Paper Folding in Beginning Interior Architecture Studio: Tactile Experience, Form, and Material

Paper folding models in a beginning interior architecture studio

Citation: Wu, J. (2108). From Paper Folding to Digital Modeling in Beginning Interior Architecture Studio, IDEC Exchange: A Forum for Interior Design Education, Winter 2018.

Paper folding is easy to do by hand and does not require sophisticated tools. The form generation in paper folding is a direct result of material manipulation through a series of actions by hand. While paper folding can be easily done by hand, describing paper folding scientifically and representing the morphology that happens when a flat sheet of paper is folded, however, requires complex mathematical and computational modeling. Current CAD technologies, such as 3D modeling tools such as Rhino and Revit, are inadequate for such a tactile design process. In courses such as Beginning Interior Architecture studios, it is extremely difficult for the beginning design students to generate innovative forms directly using 3D modeling tools, which they are just beginning to learn. However, when they are asked to work with pieces of paper using their hands in free experiments, they learn to discover new ideas and find new forms, which then inspire them to generate digital alternatives that can be used in various scales in their interior design activities. 

Work by Emma Hamlet, Spring 2019
Work by Evan Berger, Spring 2019
Work by Gabby Pierson, Spring 2019
Work by Kiara Henry, Fall 2018
Work by Lauryn Blank, Fall 2018
Work by Katie Gee, Fall 2018

In an introductory interior design and architecture studio, paper folding was introduced to the first year students to help them understand basic design principles such as symmetry, repetition, and modality. The goal was to produce a small-scale paper folded light sculpture that is volumetric and that can enclose a light source. The project was divided into three small parts that serve as learning scaffolds. In the first part, the students were asked to create small units of paper folds from pieces of small square paper. Students were asked to draw simple line drawings based on two-dimensional compositions they made in a previous project using straight edges and compasses. They then were asked to give mountain and valleys assignments to the line drawings and they started folding. The students quickly found out that preconceived mountain and valley assignments often didn’t give rise to successful volumetric paper folds. Instead, they learned that folding paper was a very tactile experience and that each paper fold works like a small mechanism. To manipulate these small paper mechanics, one needed to cut, fold, pinch, pull, roll, tuck, and pop through a series of freehand experiments, similarly in ways to how a sculptor works with lumps of clay. While they started with some predesigned line drawings, they had to add new crease lines and ignore some original lines in their new paper folds. In the second part, the students were asked to connect four to eight units of their paper folds together. Students were taught to connect the units by using ways to make symmetries, such as translation, rotation, reflection, glide-reflection. They learned that to connect units together, they must pay attention to the boundary conditions of their paper folds. Complicate boundaries of a paper fold might be difficult to connect in modular form. In the third part, they were asked to use as many units as they needed to create their final design. They learned that by connecting these small paper mechanisms, they would end up with larger pieces of mechanisms which they need to manipulate again by hand to create the final stable volumetric forms. In addition, they were also taught to use polyhedral geometries, including icosahedron, dodecahedron, rhombic dodecahedron, etc., to connect the units into fixed three-dimensional volumes.

The beginning students often achieved great results in making a paper light and they were very proud of their work, which motivated them with later designs using digital tools. They were sometimes asked to produce digital alternatives of their paper structures. These digital alternatives were merely approximations of the paper fold structures. The digital models can then be used later in their other interior design projects either as small-scale light shades or as large-scale interior volumetric surfaces.

Folded Light in Beginning Interior Architecture Studio

fullsizerender-1_editedIn my Beginning Interior Architecture Studio in Fall 2016, co-taught with Jei Kim and Jon Racek, the first year design students were asked to use paper folding design methodology to understand basic design principles, such as unity, repetition, symmetry, contrast, etc. They were also requested to use the assembly and construction process in paper folding to produce a small scale light sculpture. The project was divided into three cohesive small parts that serve as scaffolds for the students. Before this project, the majority of students had never folded before and had never made any design objects. Therefore learning scaffolds were necessary.

