In 2003, Daniel Robinson, Satoshi Kamiya, and I were sitting together at the OrigamiUSA annual meeting, talking about the process of composition and design and comparing thoughts and ideas.
I should mention that this is not at all unusual. Origami, unlike many other fields, is remarkably collegial, and the vast majority of the world's origami composers readily share their ideas with one another. This spirit of sharing has led to phenomenal advances in the state of the art over the last 40 years as artists willingly share both concepts and techniques.
But of course, mixed in with the spirit of selfless sharing is a healthy dose of friendly competition. This spirit was most evident during the fabled "Bug Wars" of the 1990s, when several members of the Origami Tanteidan (and the occasional Western interloper, such as myself) sought to regularly one-up each other with respect to the complexity, realism, and life, of our respective arthropod designs. At each meeting or convention, artists brought and showed their latest creations. At subsequent conventions, everyone tried to top what they'd seen the year before. Did he bring a beetle last year? This year, I'll bring a winged beetle. Next year, someone brings a winged spotted beetle! And so it goes.
It is a pleasant and remarkable situation, this mixture of sharing and competition that has remained nicely balanced for many years. Yes, we're all trying to outdo each other, but we're also "giving away the store," so to speak, by showing each other how our latest invention is constructed (primarily through crease patterns. By this means, the entire art is advanced.
As Dan, Satoshi, and I (all composers) sat and chatted, we realized that although we had hundreds of original compositions between us, none of us had yet folded a satisfactory Eupatorus gracilicornis, which is a particularly beautiful, and particularly challenging, beetle, possessing four spikes on its thorax and another on its head, along with the usual complement of legs, wings, and antenna. (This is not to say that we hadn't designed any at all; only that each was dissatisfied with the results to date.) There and then, we decided to hold a friendly little competition: we would each fold a Eupatorus and compare them, one year hence, at the next OrigamiUSA Annual Convention.
Origami design competitions are nothing new, of course. Many origami conventions feature a challenge topic, and in fact, Ray, editor of British Origami Magazine in the 1970s, began a design challenge column called "Whodunnit?" that ran, off and on, for many years. Design challenges serve the very useful purpose of spurring origami artists to push themselves in a direction they might not have gone before.
Origami competitions have even made it to the small screen. One of the many Japanese game shows is a series called "TV Champion", and each year for several years, they featured an origami segment. Competitors were required to design a range of origami figures, as well as compete in various novelty-type competitions—folding underwater while snorkeling, for example. (Satoshi Kamiya, our table-mate, was a four-time winner of this game show.)
If you have a formal competition, then you must have a winner; and someone (or someones) pick the winners. The problem with picking winners in origami design is that the process is naturally subjective. You're not really picking the "best" artwork; you're picking the artwork that most closely matches the judge's preconceptions.
Dan, Satoshi, and I realized that we shared an attitude: we didn't really care about satisfying just anyone's idea of what constituted a "good" origami model. In fact, to us, the purpose of a design challenge is not rooted in some award, the joy of getting a bit of ribbon stuck onto one's effort. The purpose of a design challenge is in the process, that it provides a spur and a goad to try something new and different. And the only opinion that matters is one's own. (Well, and maybe the opinions of other origami composers.)
So our competition was determinedly informal. There would be no judging, no prize. We were in it for the fun of competition, and we'd each be the judge of how we stacked up against the others.
To make a long story short, 2004 rolled around and Satoshi and I each brought Eupatorii to the OrigamiUSA convention. Dan did not. Some lame excuse about getting married (the things some people will do to get out of a promise!). But we agreed to try again. But what to choose as the subject?
The choice of subject is critical in such matters. It needs to be something that provides a technical challenge and an artistic challenge, and ideally, something that either hasn't been done before, or that leaves a lot of room for improvement. After a bit of discussion, we decided that the 2005 topic would be a hermit crab (both crab and shell from a single uncut square, of course). This offered the challenge of getting lots of parts (four legs, two claws, lots of antennae), plus a very different shape in the shell (3-D, spiraled), with the challenge of creating both structures from a single sheet of paper and possibly using different colors on both sides of the paper for the shell and crab.
