Speaking of butterflies

One of the oldest, simplest, and to my mind, most deceptively difficult of all origami subjects is the butterfly. It is so simple, because all you really need are two wings: one can make a quite recognizable one with just two folds. And there are many origami butterfly designs out there, notably Yoshizawa’s iconic creation. I’ve also made a few myself.

But the humble butterfly is also a deceptively difficult subject to capture in origami. Many of them (many of my own) are heavy and ponderous, which may capture physical features – legs, wings, antennae – but capturing the grace, lightness, and delicacy of the real subject is quite the artistic challenge.

The modern master of butterflies is, and has been for a long time, Michael LaFosse, who has developed a basic structure and approach that he has used for tens, if not hundreds, of distinct creations. In one sense, you could say that these are all variations of a single design, but I think that is a great oversimplification, and the versatility of the approach is better described by Michael’s own words, wherein he describes a “system” for creating butterflies. Because the changes from one form to another give rise to very different appearances, different species, and different characters from one to the next. When you add in the additional design space that comes from Michael’s ability to create his own paper for each design, you get a remarkable lepidopteran zoo.

Many of Michael’s designs are inspired by individual species; many others are inspired by individuals. I was absolutely tickled pink to learn from a recent expedition to Haverhill that Michael now has named one of his butterflies for me! You can see it here:


“A butterfly for Robert Lang” is a double-swallowtailed butterfly, a bit of extra complexity that echoes my own interest in complex designing, but is folded with a grace, elegance, and simplicity that I could never match.

Best of all, I, and you, will have a chance to get to fold it. It is one of a host of new designs in Michael and Richard Alexander’s new book, “Michael LaFosse’s Origami Butterflies,” published by Tuttle, and available from fine booksellers everywhere.


This doesn’t taste right…

Photo taken by Mary Jane Kettler of my “Morpho Flight” butterfly at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center last year.


I picture the conversation between the two harvestmen as going something like this:

“Billy! We got one! and he’s not even moving!”

“Wait…something’s wrong…What sort of cruel hoax is this?” (*)

(*) Yes, I know it’s a Gary Larson line. It’s just too good not to use.

So that’s what’s inside!

The traditional Japanese origami crane is such an unusual shape, it makes one wonder why whoever first folded decided on calling it a crane, and also, why they gave it that particular shape.

Well, now we know the answer: it’s shaped that way because that’s its skeleton, as the photo below shows.


This fantastic model arrived in my inbox from 3D modeler extraordinaire Joaquin Baldwin (with a little help from Shapeways). You can see more of this design and more work by Joacquin on the Shapeways website.

There must be a special affinity between origami and 3D printing; there are some other pretty cool 3D things on the Shapeways site that have an origami connection.

Now that’s settled…

To recap the story: in 2009, I learned that a painter named Sarah Morris had been taking my crease patterns, recoloring and renaming them, and then selling them as her own work (without credit or permission). Needless to say, that was not happy-making, and after some unsuccessful attempts to engage her in rectifying the situation, I and five other origami artists whose work she had similarly used filed suit in California court for copyright infringement.

After a couple of years of legal wheels turning (which included a re-filing that moved the venue to New York), in March, 2013, we were able to come to an amicable settlement of the matter. Most terms and conditions of the settlement will remain confidential (as is often the case in these sorts of things), but as part of the settlement, we all agreed that the works listed here would be retitled to include the name of the origami artist and the original title of the origami crease pattern.

We started with six affected artists (an international group, representing the US, Japan, Spain, and Italy). Along the way, three of the international artists had to drop out for various reasons (travel requirements, logistical difficulties); the remaining three soldiered on. One of the things I am particularly happy about with the settlement was that the re-titling and attribution includes works by all six of the affected artists, even those who had to drop out of the legal activities.

So what does this mean for origami and origami artists? Well, the first thing to point out is that since this was a private settlement with both sides agreeing to drop the case, there is no legal precedent established. That’s probably the case with most legal disputes; our legal system wants disputants to come to terms on their own, not least because it saves the taxpayer money! Going all the way to trial should be a last resort, only to be taken if (a) the parties can’t agree, and (b) it’s not clear what the outcome of a trial would likely be. (Even if folks can’t agree, if it’s really clear what the outcome of a trial would be, one should settle.) As the legal system proceeds with motions, counter-motions, and rulings on said motions, the murkiness of (b) may start to become clearer and at some point, it may (and often does) become clear enough that it points the way to a legal settlement.

