sought permission to use the image from the person who folded it.

It was from that source that he learned that he would need to get permission from me as well (the designer of the model). Once Guy was in touch with us we told him that another option was for me to offer a unique butterfly, which I could name for him. I folded several examples and Guy selected the one he liked best. It is now, officially, the Kawasaki Swallowtail Butterfly.

I am very pleased with the design, and I am proud to have the honor to name it after Guy. The model that was photographed for the cover was folded from a gold layer of our handmade paper and a handmade, decorative Japanese paper of royal blue and 23K gold. The two squares are bonded together, back to back, to form a single, two-sided sheet. The results are stunning.

Michael Gibbs: Has creating the cover for Kawasaki’s book helped generate attention for your work and your company? Has it bumped up your profile in the commercial art market?

Michael LaFosse: It did raise eyebrows, but ad agency executives still go to their inner circle (kids and grandkids) for origami props. Perhaps they realize that the public is not yet so discerning about folded paper, and they seem to consider anybody who can fold a crane an “artist.” Unfortunately, we see a lot of junk out there, and there are legal snags, too.

Origami designs are protected under copyright laws. Most professionals in design and advertising are stunned to hear this. The basic assumption is that all of the origami designs in the world have been designed thousand of years ago and are therefore in the public domain.

Only a few dozen designs are several hundred years old. The rest of the tens of thousands of remaining origami designs are modern, and almost all of these designers are among the living and easily contacted via the Internet.

It pays to find an artist who has already done something close to what is needed, so if the subject is not something we can do quickly, we do refer those origami advertising jobs to other origami designers. We meet these authors and designers at conventions all around the world, and we collaborate with those same designers and artists on books and on large exhibitions of origami art. With so much in common, we have all become good friends.

Michael Gibbs: You also gained widespread notice when you were profiled in the film Between the Folds. It’s highly acclaimed, and I can only imagine that it was an honor to be included. Congratulations. Is there anything about that experience that you can tell us?

Michael LaFosse: Richard and I are indeed honored to be featured on PBS Independent Lens in “Between the Folds.” The filmmaker, Vanessa Gould, started to make a short film about math and origami, and she came to visit a mutual friend, math professor Tom Hull, who was then teaching at Merrimack College in North Andover, Massachusetts.

When Tom brought her to our Origamido Studio, Vanessa reacted with utter amazement to the art we had on display—spectacular works from the hands of Robert Lang, Chris Palmer, Eric Joisel, Vincent Floderer, Satoshi Kamiya, and others—many pieces folded from our own handmade papers.

Five years later, her project had incorporated these works and artists, and had grown into a stunning, one-hour documentary. We were in Manhattan with her on the day she was awarded the Peabody Award at the Paley Center for the Media. We invite readers to visit the Vanessa’s website: www.betweenthefolds.com.

Michael Gibbs: You trained as a biologist. How did you get interested in origami, and how does your biology training inform your artwork?

Michael LaFosse: We are both biologists, and we both design, teach, and create origami art, although I am definitely the origami fanatic of the team. Richard makes our Origamido® handmade papers, composes framed origami fine art, and does the photography and videography. Our publications and exhibitions are truly a team effort.

Growing up, I read about birds, bats, and snakes, and in order to get a firsthand look at the marvelous creatures I was reading about, I explored the local woods, ponds, and the seashore, collecting rocks and seashells. I also kept journals and sketched drawings of my subjects.

Occasionally I would make models in clay, paper, or wood. In high school, I designed and built a functional, underwater hologram camera to study growth rates of marine snails. I won first place with it at the 1975 Massachusetts State Science Fair, held at MIT. Naturally, I and my family assumed that I was destined for a career in biology. So off I went to college, and Biology was my major.

Origami was my other passion. My interests in natural history and origami did not come together until I was 13, when there appeared in the August 1970 issue of the Reader’s Digest an article about origami master Akira Yoshizawa.

