The Art of Macro-to-Micro


The art of the miniature has fascinated engineers and artists alike for thousands of years. Take the Asian art of Bonzai, for instance – a manner of cultivating small trees in pots — miniatures of their full-size counterparts. From the 6th century, Bonzai principles were a blend of art, science and practical know-how. But the intent of this ancient practice was to produce a purely aesthetic object, destined for contemplation and enjoyment alone.


In the West, this wedding of the utilitarian and the aesthetic finds its roots in the 19th century of Anglo-American tradition of industrial design (Saito 2015). This movement was, in part, a counter-force to the mechanized factory production of goods brought on by the industrial revolution.


A prime example of this kind of craftsmanship is British-born William Morris (1834 -1896), Renaissance man of culture – a textile designer, poet, novelist, translator, and notably, a socialist. Morris was motivated by a radical social vision that valued the aesthetics of labor. Morris drew his images from the vernacular and domestic traditions of the British countryside, and also from pre-Raphaelite art forms. He was pivotal in reviving the textile arts in Britain through designing stain glass windows, wallpaper, tapestries and fabrics.


Contemporary industrial designers also face the problem of shrinking a macro structure into a compact micro format.  Today, more than likely, designers and engineers might prioritize efficiency and cost, over aesthetics. But modern-day textiles and building materials present a confounding problem in that they resist folding. Unlike the relative ease of repacking a suitcase, how does one fold metal, plastic, or glass into a flexible, reusable form?



To solve this complex problem, multiple industries have looked to another ancient art: Origami.This centuries-old art has inspired elegant solutions to traditional engineering practice (Howell et al 2016). Through folding, designs for new compact devices now have the capability to perform complex tasks in nano-spaces. The result? The meeting of the poetic and the prosaic in the evolution of new structures.


Needless to say, the shift in complexity from creating small paper cranes to building massive architecture, is an amazing feat of ingenuity. Flat folds are created when 2-dimensional (planar) are able to rotate around fixed axes of rotation. The result transforms 2-D structures into 3-D sculptures that are ingenious for their functional elegance.


For a jaw-dropping view of the art of engineering design, take a look at the work of contemporary scientist and origami artist Robert Lang. Lang has created and diagrammed over 700 prototype designs, written over 80 publications and patented over 50 designs.


This brings me to human origami, my personal movement muse. Human Origami is all things folding in the human body – improvisational movement study in body folding. In Human Origami, participants discover the intricacies of pattern formation by exploring the enfolding and unfolding of the bodily dimensions: top-to-bottom, front-to-back, and right-to-left, in (a)symmetrical patterns. Here, humans solve other ‘problems’ – one’s the speak to ease and agility of transition in and out of tight spaces and levels. A flat fold around a fixed axis is not readily reproducible in the human body. Instead, a mover can explore an infinite array of lines, planes, curves, spirals, and facets within the moving body – part matter, part imagination!


As an impulse for a crease, cleft, or a crumple rises at one place in the body, it grows and travels  – deepening, spreading, and taking unpredictable pathways and turns within. The exploration is as much a journey into aesthetics as into the meta-physicality of meaning. Take a moment to reflect on this when you tuck a magazine under your armpit – a feat of human origami in motion. Human origami is programmed into the human body from nano-DNA-scale protein folding to the most common movements of everyday life. Pondering the inescapable fact of folding in daily living is a moment of aesthetic appreciation for the human design.




Howell LL, Lang RJ, Frecker M, Wood RJ (2016). Guest Editorial: Journal of Mechanisms and Robotics Copyright VC 2016 by ASME JUNE 2016, Vol. 8 / 030301-1


Morrison J. How Origami is Revolutionizing Industrial SMITHSONIAN.COM  APRIL 23, 2019


Saito, Yuriko, Aesthetics of the Everyday, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2015 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.)