Origami Reloaded

Materials can gain extra dimensions when they are folded. We know that a folded piece of paper can stand on its edge and support weight. Due to low weight and enormous flexibility, origami is becoming more and more popular these days.

We’re seeing an increasing number of interesting wood-based tiling materials. Wood is intrinsically suitable because it is easy to work with, and has a naturally high strength-to-weight ratio.

An Italian office, MammaFotogramma, have come up with a flexible paneling system made of plywood. During the design of a climbing gym, the team searched for a material with some ‘foldability‘ for use in the complex geometry of the building. After experimenting with various configurations, they settled on a sheet of Russian plywood. The wood is arranged in a series of equilateral triangles affixed onto a vinyl mesh. This combines flexibility with strength.

Triangles are particularly useful as they are great for tiling, as well as being strong of themselves. Triangle shaped tiles are also quite accurate at modelling complex 3D shapes, including the shape of organic bodies. So it shouldn’t be a surprise that MammaFotogramma calls their development ‘WoodSkin’.

To compare, it can be helpful to imagine what non-triangular origami looks like. Canadian architects blackLAB came up with a flexible seating arrangement for an exhibition space during a recent design show in Toronto. The Origami Table were made of pre-shaped, baltic birch plywood panels. Using piano hinges for connections, the panels fold together, resting on tubular steel legs. By taking the legs off, the panels can be reshaped and then fixed again as a seat, bench or work top.

Other materials can also be used for folding, though they are usually trickier and more time-consuming to work with. An early example that may have served as inspiration is Hylite. This famous foldable material by 3A is a composite panel that bonds a polypropylene core to two aluminium cover sheets. At 30% lighter than aluminium and with a considerable flexural strength, the core can be used as a hinge. That means this material can be 3D shaped in a similar way to the wood or polymer origami materials.

Meanwhile, a triangular pattern is great at preserving some stiffness while allowing for flexibility along its axes. If supported vertically, such skins can add a large measure of design quality to a space or an object.