Old art, new design: How origami is shaping the startup world 

The ancient Japanese art of origami is being used by a new generation of design-led startups.

By Laura Messchendorp

Room in a Box

The space industry wouldn’t be the same without origami.

It was the miura fold, made by Japanese scientist and origami enthusiast Koryo Miura, which allowed the 1995 Space Flyer Unit satellite to fold into a compact shape for travel and then unfold itself once in space.

Medicine has been influenced as well. The collapsible heart stent developed by a Japanese team at Oxford University in 2003 was based on an origami folding technique known as the “water bomb base”, allowing the stent to be inserted into the bloodstream and folded and then opened up on command inside.

Minura Folds in action

And more recently, professor Larry Howell at Brigham Young University has worked with origami artist Robert Lang to create a foldable Kevlar shield, large enough to protect two or three people sheltering behind it from bullets.

“Often by the time you get to the final version of an origami-inspired design, the origami is buried deeply into the system and its impact is not as identifiable to an observer,” Howell said in a Ted Talk.

Enter the startups

Picking up this long tradition of origami-inspired innovation, today there are dozens of startups using the ancient folding techniques to design new products. Often they are more efficient and sustainable than what came before them. 

Ryan Yasin, an Iceland-born designer based in London, is one of these entrepreneurs mixing origami and business. With a background in aerospace engineering, he had studied satellite panels that fit into millimeter-wide gaps before they self-deployed in space.

But then the fashion industry drew his interest. “The properties of fabric aren’t usually seen as engineering material,” he says, after moving from Imperial College to the Royal College of Art. 

He started Petit Pli, a company focusing on children’s clothing that, by incorporating many small folds, can get bigger as the child grows. Yasin’s inspiration came from his newborn nephew, when the outfit he sent him in 2016 didn’t fit by the time it arrived. 

Petit Pli
Petit Pli top

He launched Petit Pli in March 2017 (after making a prototype at midnight on New Years Eve), creating sustainable clothing from PET bottles. The bottles are turned into pellets, which are turned into fibres and then woven into fabric. The Royal College of Art helped fund his patent, while he spent six months seeking out investors and refining the product. 

“Origami-based products tend to be very visual, and potential partners or licensees can quickly appreciate how the origami solution provides value and their commercial potential,” Howell says. 

Petit Commercialisation

During the design process, Petit Pli looked at using heat to expand garments, “but today, that’s not really commercially viable at all”, Marin says. “[As with] any innovation, it just takes many years for the processes to be industrialised.” 

It settled on the many folds it products boost today, allowing each garment to grow up to seven sizes. “There’s a degree of elasticity within the garment, so it’s always trying to reset itself. But the boundary conditions are set by adjustable tabs to make it easy for the child [to use],” Yarin says.

The process leaves fewer offcuts, and therefore less waste, according to Yasin, as the manufacturer does not have cut garments in different sizes. Petit Pli’s production happens in Portugal. 

Room in a box

Another startup using origami techniques is Room in a Box, where German team Gerald Dissen and Lionel Palm make furniture out of folded cardboard (yes, pretty much the same cardboard that you get in cardboard boxes). 

The company started three years ago when the pair left university and spent years living pretty much broke on a “six, seven hundred euro budget a month” while they designed and attempted to commercialise their ideas – eventually crowdfunding money. 

The pair say that the benefit of its furniture is that it is so easy to transport. Similar to well-known furniture giant IKEA’s products, cardboard is flatpack, but unlike traditional wooden stuff, cardboard is very light. 

In cities, where many people live up flights of stairs, the company offers “delivery to the apartment door” rather than delivery to the front door. And as Germany already has cardboard processing facilities, once the designs are finalised, the factory can construct them from blueprints and ship directly to the consumer, says Dissen.

With a ten-year life expectancy, damaged sections of the beds or other products on offer can be replaced and old parts simply recycled. “They’re not constructed to be thrown away, but the possibility is there,” Dissen says. 

Room in a Box

Folding everything

And although good taste may require otherwise, it’s now possible to furnish pretty much your entire house with origami from design-led startups.

Having furnished your bedroom and wardrobe, you can move on to lighting. Belgium’s Thomas Hick raised money on Kickstarter to produce his foldable lamp, folded out of one sheet of perforated metal. 

Thomas Hick’s lampshade

London-based Foldability, run by Kyla McCallum, a Scottish paper artist, also makes lampshades, but the lamp called the Leah pendant uses 115 sheets of paper to Thomas Hicks’ one sheet of steel. 

Moving on to the kitchen, Dutch startup Flux Chair make plastic tables and chairs that fold into large envelopes to save space, and Aphinitea sells boxes for food folded like flowers, after starting a food truck and finding nothing but “a sea of boring box options” to choose from.  

The Flux Chair

And even retail giants such as Joseph Joseph have jumped on board, folding up utensils ranging from colanders and chopping boards to kitchen scales.  

And despite occasional regulatory setbacks, such as Brorigexit, origami keeps developing. “Possible origami designs are pacing ahead of the ability to make them in large numbers,” Howell says, adding that manufacturers will recognise this and work to close the gap between ideas and reality.

“This means that potentially successful origami-based ventures exist both in new products and in new processes to create origami-based products.” 

Laura Messchendorp is a reporter at the FT’s specialist publication MandateWire, where she reports on institutional investor activity and sustainable finance across Europe.