Folding into Light: Sustainability, Making, and Materials


Wu, J. (2015). Folding into Light: Material, Form, and Making, International Journal of Design Objects, Volume 9, Issue 4, pp. 34-45, 2015

Environmental issues (such as pollution, climate change, and natural resource depletion) are increasingly becoming the core factors in consumer manufacturing industries.  Designers, manufacturers and marketing strategists are more conscious of taking account of sustainable product development in their design strategies (Kloepffer, 2003). Today, more and more products are designed by reducing the amount of materials and energy used, and by increasing the recyclable content and its potentiality for reuse. This trend has resulted in sustainable product designs that incorporate the use of green materials. One such green material is paper, due to its high level of recyclable contents. Paper is often thrown away or recycled after one-time or short-term use because of its fragility and commonality. Due to recent advances in the material science of paper development, paper has started to be used for technical components and for three dimensional products (Schmidt, 2009). According to Schmidt, technical paper is a new type of material that is manufactured in a similar way to conventional paper and consists of similar raw materials. It is processed and shaped using the same technologies or processes as conventional paper and possesses qualities similar to conventional paper, such as its feel, weight, and format. Technical paper that is water- and weather-proof, tear-proof, and chemical resistant, is now being used for the manufacturing of light-weight and long lasting products. Product designers have begun to turn their attention to this cheap and common material and have started to recognize the sustainable value in it. For example, renowned architects such as Frank Gehry and Shigeru Ban and renowned designer Issey Miyaki have used paper to produce their furniture, buildings, and even fashion.

Paper may be cut, scored, torn, rolled, or folded. In particular, folded paper design, using techniques that are similar to traditional origami, have inspired designers to come up with innovative design products. One of the early design explorations through paper folding was found in Josef Albers’ preliminary design class in the Bauhaus (Wingler & Stein, 1969). When a flat piece of paper is folded, the stiffness of the paper is significantly increased. When paper is folded in certain tessellation patterns, the mechanical behavior of the paper is altered as it becomes deployable and kinetic. Origami-inspired paper designs have been the subjects of many scientific research projects.  For example, mathematical theorems concerning geometric properties in folded paper have been studied (Demaine & O’Rourke, 2008). Computer algorithms have been developed to help fold desirable objects and to understand the best ways to fold tray cartons (Mullineux, 2010). Finite element analysis has been used to study the behavior of paper during the folding process (Beex & Peerlings, 2009). Curved folding and creasing have been investigated. Many more research projects focus on understanding the computational complexity and geometric algorithms of paper folding and unfolding. While research into paper folding has been conducted in computer science, mathematics, engineering and material science, little research has been conducted on paper folding in the field of design practice. This article is an attempt to fill this gap by systemically exploring practical means of using paper folding in product design in order to understand the making process and the materiality of paper in product design.

The goal of this paper is to understand the overlapping issues of sustainability, making techniques, and material choices by applying the art of paper folding in product design and the development of light sheds. Geometric tessellated patterns that can produce flat-foldable and rigid-foldable designs are focused, and variations of these crease patterns are explored to generate a variety of folded designs that can be used toward light sheds. A wide variety of durable conventional paper and technical paper materials that are appropriate for light sheds are compared and tested in terms of their material properties, functionalities and sustainability attributes. In order to investigate such issues, we will examine a lighting brand, Folded Light Art. Currently technical production processes for cutting and etching sheet materials, such as digital cutting or laser cutting, as well as traditional hand folding, are used to produce the scale paper models and 1:1 scale prototypes for the works of Folded Light Art. Luminary hardware is fabricated at local sheet metal shops. Potential CNC technologies of creasing and folding sheet materials are further explored in this article.


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