The ancient origami tradition represents the folding together of art, mathematics and science. Robert J. Lang is one of the world’s leading masters of this art form.
The respected physicist and engineer has constructed some of the most complex and intricate origami designs ever created. Lang also works with renowned sculptor Kevin Box, and their collaborative work is on view in the Origami in the Garden exhibit at the Atlanta Botanical Garden through October 16.
Lang joined City Lights host Lois Reitzes via Zoom to talk about his remarkable life in discovering the mysteries of origami.
Interview highlights follow below.
How a childhood hobby turned into a lifelong passion and career:
“It was a way of creating neat and beautiful objects out of almost nothing. I didn’t need anything but a sheet of paper, and so many crafts, you need materials and tools. You needed paint and glue and all those things and supplies, but paper was free and limitless. That way I could really enjoy myself for a long time,” said Lang.
“I was good at math in high school and enjoyed math, and that led me to a science career with engineering and then applied physics. I’ve studied lasers and focused in particular on theoretical analysis – i.e. using mathematics to learn how to achieve the goals I had when designing lasers, making them more powerful or brighter, other nice properties,” says Lang. “Origami had been my hobby all along, so I had developed a pretty good intuitive understanding of origami, but it felt like origami was subject to the same laws as lasers… and that if I could describe those laws explicitly mathematical terms, then I could use the tools of mathematics to help me achieve the artistic things I wanted to achieve with origami. And that turned out to be a success beyond my wildest dreams.”
About Lang and Box’s collaborative metal origami sculptures at the Atlanta Botanical Garden:
“Firstly, what I think makes the collaboration special is that we bring something complementary to the collaboration. We design origami patterns, and Kevin has both a vision for metal artworks and the artistic ability to figure out how to use metal to create something that still speaks like paper,” said Lang.
“The techniques used to make, cast and finish the metal sculptures…include cutting and welding and so on. You might think this is a far cry from folding paper, but it is actually possible to fold thin sheet metal into origami shapes. And I’ve done some of that. But when you actually fold metal, there’s a trade-off in rendering, so the result looks less like paper origami than the result of those casting and fabrication processes. So the paradox is that even though we use techniques that seem far removed from paper, we end up being more consistent with the concept of origami from a single, uncut sheet of paper than if we were actually trying to fold metal.”
Expert in folding mechanics in rocket science, medicine and airbag design:
“One of the other beautiful uses of origami and engineering is medicine, and because the problem is similar to that in space, the thing you want to make is small for travel, because in space you have to fit it in one Rocket. In medicine, you want it to get into the body through the smallest possible hole and then expand to create some sort of functionality,” Lang explained. “One of the things I worked on about 10, 15 years ago was a heart implant… The treatment was like a pouch wrapped around an ailing heart to give it some support. But it had to fit a small injector so it could be inserted between the ribs; They didn’t have to do open-heart surgery. And so I consulted with this company to come up with folding patterns that would fold this pouch into a small shape to also fit its injector.”
“I also worked on the airbag design and it was interesting. My work was purely mathematical. The point was not to figure out how to fold a specific airbag in a certain way, but to figure out what mathematics can be used in a computer algorithm to fold airbags. The interesting thing was that the math required to model the flattening of an airbag in a computer program was the same math required to design intricate origami insects, which was a specialty of mine,” Lang said . “I was just trying to make better art, but the math doesn’t know what it’s used for, so it turns out that the same math very often has practical applications in real life later on.”
Visitors to the Atlanta Botanical Garden can see Robert J. Lang’s contributions to the Origami in the Garden sculpture collection in person through October 16. For more information see https://atlantabg.org/origami-in-the-garden/