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Art Folds Into Science In Robert Lang’s Extreme Origami

Former NASA laser physicist Robert Lang applies computer programs and math to create seemingly impossible new origami designs.

Robert Lang’s largest folded scuplture is a flying Pteranodon with a 14-foot wingspan. His smallest is a 500-micron bird from a programmable self-folding polymer sheet. Then there are the Spirograph-like shapes that are too complex for a human to design.

A former NASA laser physicist, Lang has been combining origami and computing to rethink shapes previously thought impossible.

“What drew me to origami was the simplicity of what you needed–a sheet of paper, hands, and imagination,” says Lang, who works from his Alamo, California, home studio. “What has kept me interested for more than 40 years is the unlimited possibility of what can be created, just by folding.”

More than six dozen venues, including The New York’s Museum of Modern Art and the Indianapolis Museum of Art, have displayed his work, which commands $300 to $2,000. He’s written 14 books on origami–the most recent being Folding Paper, The Infinite Possibilities of Origami–and programs origami design software offered for free on his site, Langorigami.com.

Robert Lang at the opening of his Los Angeles exhibition. Susan Karlin

Currently, over 100 of his pieces are on display at a solo show, Folded, at the Williamson Gallery at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California, through August 20. He is also one of the origami artists showcased at the Surface to Structure: Folded Forms exhibition at Cooper Union in New York through July 3, Folding Paper: The Infinite Possibilities of Origami at the Bellevue Arts Museum in Bellevue, Washington through September 21, and Kevin Box/Origami in the Garden sculptural exhibition at the Santa Fe Botanical Garden in Santa Fe, New Mexico through October 25, and The Curious Art of Origami exhibition at the Shumei Hall Gallery during the AXS Curiosity Festival in Pasadena from September 19 to November 19.

He’ll also have several pieces on display June 28-29 in the public exhibition portion of Origami USA’s annual convention at New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology.

Lang’s largest origami sculpture is a Pteranodon with a 14-foot wingspan on permanent display at the Redpath Museum, McGill University in Montreal, Canada.Courtesy of Robert Lang

How his hobby unfolded

From his first folded patterns at age six, Lang honed his skills through his teen years from books, unaware of any origami groups in his Atlanta hometown. “Once I learned how to fold everything in the books, there were still subjects I wanted to fold, or where the design in the book didn’t look the way I thought it should look,” he says. “So I started making up my own designs by adapting techniques in new ways.”

His computer interest blossomed in high school, courtesy of a math teacher who organized dial-up access (at cutting-edge speeds of 110 baud) to the Georgia Institute of Technology mainframe computer. He went on to electrical engineering and applied physics degrees from Stanford University and the California Institute of Technology, before spending 15 years as a laser physicist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and what is now JDS Uniphase.

Engineering, in turn, fueled his creativity with origami. “Even if you don’t use computers to design new shapes, the most important elements are the underlying geometry and math,” he says.

The world’s smallest origami sculpture, seen through a microscope, is a programmed self-folding polymer that’s the thickness of five human hairs. Lang co-developed it last year, through a $2 million National Science Foundation-funded collaboration with science and math professors from University of Massachusetts at Amherst, Cornell University, and Western New England University. The NSF program afforded the first steps toward structures that could one day construct themselves in space. Courtesy of Robert Lang

His first exhibition came in 1985, and three years later, Lang began incorporating computer programs into his art. He started his main general-purpose program, TreeMaker, in 1990, and has been refining it ever since.

“It’s not a program to solve a specific fold, but classes of folds,” he says. “Small, specific-purpose programs for a single model might take a few hours or days. By around 1994, I found that the things I could design using a computer were now more advanced than the things I could design by hand. It was an indication that a new area opened.”

Computer assisted design was mandatory for this 15” piece–Golden Weave, opus 595, referring to the pattern’s golden ratio use–created in 2011 with one uncut irregular sheet of Wyndstone Marble paper. A computer solved a large set of equations to find the vertex coordinates in a few seconds, compared to weeks of tedious, error-prone analysis, allowing Lang to explore more artistic space. Courtesy of Robert Lang

Adhering to the rule of one sheet and no cuts, “complexity” in origami is determined less by the number of folds, as by how many folds are linked and must be manipulated together. Some shapes bring hundreds of folds together at once. While the human brain can create most designs, “computers let us work at a higher level of abstraction,” he says.

Nevertheless, Lang doesn’t plan to incorporate artificial intelligence into his programs. “The creativity still has to come from humans,” he says. “The computer is best for solving well-defined problems. You don’t ever run out of shapes, because there’s always another way to capture a new detail. With geometric figures, there’s much less being done in origami, so that part of the field is still wide open.”

Check out the slideshow to see some more of Lang’s work.

About the author

Susan Karlin is an award-winning journalist in Los Angeles, covering the nexus of science, technology, and arts, with a fondness for sci-fi and comics. She's a regular contributor to Fast Company, NPR, and IEEE Spectrum, and has written for Newsweek, Forbes, Wired, Scientific American, Discover, NY and London Times, and BBC Radio.