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

Origami master makes the intricate look effortless

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.”

This story is part of the January/February 2011 Issue of the MIT News Magazine
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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.

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