But even though there was not a legal precedent set with this settlement, I do think there was something of a moral precedent set for origami artwork, and, paradoxically, it’s not that there’s something special about origami, but quite the opposite: that there’s nothing particularly different about origami when it comes to matters of copyright and rights of attributions. Origami artworks and artwork related to origami, like photographs, metal sculpture, and yes, crease patterns, are, first and foremost art, the creative expression of an artist with an aesthetic vision, and so are entitled to the respect and protection that are afforded to other visual arts. In the case of crease patterns, the artworks are unique, distinct, and individually recognizable (in fact, the way I learned about this situation was someone saying, “hey Robert, I saw one of your designs under someone else’s name”). There are certainly plenty of public-domain crease patterns available (such as those of traditional Japanese designs), and an artist who wishes to use a crease pattern always has the option of creating his/her own (if only by folding a sheet of paper randomly and then unfolding it and recording the pattern), but if one wishes to use the specific creative output of another artist in a way that leaves it recognizable, one should engage with that artist to work out an arrangement satisfactory to all.

And, at long last, we now have an arrangement that is indeed satisfactory to all concerned.

So whither origami crease patterns in the art world and beyond? I displayed my first crease patterns as standalone art back in 2003 and over the years have shown them in various incarnations—prints, giclees, and, in collaboration with Kevin Box, as wall-mounted metal sculpture. Sometimes they are displayed together with their folded works, sometimes as standalone pieces, where the pattern can hint at deeper connections to its subject but leaving the completion to the viewer’s imagination. Other origami artists are exploring using their crease patterns as springboards for broader artistic statements (I am particularly fond of Sipho Mabona’s treatments of his own designs), and I see this as part of the greater evolution of the art of origami. This evolution is not a linear progression: it is a radiation. We can have simultaneously the simple traditional figures to be shared and taught, and works of complexity, abstraction, and transitions to other materials and media (metal, plastic, and more). They’re all part of the wondrous fabric of this art form that has captivated me for now well over 4 decades, and which, for me, will never stop expanding.

I Get Swag

You know when you’ve really made it in a field when people start sending you free stuff in hopes, I suppose, that your famousosity rubs off on the freebies. My moment of made-it-ness happened a few weeks ago, when I was contacted by the good folks at the X-acto (TM) Precision Instruments company, who were just DYING to send me their latest technical innovation: the Zirconium Nitride coated Z-series. Woo-hoo!

Now, if I were a marketing person selling a product whose primary purpose was cutting and my minions or overlord told me to seed the market strategically, I don’t think I would have said, “hey, let’s find someone in an art form whose primary defining characteristic is a total lack of cutting!” But then, that is probably why I am not a highly-paid marketing person and am, instead, a lowly paper-pusher.

So sending a knife kit to an origami person might seem crazy. But it’s crazy like a quick brown fox, eh? Because, of course, us origami folks need to acquire our squares to begin with (since paper manufacturers keep insisting on producing their paper in rectangles). And there’s nothing like a cutting mat, metal-edged ruler, and wickedly sharp X-acto (or similar) knife to cut the perfect square. And since even slightly dull blades like to wander away from from the metal ruler, I tend to buy my blades in the bulk economy 100-pack and to discard them at the first hint of slicing resistance.

(This practice also means that I have managed to impale myself in uncountable creative ways in the course of cutting squares. People ask if I ever get paper cuts, and those are quite rare; but knife cuts? I buy band-aids in the bulk economy size, too.)

So, the good folks at X-acto, no doubt realizing that the Achilles heel of all origami folders was a good cutting setup, sent a very nice Z-series knife (with gold knurling on the blade clamp) and a set of 5 ZrN-coated blades (with a lovely gold finish along the business edge) to try out.

(Actually, they sent me a HUGE box of other X-acto-related products, ranging from foamcore samples to a cute little cutting mat approximately 1/8 of the size of the one I use; all well and good, but I either already had or didn’t need any of the other goodies. But the storage box was quite nice and has found a good home.)

But as for the knife, the blades: I actually use these, and so went to try them out. (I thought about cutting right to the chase and impaling myself immediately just to get that part over with, but decided instead to let that happen in the natural course of events, by which I mean it will probably take place in a day or so.)

So, I can report the following: ZrN-coated X-acto knife blades cut paper very well indeed. And the gold-colored handle means that I can now tell my 2 knives apart so I can remember which one I just changed the blade in without having to look for the lighter bloodstains. (Guidebook photo to old and new style knives and blades is below.)

So, thank you, X-acto folks, for my snazzy new knife. And if any other vendors out there are looking for the Origami Stamp of Approval on their spiffy new product, why, there’s a contact link at the bottom of this very site!

(I’m thinking that ReferenceFinder would look pretty nice running on an iPhone 5, Tim Cook. Just sayin’.)

X-acto knives

Top: old-style, boringly silver X-acto knife and blades. Bottom: Ultra-spifferino zirconium nitride-coated Z-series.