Skip to Content
MIT News magazine

Brian Chan '02, SM '04, PhD '09

Origami master makes the intricate look effortless
December 21, 2010

Until six years ago, Brian Chan enjoyed origami as most enthusiasts do, by folding patterns found in books. But an MIT talk by origami designer Robert Lang offered the inspiration he needed to evolve from enthusiast to designer. “Once I read his book and went to his talks, it clicked,” Chan says. Since then, he’s made more than 100 original designs, won numerous prizes internationally and at MIT, appeared as the special guest at conventions (including the most prestigious one, held by the Japan Origami Academic Society), and exhibited his work in galleries around the country.

Chan, who earned his degrees in mechanical engineering, finds that folding satisfies his technical and creative sides. “Origami really embodies the ‘mens et manus’ spirit of MIT, with an artistic flair,” he says. “The beginning stages of designing origami are very heavy on geometry, and it helps to have an analytical mindset … Once the basic structure is made, the sculpting stage is all about being artistic.” In fact, he was so inspired by MIT’s motto that he set about re-creating the Institute’s seal—a laborer with an anvil and a scholar with a book flanking a pedestal—using a single sheet of paper. He spent a year perfecting the design, which became one of his first supercomplex creations.

“Origami is very transient in that the pieces are made from delicate paper, but on the other hand, origami is very permanent,” he says. “Even if the folded piece itself is lost, the ‘soul’ of the piece is in the crease pattern, and as long as the crease pattern is still existent, a new instance of the piece can be folded.”

Chan focuses mainly on creating animals, insects, and human characters, projects that give him a chance to experiment with proportions and poses. He is heavily influenced by the natural world as well as by anime, fantasy, and science fiction. Among his designs are intricate anime characters created using two-toned paper and a series of grasshoppers that share an original crease pattern but vary in complexity and features. Some show wings, for example; others feature open hind legs. While Chan works faster now—he can create complex designs in days or even hours instead of years—he’s always pushing himself.

View a video origami tour of some of Chan’s work, and see him fold his award-winning Mens et Manus design in three easy steps.

  • See photo galleries of all of Chan’s designs, including origami, metalwork, and 2-D art, and find diagrams to fold your own maple leaf and sailboat.

Chan also draws, paints, designs T-shirts, and practices metalworking. At MIT, an anime about a swordsman inspired him to take up kendo; soon he wanted a real sword, which he couldn’t afford. So he took blacksmithing at MIT and bladesmithing at Mass Art and made his own.

Chan lives in Cambridge, where he’s a freelance engineer. He’s won three awards for mobile-phone concept designs in the LG Design the Future competition and placed second in Duke University’s grand engineering challenges contest with his idea for using thermal depolymerization to produce biofuels while sequestering carbon pollution. He sells his artwork online and is finishing an origami book.

Keep Reading

Most Popular

open sourcing language models concept
open sourcing language models concept

Meta has built a massive new language AI—and it’s giving it away for free

Facebook’s parent company is inviting researchers to pore over and pick apart the flaws in its version of GPT-3

transplant surgery
transplant surgery

The gene-edited pig heart given to a dying patient was infected with a pig virus

The first transplant of a genetically-modified pig heart into a human may have ended prematurely because of a well-known—and avoidable—risk.

Muhammad bin Salman funds anti-aging research
Muhammad bin Salman funds anti-aging research

Saudi Arabia plans to spend $1 billion a year discovering treatments to slow aging

The oil kingdom fears that its population is aging at an accelerated rate and hopes to test drugs to reverse the problem. First up might be the diabetes drug metformin.

Yann LeCun
Yann LeCun

Yann LeCun has a bold new vision for the future of AI

One of the godfathers of deep learning pulls together old ideas to sketch out a fresh path for AI, but raises as many questions as he answers.

Stay connected

Illustration by Rose WongIllustration by Rose Wong

Get the latest updates from
MIT Technology Review

Discover special offers, top stories, upcoming events, and more.

Thank you for submitting your email!

Explore more newsletters

It looks like something went wrong.

We’re having trouble saving your preferences. Try refreshing this page and updating them one more time. If you continue to get this message, reach out to us at customer-service@technologyreview.com with a list of newsletters you’d like to receive.