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This MIT Student’s Origami Building Blocks Could Make You More Creative

Jonathan Bobrow wants you to think outside the box. Literally.

In a world composed of so many squares, the designer and technologist Jonathan Bobrow is making the case for triangles. He’s created paper building blocks based on equilateral triangles that enable kids and adults alike to build intricately woven, organic-looking structures.

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Called Troxes, these building blocks espouse a philosophy of play that emphasizes thinking outside the box–quite literally. Bobrow built Troxes in a class at the MIT Media Lab where he was part of the Playful Systems research group. The assignment was to create a “press-fit kit,” or a system of objects that you can press together and interlock so tightly that you don’t need glue, tape, or any other adhesive–Legos are perhaps the best and most famous example of this. Bobrow says he “thought he’d be cheeky” and design a kit where, after you press-fit two objects together, you’d be able to press-fit together those completed units as well.

The result was Troxes, inspired by a similar 1970s version that was based on cubes. Bobrow decided to use triangles because they’re the simplest shape; they have a stronger structure than a square and are found frequently in nature. He designed a cut-out with paper that could be laser cut; four of these pieces interlock to make a tetrahedron, a triangular pyramid with four sides; eight make an octahedron; and twenty make an icosahedron. Each of these primary shapes then can be fit together to build even bigger structures.

All three of these shapes–the tetrahedron, octahedron, and icosahedron–form some of the basic building blocks of the natural world, something Bobrow didn’t realize when he started making them. But friends at the Media Lab pointed out that a protein folds in tetrahedral chains; the octahedron is the structure found inside of a diamond; and many common viruses have icosahedral bodies.

[Photo: courtesy Troxes]
After the class assignment was over, Bobrow became slightly obsessed with his Troxes–he spent his nights and weekends making hundreds of them using the Media Lab’s laser cutter and building different forms. He began posting his creations to Instagram and taking them to events; people from the MIT Museum saw them and asked if they could feature some of Bobrow’s sculptures in a student exhibition (they’ve been on display for the last year and a half).

Once he graduated, Bobrow started a company called Move38, which will be his platform for training the next generation of systems thinkers through games. Troxes, which is now on Kickstarter, is Move38’s first project launch, with more in the pipeline. Bobrow is hoping that producing so many Troxes en masse will allow him to also manufacture a large number of them for himself since he’s continuing to build and create art with them.

This system might have applications beyond just art and play. Bobrow says that architects have approached him about using Troxes for flat pack housing, especially because larger, cardboard versions of the shapes can support as much as 40 pounds. “This floppy piece of cardstock becomes really structural,” he says.”

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Bobrow thinks that Troxes encourage non-rectilinear thinking, something that’s rare in a world built almost entirely on the grid of Cartesian geometry. “I don’t think we should be inundated with squares. If you give people those building blocks, those are the spaces in which they’ll continue to build,” he says. “But if you give them something different and let them build their own system or grammar, you get to see this broad range of diversity.”

He hopes that Troxes have a part to play in helping both kids and adults think differently–which could have an enormous impact in the long run. “I don’t expect that five years from now Troxes or any toy that allows kids to think non-rectilinearly will change the way we build every house or lead to the next great discovery of the way organisms interact,” he says. “But I do think it’s that kind of thinking, the ability to question the status quo or the norm and approach it from a different angle leads to these really enormous breakthrough discoveries.”

One example? Bobrow points to research that says that Albert Einstein’s non-rectilinear thinking led to the discovery that mass bends space time. He also references the architect and thinker Buckminster Fuller, who strongly promoted the use of more natural structures and was inspired by triangles as a form. “Troxes are frivolous,” Bobrow says. “But I think as a side effect, it has a lot of this potential.”

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About the author

Katharine Schwab is an associate editor based in New York who covers technology, design, and culture. Email her at kschwab@fastcompany.com and sign up for her newsletter here: https://tinyletter.com/schwabability

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