Unfold the History of Paper, Elle Decoration, April 2019 

Picture credits: Above and below far left and centre left:  foldability.co.uk . Below centre right:  kubonovak.com . Below far right:  tedzukuriatelier.com

Picture credits: Above and below far left and centre left: foldability.co.uk. Below centre right: kubonovak.com. Below far right: tedzukuriatelier.com

All copy as provided to publication

People have been folding paper for as long as there has been paper to fold. In China, where the practice is known as ‘zhe zhi’, it emerged alongside the invention of paper around 105 AD. It arrived in Japan 400 years later, brought across the sea by Buddhist monks, and gradually made its way to Europe through silk-trading routes, bearing a name from the Japanese words ‘ori’ (‘to fold’) and ‘kami’ (‘paper’).  

The high price of paper meant that origami was initially reserved for religious and ceremonial purposes, but even as it became more widespread as the cost of paper fell, belief in its mystical properties remained. The writer Akisato Ritowas the first to create written instructions for paper folding in his 1797 book of origami designs, woodcuts and poetry ‘Hiden Senbazuru Orikata’ (‘The Secret to Folding 1,000 Cranes’),’ which described how to make the archetypal origami crane – and Japanese legend holds that anyone who can fold 1,000of these auspicious birds will have whatever their heart desires.

Contemporary artists still connect to this sense of ritual, often referring to the power of repetitive paper folding. ‘My dad died while I was researching my first paper project and origami became my therapy,’ says paper artist Angela Fung. ‘I folded metres and metres of paper without really realising what I was doing.’ Scottish designer Kyla McCallum echoes this notion. ‘I like the fact that you have to make everything by hand with paper – it is a very meditative material,’ she says. ‘You are doing something with your hands that you don’t have to actively think about, but it is just enough to stop your mind from racing.’  

Although that might explain why designers are increasingly working in this ancient material, it doesn’t quite explain why we want it in our homes, but it comes close. In living memory, we touched paper all day long from the diary or calendar that told us our plans for the day to the book we curled up with in bed at night. Now that so many of our daily interactions are digital, perhaps we are craving the tactility of paper once again, and so it is finding its way into our interiors. ‘Paper has been with us for aeons,’ explains visual artist Kubo Novak. ‘There is a natural affinity between humans and paper. I love it for its delicacy, its fragility and its almost infinite creative possibilities.’ As our surroundings become increasingly slick, shiny and screen-based, we yearn for the imperfections of natural materials. ‘People are drawn to the colour, the finish, and the warmth of paper,’ adds Liam Hopkins. ‘We are more and more conscious of the natural environment and we feel a connection to that through paper.’ You might not have the time to fold 1,000 paper cranes, but perhaps a little more paper in your life is all your heart desires.