Toeing the line

The appearance of Kunihiko Kasahara’s book Viva Origami in 1983 was something of a landmark in the history of origami design in the late 20th century and until the present day. The book is an anthology of the work of Jun Maekawa, at the time unknown to Western origami enthusiasts. Paul Jackson wrote a review in British Origami magazine 100 (June 1983):

Who is Jun Maekawa? Despite efforts to find out, your reviewer is still none the wiser. Nobody I have asked, East or West, has heard his name before, yet clearly he is a major talent.

Jun Maekawa at 7OSME, Oxford September 2019

Nowadays Jun Maekawa is something of a celebrity: a board member of JOAS, author of several essential origami titles, and a creator of ingenious designs which are always worth folding for original and pleasing folding sequence. Visitors to 7OSME in Oxford in 2018 had a chance to meet him. Maekawa has a Japanese language blog which is always worth studying, if you are prepared to suffer the inconsistencies of Google Translate.

Viva Origami includes Maekawa’s designs in a number of styles: geometric, mathematical, animals and human figures. One notable thing which Maekawa introduced to the origami community was his technique for including fingers and toes to his figurative designs. The sensational cover of the book shows a fearsome red devil with five fingers, and it includes many other designs, both animal and human, which share this characteristic. Previously these kind of details had been ignored by origami designers, who had edited arms and legs down to a single point, following the Bauhaus edict “less is more”.

I admit I found this style a little pernickety. In Maekawa’s interpretations, the fingers and toes felt a little obsessive, and the lesson drummed into me by Alan Thompson, my painting teacher: “never concentrate on detail, at least until you have sorted out the fundamentals“, rang in my ears. But the style caught on in the origami engineering school, and many other designers followed Maekawa lead to produce poly-dactyl work. Designers of origami animals, insects, and birds often find it essential to make their work “anatomically correct”. But how far to go? The individual feathers of your bird, or the teeth of your dinosaur? Some have indeed gone this far.

I once speculated, that without Jun Maekawa, the current generation of Japanese master-folders may have evolved in a different way.

In recent months, I’ve noticed an increase in the numbers of notable Chinese designers, somewhat absent until the last couple of years. The work of Meng Weining (212 moving) caught my eye. Recently this designer showed a delightful sparrow with perfect colour changes, good structural form, and – of course – feet with toes.

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Sparrow by 212moving

Despite previous disastrous attempts at this category, last year I refined this new bird design.

Robin I by Dave Brill

I am pleased with the robin’s structure and form, and the folding sequence is elegant and satisfying. The head emerges, ready formed, during the process. Many people’s reaction to the model is ” Oh he’s cute!” But “cuteness” never has been anything of a priority in my origami work. Nonetheless, however cute the robin was, he only had single point for the feet.

Having seen 212moving’s sparrow, and realising that I’d done little folding for some time, I set aside my reluctance to use many-toed approach, more than 35 years after its introduction. So I spent some time during our holidays trying to add toes to the Robin. This was possible by adding a sink to one section to give pleats to give the extra features. Maekawa explained this principle in Viva Origami: the Devil on the cover of the book has ears, but the diagrams within is earless. Maekawa explains, with the help of a crease-pattern, how to add them.

Here’s the three-toed Robin, alongside the original version. Do you think the extra detail is justified?

Robin I and II by Dave Brill