The article explained that Yoshizawa studied nature for inspiration and would struggle to devise folding methods to create his lifelike, folded-paper renditions. There were several color photographs of his works in the article, and I was deeply moved by what I saw. His own self-portrait had that unmistakable touch of an artist, like a Rembrandt drawing; it looked as if it were going to breathe.

I sat there, reading the article over and over—I still have that issue—trying to understand how he did all of this through origami. The effect was profound and I suddenly realized what I wanted to do in life. Going to Japan to study with Yoshizawa was out of the question, and there were no books or articles I could find that explained Yoshizawa’s methods or teachings. I had to figure it out for myself.

That Reader’s Digest article was printed in many languages and circulated around the world. Many of my contemporaries were like me, isolated, but profoundly inspired by the origami creations of this one man, who now is widely regarded as the father of creative origami. This is saying a lot, since paper-folding activity, until Yoshizawa, involved little or no effort to design new things.

Eventually, in 1991, Yoshizawa and I met, and I was able to introduce him to my work. Over the 12 years before his passing, in 2005, at the age of 93, he and I would meet many more times, in Japan, the US, France, and England. We have exhibited our works together in many venues, including at the Carrousel du Louvre, Paris, and in a five-city tour of Japan. A wonderful tribute to master Yoshizawa is included in the documentary film, “Between the Folds.”

Michael Gibbs: What is it that you appreciate most about this ancient art form? It seems to be concerned with engineering as much as aesthetics.

Michael LaFosse: For me, there is something special about origami’s limits—one sheet, no cuts—which seems to have the element of poetry to it. The challenge is not only to design a folding sequence that will produce a recognizable form, for example, a dog, but a refined, elegant and inspiring individual with a unique personality.

For me, the form must also be a pleasure to fold, and not be full of clumsy techniques that waste the paper’s area. Only a small percent of origami models are exemplary of these ideals. I love the aesthetics that are intrinsic to origami, but I also love the process, the challenge, and yes, the final result. Folded paper has become my voice as an artist, and preparing for the work and solving the problems satisfies me as a scientist/engineer.

This challenge of folding figures from a single uncut square attracts the problem-solver, the mathematician, the programmer, the scientist, and all who enjoy the crystalline beauty of the intricate poetry that is creative origami. I am fond of saying that origami is a metamorphic art form.

Michael Gibbs: You mentioned the engineering element of origami. Can you tell us more?

Michael LaFosse: The Moors folded single squares of paper to devise and calculate many of their geometric motifs depicted in their art and architecture; this was before the Spanish conquest.

The Spanish were early adopters of these geometric paper-folding exercises and began developing representational figures, such as birds, horses, and boats, as well as abstract designs favored by Muslims.

Today’s penchant for folding a single, uncut square may have had its biggest push from Friedrich Froebel, who is credited with developing the concept of kindergarten (and the word itself), and who incorporated paper-folding into his kindergarten program.

Froebel prescribed two groups of exercises, “folds of intelligence” (measured), and “folds of beauty” (pleasing), producing patterns from folding square paper exclusively (no cuts allowed). His reasons were to “preserve unity,” prevent waste, and to employ the most basic geometry.

For small hands, he supplied small squares, and he also prescribed using paper with color applied to only one side, leaving white on the other, not only for economy, but for the interesting patterns achieved by juxtaposing flaps of white and color.

Michael Gibbs: Does your interest in origami as an art form have a spiritual or cultural component as well as an aesthetic component?

Michael LaFosse: An artist’s life is a process or journey, moving from inspiration to exploration and back, over and over again. The Japanese use the suffix “do,” meaning “the path” or “the way,” to communicate this long-term commitment to continual growth in understanding through serious study and practice. My father was a Judo instructor, and I studied Taekwondo.

