The New Yorker this week profiles an American master of extreme origami.
One of the few Americans to see action during the Bug Wars of the nineteen-nineties was Robert J. Lang, a lanky Californian who was on the front lines throughout, from the battle of the Kabutomushi Beetle to the battle of the Menacing Mantis and the battle of the Long-Legged Wasp. Most combatants in the Bug Wars—which were, in fact, origami contests—were members of the Origami Detectives, a group of artists in Japan who liked to try outdoing one another with extreme designs of assigned subjects….
Lang is accustomed to being surprising. Some years ago, he was the mystery guest on the television game show “Naruhodo! Za Warudo”—the Japanese version of “What’s My Line?”—and he amazed the audience and the contestants, because they couldn’t believe that an American could be an origami expert. People who know him as a scientist are flabbergasted when they hear that he is one of the world’s foremost paper-folding artists, and are often surprised that such a thing as a professional origami artist even exists. People expecting him to be kooky—or, at the very least, Japanese—find his academic accomplishments and his white male Americanness puzzling. Recently, he was commissioned by Lalique, the French crystal company, to demonstrate folding at a launch for its new collection of vases, which are rippled and creased in an origami-like way. The launch was at a Neiman Marcus in Troy, Michigan, on a cold night just before Christmas. It was intended for Neiman Marcus’s favorite customers, and there was music playing and waiters offering hors d’oeuvres and glasses of wine. Lang was set up in the china-and-crystal department, behind a Regency-style desk. On one side of the desk was a stack of thin, square sheets of Japanese origami paper, as brightly colored as a roll of Life Savers. He had with him a laptop computer, and during a break he showed me software that he was designing with his brother, a botany professor, which simulates the growth of cherry trees and will allow farmers to test pruning and fertilizing techniques on a computer, rather than in their orchards. Lang is now forty-five. He is tall, with slim, fine-looking hands, a tidy Silicon Valley-style beard, and the clean, comfortable good looks of a park ranger….
Lang was, by all accounts, good at his science jobs: he wrote more than eighty technical papers and holds forty-six patents on lasers and optoelectronics. All the while, he was plotting how he would find time to write origami books. He published several while he was still in the laser world, starting with “The Complete Book of Origami,” in 1989, but he knew that it would require all his time to write the one he had in mind, which, instead of providing patterns for folders to follow—the typical origami book—would teach them how to design their own….
Something about origami’s simplicity and its apparently endless possibilities appeals to people. In 2003, the Mingei International Museum, in San Diego, mounted an exhibition called “Origami Masterworks,” which included several of Lang’s pieces. It was supposed to run six months, but attendance was so robust that the show was extended for six months, then for eight more. In Japan, the “Survivor”-style show “TV Champion” has often featured contestants engaging in extreme origami—folding with their hands in a box, or while balanced on stools with the paper suspended above them, or while snorkelling in a fishtank. A surprising number of countries have origami organizations; the Origami Society of the Netherlands has more than fifteen hundred members—probably the highest per-capita membership in the world. There is a soothing element in the monotony of folding and unfolding. In fact, origami as therapy has its proponents: in 1991, at the Conference on Origami in Education and Therapy, a mental-health professional presented a paper detailing her origami work with prisoners. “The most rewarding of experiences,” she wrote, “was that of observing the effect that Origami had on psychopathic killers.”
My middle brother used to be able to fold a whole train—from locomotive to caboose—from a single, long piece of butcher paper.