This time, word got out of what we were up to, and a number of folders from around the world asked to join in the challenge. Of course; the more, the merrier! And the stiffer the competition, naturally. When 2005 rolled around, ten hermit crabs went on display, showing an astonishing variety of approaches, structures, and papers. You might think there would be only one way to fold an origami hermit crab, but in fact, all were wildly different in their design and structure.
At this point, it looked like we were on a roll. We picked another subject for 2006. After a bit of discussion, we chose a sailing ship. Now, sailing ships have been done before. The classic four-masted sailing ship was designed by Pat Crawford back in the 1970s. This is a brilliant design that has since been modified by others, but, other than a lovely yacht by Gerard Ty Sovann at the Paris-Origami exhibition in 1998, there's been no significant advance in this topic area. So we felt it was ripe for exploitation.
And indeed it was. 2006 brought a wide-ranging armada from many different artists, ranging from simple, stylized sailboats, to a full-rigged ship under attack from a kraken (all from a single uncut square, naturally).
Having held a design challenge for three years running, at this point we decided it was safe to call it an annual event. For 2007, the topic was: A plant. Not a leaf, or a single flower, but a full plant. (Roots, pot, ground were optional, but we received examples of all.) Entrants picked the species: moss, fern, herbaceous, woody, big, small, weed, or tree. But whatever it was, it had to be folded from an uncut square.
Origami plants pose a particular challenge. Traditionally, origami plants have either been composite, i.e., folded from many sheets of paper, or only a single part of a plant—a bloom, leaf, or small cluster. An entire plant—even a simple one—places severe demands on both the design and execution: the former, to achieve all the parts, the latter, to express the contrast between the various parts and to avoid a crumpled mess. In 2007, the origami artists rose magnificently to the challenge. We had more entries than ever before—a grand total of 31, from many phyla and various ecosystems, and the artworks showed cleverness, craftsmanship, and unexpected beauty.
And it didn't stop there. The 2008 challenge was a prehistoric non-dino from an uncut square. What does that mean? Well, there are many, many dinosaurs in origami, but there are also many prehistoric creatures that are as cool, or cooler, than dinos, but have not yet been realized in origami. So whether one is an aficionado of the Ediacaran fauna, or mammals from the Cenozoic era, or a trilobite fanatic, or something else, here's was the chance for all those other guys. Entrants were invited to pick a subject that hasn't yet been folded, and to let one's imagination and paper, run wild. Beyond that, there were no stipulations; this was, like 2007, a very open-ended challenge. Once again, the artists rose to the challenge. Not all folders created animals; some created fossils; one even created a cartoon subject! But, as always, tremendous inventiveness and skill was displayed, and once again, all of the figures were folded from a single uncut square.
2009 took on the great apes: gorillas, orangutans, chimpanzees and bonobos. We identify to some degree with all of these primates (indeed, bonobos are our closest relatives), and so this topic matter particularly challenged one's ability to create personality, as well as arms and legs. Then, for a change of pace, 2010 took on the mechanical world with cars and trucks. Here, the challenge was more mechanical: can you reproduce an object that is already a human creation, but do so in a fresh and interesting way? The results of all of these challenges may be seen in the photo galleries below.
Over the seven years of challenge, the interest and number of entries has grown each year—not to mention the incredible cleverness and artistry displayed by the participants! Not only has this challenge grown, but challenges have become a fixture of the origami convention scene, as well as the internet forums (see, for example, The Origami Forum's Origami Challenge Thread for one active example). In 2011, I decided that my friendly little competition had done its duty and there were plenty of other challenges out there for folders to cut their design teeth on, so I won't be organizing future challenges at the OrigamiUSA convention for the foreseeable future.
(But if you simply must try something, then I would encourage people to attempt to fold a Blufth. There are not enough of those in the origami world! For further description of the subject, see Paul Jackson's segment in the superb origami documentary, Between the Folds.)