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Origami Master

Alamo’s Robert J. Lang folds science and art together to create 3-D paper wonders.


Photography by Jeffery Cross

The Japanese have a reputation for being an isolationist people fiercely protective of their own culture. After all, the country’s borders were once closed to outsiders for more than 200 years. So, how did the Japanese react when it turned out that one of the foremost origami artists in the world is an American engineer named Robert J. Lang? Actually, they welcomed him with open arms.

In 1992, Lang visited Japan to give a lecture to the Nippon Origami Association. People were so taken with him that a few months later, he was invited back to appear on a Japanese game show. “They thought it was so weird and cool that a westerner would be doing this complicated origami,” says the 46-year-old Alamo resident, a tall, lean man with a graying beard.

The word complicated may not do justice to Lang’s work. His designs include a detailed allosaurus skeleton, a pteranodon with a 14-foot wingspan, a praying mantis devouring its mate, a Viking ship complete with oars, and a cuckoo clock with moving parts—each made from a single sheet of paper. The paper sculptures can require hundreds of folds (490 for the praying mantises) and several days to complete, and often feature many thin appendages—an obstacle to design once thought insurmountable. Lang solved the problem using a revolutionary perimeter-maximizing technique he calls circle packing.

“The most surprising thing is that the perimeter [of a figure] can be as big as you want,” Lang explains. He holds up a sheet of notebook paper. “From a sheet of paper this size, I could fold a shape whose perimeter is 50,000 miles. By using circle packing, I can create a little star shape that would have millions and millions of points. This folded shape would be microscopically small, but if you traced the outside, the length of every star, you could get any number you wanted.”

“His work is so intricate, it just blows me away,” says Linda Tomoko Mihara, an award-winning an Francisco–based origami artist who has worked with Lang. “He would never admit that he’s the best in the world, but I consider him to be the best in the world.”

Lang, who grew up in Atlanta, began his journey toward artistic greatness at age six, when he was given his first origami book. “As a kid, the attraction was nothing deep or sophisticated,” he says. “Here was a way I could make toys. And, I could make them from free scrap paper.”

He designed his first piece at around the age of 10—a variation on the classic origami boat, which he folded to resemble the PT boats from the television show McHale’s Navy. By the time he was in his teens, he was devouring origami books and modifying the designs to create all sorts of animals of his own.

Lang continued to fold paper while he attended college at Caltech, where he majored in electrical engineering. He did origami as a way to relieve stress, but at the same time found that his studies in science and mathematics helped him develop more systematic ways of creating new designs—a perfect dovetailing of his scientific and artistic pursuits.

“The connections to art are obvious,” he says. “You’re creating objects that are intended to appeal aesthetically to someone, either the viewer or the practitioner. But, [science is] dependent very strongly on patterns and natural laws and relationships. My view is if one understands the patterns and the relationships, the scientific aspects, it enables you to enhance the art that you’re ultimately doing.”

He went on to study at Stanford and then returned to Caltech to get a Ph.D. in applied physics, studying lasers. In grad school, he wrote his first book, The Complete Book of Origami, published in 1988.

Lang wrote five more books containing origami patterns—he refers to them as “recipe books”—on evenings and weekends while working in Silicon Valley. He also was awarded more than 40 patents, many involving his work with lasers. What he really wanted to write, however, was a book that would explain how people could create their own origami designs.

“I always wanted to explain how to design things, and I realized that I would not write [Origami Design Secrets] unless I could devote [myself] full-time to writing it,” he says.

With that in mind, he quit his job at a San Jose laser manufacturing company in 2001. The book was published in 2003. Lang has focused on origami full-time ever since. He has a constant flow of commissions both public and private (people pay as much as $2,500 for his more complex sculptures), thanks in part to widely read features in The New Yorker and Smithsonian. Art museums all across the world have put his work on display. The Indianapolis Museum of Art is currently showing 34 of Lang’s pieces, his largest exhibit to date.

Like any artist, he draws much of his inspiration from his environment. The idea for one particularly impressive piece, a colorful Anna’s hummingbird feeding at a honeysuckle flower, came to him while he watched hummingbirds at a feeder hanging just outside the window of his studio. One of his favorite recent designs, a barn owl sitting on its perch, was born after a visit to a wildlife center in England, where he had the opportunity to feed an owl as it perched on his arm.

“It’s just so emotionally powerful to see one of these incredible animals right up close,” Lang says. “After that encounter, I said, ‘I have to re-create that moment, that emotion, in an origami figure.’ Most of what I do is real wildlife because that’s what inspires me.”

Lang spends as much as 12 hours a day in his studio, behind the ranch-style home he shares with his wife, Diane, a fellow animal lover who volunteers at the Lindsay Wildlife Museum, and his son, Peter, a senior in high school. Origami sculptures are scattered throughout the studio—some could fit in a matchbox. Others, like a heron that hangs from the ceiling, approach life-size. Lang skips about the office, exuding the energy of an enthusiastic college professor: Sometimes he’s sketching a design with pencil and paper; sometimes he’s at his Mac, creating a design using a computer program he wrote; sometimes he’s folding at a table, or on the floor if a piece requires a large sheet of paper.

Lang enjoys sharing his knowledge with others so they can use his techniques to improve their designs. Perhaps the best story comes from his stint as an artist in residence at MIT in 2004, where he taught a workshop on circle packing. Less than a year later, at the Origami USA convention in New York, Lang ran into one of the students from that workshop, Brian Chan, who was showing off a series of elaborate insect sculptures. Lang was so impressed by Chan’s work that he felt a pang of jealousy, and he asked Chan why he hadn’t shared the designs when Lang was at MIT.

“He said, ‘I’ve done them all since the workshop. I used your techniques to design them,’ ” Lang recalls. “He was instantly a topflight folder. It was fantastic. And he is now on anyone’s short list of the world’s top folders.”

Right up there with Robert J. Lang.

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