Beth Johnson has been creating ingenious and elegant origami models, which she shares through her Flickr page and on her own website. Originally from Toledo, Ohio, she currently lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan with her husband and young son. Beth has a bachelor’s degree in anthropology and a master’s in natural resources with a focus on environmental policy.
Here are the highlights of a conversation we had recently.
How were you introduced to origami?
I did origami since I was a little kid. I started maybe when I was eight. I got an origami book for Christmas.
Was origami something that you practiced frequently as a young person?
I would describe myself as having more interest than what a typical child would have. I remember making pretty complex models. For my grandmother, one Christmas, I made twelve reindeer with the sled and Santa Claus. I used to make gifts for people, a lot of modular origami and ornaments. When I was in fifth grade, my teacher asked me to teach the class how to fold an origami flower, an iris. Teaching to my classmates was very challenging! And then later on, I made all the flowers for my wedding.
What does origami mean to you?
When I fold I find it relaxing and meditative. It’s almost something I need to do. It’s a compulsion –should I say an obsession, but not in a bad way. It’s a very rewarding activity. It helps relieve worries and anxiety because you get in a state of flow. Origami is something I’m very passionate about.
You started designing origami just over a year ago, how did it come about?
My niece is into owls. I thought it would be great if I could make her an origami owl. But then, I couldn’t find anything that I liked. I got books at a store, but I had never looked online. I was out of the loop regarding the great number of resources for origami on the Internet. But I looked for origami owl designs and I came across a crease pattern by Joseph Wu. I loved that owl and had to try folding it.
I didn’t even know what a crease pattern was. I think that it was actually a difficult crease pattern to start with, but it totally changed the way I thought about origami. I had been looking at origami in terms of step-by-step, and not thinking about the whole process.
Figuring out the crease pattern for the origami owl made me think more conceptually on how things collapse. After the first one, I found more crease patterns and tried them. They opened up my mind at trying my own way of designing. So then I just started.
Your experimenting with crease patterns is fascinating because many origami enthusiasts perceive them as intimidating. Did you?
Maybe I was a little naive. It was like working out a puzzle. It was a challenge to sort it out and I like that. It’s a huge sense of accomplishment to actually figure one out.
What is your design process?
It’s definitely more of a pick up a piece of paper and start fiddling with it. Is that trial and error? I attended a lecture given by Robert Lang. I remember him talking about how there is a method to designing “You can’t just pick up a piece of paper and start folding it” he said.
I don’t know if I agree with that, because I think that’s what I do a lot; even when I am sitting in a restaurant. It’s kind of doodling for me, but just with a piece of paper.
I also sometimes will have an idea in my head and then try to work it out. For example, the snake I designed. It just kind of popped in my head. I love such a simple pattern and I made these balls with that same shape.
Also, the texture of a tessellation might remind me of something and I will try that. Sometimes in the middle of folding somebody else’s model, I see something and then I take it in a different direction.
So, in designing I use a little bit of everything. But I will never be one of those designers like the bug folders who fold super complex models, or one that thinks about precise dimensions and numbers. That’s much more a mathematical technical approach. It’s not really my approach.
But the fact that you had been folding paper since you were young gave you some background to figure out the crease patterns and then to start designing, right?
Absolutely, I think that you are exactly right. It’s something that I couldn’t have just stepped into. You learn through so many years of folding how certain things collapse. You see some patterns in the paper and learn how to recognize some bases in a crease pattern. In some of them, you can’t see the bases so easily. It’s a lot harder, we only see mountains and valleys, but you can tease it out.
A two-piece sheep that you designed drew a lot of attention in Flickr. You’ve shown a few different versions. Please talk about designing that sheep.
I wasn’t happy with the first one I made. When I started, I was stuck on the idea of using one sheet of paper. That’s just what I had in my mind, my challenge, a self-imposed challenge. I had some success working with one piece. At some point I thought I just had to refold it with another kind of paper. But somewhere along the line, I just realized that it could be made with two pieces of paper!
I was messing around with a waterbomb tessellation and I noticed something… it’s a sheep’s coat! Oh, and it wraps, it curls, it could just rest on top of the body. And then it was easy. The coat made itself. Then it was a lot of trial-and-error for me in trying to proportion the body underneath correctly and making it fit the coat. But it just kind of came and it was straightforward.
And that’s the model that got so much response. I was floored. Since it was made with two pieces of paper, I was wondering what was interesting about that? Anybody could do two pieces of paper! But the response was exciting, and I loved it.
I notice that you like tessellations, but also figurative models of animals. Do you have an inclination for one or the other?
I don’t know if I could see myself doing tessellations just as tessellations. I like incorporating them into something else. That’s why I work with the figurative models. But there is so much amazing work that you can see in Flickr.
For example, paper sculptures with a lot of curved lines. It’s really unique. They are not really tessellations and not quite origami either, but I want to try to figure out how to do that.
I think the big picture is that I just love working with paper. I always have. I do things, other than origami, with paper as well; a lot of paper cutouts and things like that. But what is so cool about origami is that there are endless possibilities. You can redo the same model a thousand different ways. There are so many things to try.
Who are you looking at as inspiration in the world of origami?
I was in the dark before I started designing and getting more into it this past year. So a lot of it is people I come across on Flickr. Many times I only identify them by their screen names, not their real names.But when I think big-picture, I think Yoshizawa, and Eric Joisel. When I watched Joisel in the documentary Between the Folds I just loved the way he describes his process. His approach spoke to me; not just about complexity but the way he looks at the paper and wonders: “what if I do this?”
Giang Dinh, I love his work. It’s so expressive and it looks simple but it is not simple at all. It’s wet folding and sculpting. It’s extraordinary. And his masks, that’s something I would like to try, as well as masks like those of Eric Joisel. It’s not so much matter of making simple or complex origami; it’s just an esthetic, it’s something that you just see and relate to.
Quentin Trollip, his pieces have such a beautiful aesthetic to them, being pieces that are accurate and very representational origami. I love each new piece he makes, his work is so impressive.
I like Joseph Wu’s playful pieces. And he can make very technical pieces look incredibly beautiful, like his lion.I admire him because he is making his living out of this art. It’s a great exposure for origami. And he got me started in designing with his owl crease pattern, so I have a special fondness for his work.
I have a great appreciation for very complex work such as Satoshi Kamiya’s dragons. It’s amazing, but I don’t think that I will ever be one of those complex folders. I have Robert Lang’s book on design, and it’s great. It is not my approach, but it is the only book out there on the topic.
Have you made diagrams of your models?
I just started to try for one of my models. It’s a simple model, but diagramming is a lot of work. I thought it would be, but didn’t realize how much until I got into it. So a crease pattern is wonderful because it at least gives you an opportunity to try a model, and it’s not that time-consuming to make it.
What would you suggest to people who would like to start designing their own models?
- Look beyond instructions and into crease patterns.
- Play with the paper.
- Modify or adapt a model. It’s not necessarily your design, but that’s a start.
- Ask yourself what can you do with one fold; what can you do with two folds…
- Focus on the process, not only on the result.
- Look at the pieces of designers you like and study them.
- Doodle. Just try it!
Photos courtesy of Beth Johnson