In the first part, the students were asked to create small units of paper folds from pieces of small square paper based on simple line draws they made using straight edges and compasses. They were asked to explore these patterns in both bilateral and quadrant symmetries. They were given a couple of examples learn about how to assign mountain and valley folds to the lines patterns and then they were asked to turn their own line patterns into crease patterns by exploring various ways of folding and cutting by hand. The students were intimated at first as they were not comfortable working with their hands. They soon gained confidence when they observed how flat pieces of square paper changed into something that had sculptural depths.

In the second part, the students were asked to connect at least eight units of their paper folds. The goal was to generate somewhat seamless designs. Students were taught to connect the units by using ways to make the symmetric pattern in a plane, such as translation, rotation, reflection, glide-reflection. They were also taught to use polyhedron geometry to connect the units into spherical volumes. They studied platonic solids such as icosahedron and dodecahedron, Archimedean solids such as cuboctahedron and rhombicuboctahedrons, as well as Catalan solids such as rhombic dodecahedron and rhombic triacontahedron.

In the last part, the students were asked to add more units to create a volumetric paper sculpture. They were graded on the craftsmanship and the final lighted presentation. Many of the students turned in interesting works. Most students did a good job creating their units design. However, they had more difficulty connecting the units to generate structure volumes.

Special thanks to Noelle Zeichner, Abigail Stawick, Julia Gilstrap and Yuning Ding for providing some of the pictures shown on this blog. For my Folded Light Art brand, please visit

C481 Workshop on Digital Fabrication and Interior Design


This post has been rewritten and published in IDEC Exchange: A Forum for Interior Design Education, Spring 2016.

Citation: Wu, J. (2016). Materialization Matters: Weekend Workshop on Digital Fabrication and Interior Design, IDEC Exchange: A Forum for Interior Design Education, Spring 2016

This one credit hour weekend workshop introduced design students to tools, work-flow, and considerations in digital fabrication and its creative application in contemporary interior design. In recent years, the culture of custom digital fabrication has heavily influenced the practice of architecture, interior design, and design pedagogy. The focus of the workshop was to materialize a digital design to a 1:1 scale interior skin installation as a group. The learning goal of the workshop was to understand the basics of work-flow and considerations between digital design and physical making in the context of large-scale installation. Besides the hands-on making and learning, the students also had the opportunity to visit an industrial-scale fabrication shop, Noblitt Fabricating, in Columbus, Indiana.

The center of this workshop was the latest iteration of Ruga Interior Skin. The free-form geometric surface was modeled in Grasshopper and Rhino before the workshop. The main folding pattern was Yoshimura pattern. It was made up of 68 unique pieces of panels that were folded and connected to form a large semi-structural interior skin that stood about 8 feet in height, 15 feet in width and 12 feet in length. It was the first time I conducted this workshop, I was a bit nervous and not sure what to expect of the installation outcome. We started by folding the laser cut cardboard pieces, fabricated by Steve Dixon at Noblitt Fabricating, at 10 am on Saturday. By 1 pm, 68 unique pieces of cardboard were all folded and ready for assembly and installation. Because of the free-form geometric design, these 68 panels cannot be connected to a flat surface. The only way to connect these panels is to hang them sequentially in segments and to allow the gravity to fold the pre-scored mountain and valley crease lines while connecting them using rivets, nuts, and bolts. While this process proved to be a challenging task, the students in the workshop were enthusiastic. This hands-on experience required them to self-organize and figure out a system to piece together the panels. In three hours, the large interior skin installation was completed! What a great job! Special thanks go to Steve Dixon and to the following students who work extremely hard: Yueyang Chen, Madeline Collins, Anqi Fan, Flute Fu, Xinhui Fu, Renzhi Huang, Tianxing Shen, Erin Stump, Han Sun, Zhiyu Wang and Zhanhua Yan. Congratulations to you all!