Through studying art and Taekwondo, I gained a keen appreciation for the dedication an individual must apply to make the kind of gains that enrich the full human. I have applied this same approach to origami, and I coined the name “Origamido” to communicate this approach.

In Japan, origami is still largely regarded as the work of children and grandmothers, so most Japanese people assess my term “Origamido” with puzzlement until they learn what origami has become. The number and quality of Japanese origami professionals has been increasing.

Michael Gibbs: Is origami a difficult medium to master? About how long did it take you to go from novice to origami master? At what point did you start engineering your own designs? I imagine that is what “separates the men from the boys,” so to speak.

Michael LaFosse: I have been doing origami for more than 40 years now. I remember doing origami when I was in kindergarten; I created my first original origami design when I was 13.

It took me approximately 20 years of dedicated effort to begin to receive the accolade of “master” from the community. Mastery comes with practice, and passion is a great drive for the process. I was lucky to have early success with paper-folding thanks to an encouraging set of parents and grandparents.

Origami is wonderfully diverse, and people attain their own level of comfort by their choice of subjects and the amount of effort they invest. Mastery of simple folds may be more difficult than mastery of the popular, super-complex style.

Fortunately, origami is still a meritocracy: either you can do it at a master’s level or you can’t! There are no certificates issued by any governing board. Who is a “master” or a “grandmaster” is a matter for the origami community at large to decide.

The basic criteria I use are demonstrable: the ability to fold any origami design, no matter the complexity; the ability to fold beautifully and artistically; the ability to invent new designs at a high level; that one’s creative work have a profound impact on the origami community; and to be a great teacher. You can see how publishing is important to the origami community.

Michael Gibbs: As an illustrator, my interest lies in publishing, which naturally includes books. So I can’t help but ask if you’ve ever worked on, or thought about creating, pop-up books?

Michael LaFosse: I illustrated Paul Jackson’s basic book about making simple pop-ups, however, I’m not “cut out” for designing pop-up books. Although pop-up technology does employ folding, and there are some origami models that are designed to pop-up, pop-up design and fabrication is much different from origami design.

Comparing the two might be like making close cousins of sculpting in stone and working in ceramics. Both have a few intrinsic commonalities, but they are rather different. In origami, shapes are made by folding only—no cuts—while pop-up designs use cut-out shapes. Pop-ups are wonderful, and the people who do it well are inspired, but the processes and the aesthetic results of these two art forms are very different.

We are often approached to design origami pieces as illustrations or for commercial purposes, including print ads, TV commercials, posters, and billboards. We have also designed projects in kids’ books that have involved a cut or two, not unlike many of the designs from Japan that were popular hundreds of years ago. I illustrate all of our origami books with vector line drawings to demonstrate the step-by-step folding methods for my origami.

Richard and I have been working with Tuttle Publishing over the past 10 years. We are grateful for their enthusiasm for what we have been developing and for recognizing the importance of including our instructional DVDs with the most recent titles.

Thanks to Tuttle, our publications are easily available worldwide. Just search the Internet for “LaFosse Origami books”, and you will find them. Our latest books—“Trash Origami,” “Story-gami,” “Money Origami,” “Geometric Modular Origami,” and “Planes for Brains“—all include our DVD video demonstrations of all the projects in those books.

Michael Gibbs: What would you like to do next in terms of art, and to grow your business?

Michael LaFosse: Right now we are holding paper-folding and paper-making workshops at home by appointment. We also visit thousands of students every year in schools, museums, and libraries. We continue to design new origami and papers for kits, books, and DVDs, but the business is changing, and we’re not sure if growth in this area is desirable for us when we go through periods when we are too busy to make art.

While I engineer the folding design for each subject, Richard makes customized, handmade papers, and then I fold the final display piece. Richard and I are probably still the only origami art studio to produce all of our own handmade papers for our fine art. I have been doing this since I was 16, and that is what brings me the most joy.

For more information about Michael LaFosse and Origamido Studio, visit www.origamido.com.

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