To look at the shelves of our bookshops you might think the mental well-being of the nation rests on an inexhaustible supply of felt-tip pens. The storming success of colouring-in books for adults, promising tranquillity and peace of mind as you colour, was the publishing triumph of 2015. But that was last year. Canny publishers are already looking to the next trend. So forget felt-tips: 2016 is the year of the fold. Colouring in is out; origami is in.
Next month sees the publication of Zen Doodle Origami by Carolyn Scrace. In April, there will be a rush of titles: Colour-Gami: Colour and Fold Your Way to Calm; The Book of Mindful Origami: Fold Paper, Unfold Your Mind; and Zen Origami: 20 Modular Forms for Meditation and Calm. Some of these books come with sheets of origami paper, which you can colour in before folding them into a crane, a lotus flower or a Samurai helmet. There’s certainly a ready audience. The TED Talk (an online series of videos) on The Math and Magic of Origami, by origamist and mathematician Robert Lang, has been watched two million times.
But can folding really bestow mindful calm? And can the new origami books replicate the runaway success of colouring in? Origami originated in Japan in the 17th century, though there is also a flourishing paper-folding tradition in China. The principal is simple: three-dimensional shapes are made from folding a square of thin paper without scissor cuts or using glue.
Creativity with rules
Modern origamists call themselves “folders”. One such folder and origami evangelist is British Origami Society member Nick Robinson. He discovered the Japanese craft in the early ’80s when he was in his mid-twenties, coming to origami after a failed pop career. He has since written 60 books on origami, including Buddhist Origami, with folding guides for a Seated Buddha, Wise Frog, Fish of Harmony and Contemplative Turtle. His next title is (somewhat less serenely) a book on Star Wars origami. Whether you’re making Buddhas or Darth Vaders, origami can be meditative, says Robinson. “The world fades away and you just focus on your fingers and the paper.”
Coco Sato, who was born in Japan and studied for a Fine Art degree at Central Saint Martins in London, agrees. She folds spectacular giant origami installations for festivals. Its appeal, she says, is the curious combination of creativity and rules. “Although you may not be very artistic, by following the rules you create something beautiful,” she says. “Following the rules step-by-step is very calming.”
Mei Ling, who lives in Portsmouth, learnt the art of folding in China when she was seven years old. At her school, the boys would fold dozens of stars and put them in a jar to give to the girls they fancied. After moving to England, she worked as a nanny and babysitter, often teaching the children origami. When one mother asked her to make a series of origami models for a bare wall, she turned her babysitting game into a design business.
“I think people find it calming during the learning process, memorising the steps and not thinking of other troubles at all,” she says.
She listens to jazz as she folds. Others prefer meditative silence.
Mark Bolitho has been folding for 35 years. His designs are more robustly masculine than the usual paper peacocks, butterflies and lotus blossoms. He has made lifelike triceratops and pterodactyl, and a jet fighter plane — a serious step up from the paper planes you may have thrown out of the window at school. He recalls attending a conference of origamists in Italy at which there was a peaceful hush.
“There isn’t any talking,” he says. “You’re just following the process.” But it doesn’t have to be a lonely pursuit. Ellie Romer-Lee, head of talent at a London-based tech start-up, made hundreds of origami cranes as decorations for her wedding last year. Folding the birds, she says, “was about making some time in the run-up to my wedding to spend time with people I cared about. I made the cranes with my friends, with my mum, with my aunties, uncles and cousins.”
What mattered to her was the process of making and folding — not whether each crane turned out perfect. So far my origami skills extend only to one slightly lopsided swan. While it didn’t turn out as gracefully as I’d hoped, I was utterly absorbed in the folds, all other distractions forgotten. “There’s an element of concentration,” says Scrace, “which takes your mind off everyday hassles. Simple shapes are very satisfying to do and you end up with something to cherish. “You do the first few and think, ‘I’ll never get the hang of it.’ Then you are hooked. There’s a thrill in losing yourself in what you are doing.”
Origami is undoubtedly more challenging than colouring in. Its “masters” practise for decades. The most intricate folding instructions for models of praying mantises and armadillos are devised by mathematicians and can involve hundreds of intricate folds and creases. James Daunt, chief executive of Waterstones, wonders whether this will keep origami from capturing the same juggernaut market as colouring-in books. “It is addictive,” he says. “But I don’t know whether clumsy-fingered adults will take to it.” Still, he admits he did not predict the colouring-in phenomenon, so we may yet become a nation of folders. My own swan is swimming calmly on the surface of my desk, a stack of origami paper waiting next to it. For my next challenge, I have my eye on an easy penguin. But I think I’ll leave the armadillos to the masters.