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Origami Challenge #2: Morph a Traditional Model

Sometimes, when I teach, I don’t like to say what the finished model will be. It gives the process an element of suspense. It’s also fun for the students to guess what it’ll be, based on what they’re seeing. On the way to folding a Squirrel, the student may see a Peacock, or a Boat, or a Pterodactyl. When they make a guess, my encouragement is – after we’ve finished the model at hand – to fold another sheet to that point in the sequence and make it look more like their guesses.

Once I was teaching a new student the traditional Origami Helmet. I didn’t say what we were folding, they made guesses along the way, and I explained that those guesses could be the seeds for original designs. As this was happening, I clocked the two flaps that become the wings of the helmet, and wondered if they could be the legs of a bird. I didn’t know what kind of bird it would be, or where the head, beak, tail, or wings would come from. I just wondered if the flaps could become bird legs.

First I found what I now call “The Big Beak Bird.” As I tinkered, I started to see something like a Kookaburra or a Kingfisher, my love for all things Australian kicked in, and I pursued the Kookaburra idea hoping to incorporate the bird’s recognizable color changes. After a couple drafts of the Kookaburra, I branched out and found other birds, including a Songbird, a Chick, a Penguin, and one of my favorite designs, a Dodo. It’s a collection of models I like to call “Variations on a Kookaburra” (which may eventually be the title of my autobiography). 

In addition to starting from the middle of a sequence, you could also turn the completed model into something else. At one of my first origami event folding jobs, I was asked for a Dolphin. I didn’t know one offhand, so I folded the traditional Carp and gave it a bottlenose. It may not have been the most Dolphin-y Dolphin you’d ever seen, but it did the trick in a pinch. The traditional Fox is a great springboard to other simple critters. If someone requests a simple Dog, I sometimes fold the Fox, flip down the ears, and adjust the rest of the features. Akira Yoshizawa made some beautiful Rabbit models with the same basic structure of that Fox model, and one of the simple Rabbits I designed for Lunar New Year 2023 was derived from that same concept.

But it’s not a far stretch to go from Fish to Dolphin or from Fox to Dog. How far can you stretch your imagination of what a model can morph into? Perhaps you take a model and start tinkering with it, without any preconception of what it’ll turn into. Can you turn a Bird into a Fish, a Frog into a Cow, a Box into a Butterfly? How do you repurpose the features of a model into completely different elements for a completely different subject?

The guessing game is also a great way to find ideas of how to morph the model. If there’s a way to move through the model’s sequence without knowing what it’s supposed to be, you might come up with ideas you hadn’t considered. Maybe you fold with someone who doesn’t know what the finished model is and ask for their ideas along the way? You might like their ideas, or they’ll spark something in your own imagination. This challenge is great practice for finding “left turns.”

This is also a good challenge to break down how features are created, whether it’s for the intended traditional model or your own creation. In addition to the designer’s toolbox of folds, bases, and classic models, you’ll also be building a playbook of how to achieve structural and stylistic design elements. It’s like opening the hood of your car and taking apart the engine. Then, you can either put it back together again with the knowledge of how it all works, or reconstruct the pieces into something completely different.

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