31 July 2022

Modular Origami: The Ancient Art of Kusudama Evolved

Kusudama is a traditional Japanese art form which has evolved in to what is now generally referred to as modular origami.  With some remarkable examples, here is the basic difference between the two.

The form of Kusudama goes back to before written history.  The general consensus is that they were used to hold bunches of herbs or flowers as urban culture took hold.  Before this the plants would have been hung on their own and the kusudama evolved as an aesthetically pleasing receptacle for both potpourri and incense.

A potpourri is a selection of dried plants which give off light fragrances throughout the domicile.  Although popular in Japan for countless centuries, it wasn’t until the dawning of the Age of Aquarius that they became popular in western culture.  Potpourri acquired a slightly hippy label, which in the west it has never been quite able to shrug off.

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It is more likely that traditional kusudama had a more important function than just simply making the house smell nice.  Its literal translation is ‘medicine ball’ from the words kusuri (medicine) and tama (with a little mutation, from the word for ‘ball’). 

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The kusudami is usually made by the gluing or sewing together of a large amount of small pyramid-shaped folded paper.  They are attached via their points and eventually, with great care, can be formed in to a sphere.  Generally the spheres are displayed on their own but a final flourish – a tassel – is sometimes used to dangle from the bottom.

Image Credit Flickr User Ardonik
Image Credit Flickr User Ardonik
The words glue and sew are pivotal in understanding the difference between kusudami and modular origami.  In kusudami this is entirely permissible but in modular origami this is frowned upon – the folded piece of paper must be held together by nothing more than the neighboring piece – and an awful lot of tension.

Image Credit Flickr User Ardonik
Image Credit Flickr User Ardonik
Although modular origami is a direct descendent of kusudama the jury is still out about whether it belongs in the origami family of paper folding with many agreeing while others say that because of the inclusion of sticking or sewing it doesn’t count.  The form, however, remains wonderful in its own right.

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As techniques developed, modular origami – the more challenging of the two forms – became increasingly popular.  Origami rules insist that the final product must be achievable from a single piece of paper.  However, one piece of paper cannot ever produce more complex designs and modular (sometimes known as ‘unit’) origami came about as people wanted to experiment with larger shapes.  The process of creation is fascinating.

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knotology torus
Preparation is crucial.  Multiple sheets of paper are necessary for one single piece of modular origami and this is not done on an ad-hoc basis.  Many sheets are folded in to their individual module before the process of creating the final product begins.  The colors and patterns are also decided at the creative design stage.

Dodecahedral Mega-Structure (Modular Origami)
The act of folding creates pockets in the small modules.  It is in to these pockets that flaps, a product of the process of folding, will be introduced in order to create the larger construct. 

Six Pentagonal Prisms 2: 5-Fold Axis
中国龙(Modular Chinese Dragon 4.0)
Modular origami is first recorded in the early eighteenth century.  The cut and paste technique is not allowed of course, but what separates modular origami from other types where more than one piece of paper is allowed is that identical copies of a single fold design may be linked  together to get to the finished product.  Additionally, more than one type of module is also allowed.  These are usually ‘undercover’ units, which are used to hold the whole thing together.  If they were used in plain sight then it would not be considered true modular origami.

Rainbow infinity
Black Hole Sun
Modular origami found a new audience in the nineteen sixties, both in Japan and notably in the US.  Since then, as you have seen, many hundreds of new designs have been explored to further evolve this sublime combination of art and design.

Bascetta Star Rhombicosidodecahedron (Paolo Bascetta)
5 Cubes

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