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Origami Games & More: an Interview With Joel Stern

As I shared with you in another post, Adèle started practicing origami when she was 2 years old. We were migrating from Australia to Europe and I wanted a light, yet versatile toy for our 24+ hour long journey. She loved animals at the time (still does), so I bought Joel Stern‘s Origami Zoo set and this is how she got started.

Adèle is proudly showing the very first origami she made using paper and a sticker from Joel Stern’s Origami Zoo Kit.

This is why I’m so excited and honoured to have Mr. Stern share his creative process with us in this article. Adèle discovered the amazing world of origami because of his work and I am doubly grateful that he has offered his time to answer all of these questions!

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Can you briefly describe who you are?

I’m Joel Stern, an origami artist, and author of origami books and kits geared toward beginning level folders. Before Covid, I hosted a monthly gathering of origami enthusiasts in Beverly Hills, California. Since Covid, I host bi-weekly gatherings on Zoom. I’m also occasionally asked to create origami for commercials, TV, and movies. I particularly enjoy teaching origami, and incorporate storytelling (“storigami”) into my classes. When I’m not doing origami, I make a living as a technical writer for a software company.

When were you first introduced to origami? Do you remember this experience, and if so, what/who inspired you to continue?

When I was about 14, I discovered Samuel Randlett’s “The Best of Origami” book at my local library in Omaha, Nebraska, and was immediately captivated. I must have checked it out a dozen times. There was something about origami that appealed to me on a very profound level. Perhaps it’s because it enabled me to create things of beauty just by following the instructions, and using the simplest of materials. But it also appealed to my love of puzzles and geometry. I couldn’t get enough. There were just a few books in English available in my local bookshop in those days, so I reached out to Lillian Oppenheimer, who was listed in the book as the founder of the Origami Center in New York. She sent me a catalog of the books she carried, and I was able to order more. I was fortunate to attend college and grad school in New York, and during those years I never missed a single one of the monthly folding gatherings she hosted at her apartment. In those days I was not a creative folder, but I greatly enjoyed meeting and learning from other folders, who came from all over the greater metropolitan area for those meetings.

How do you come up with ideas for your models / books / kits? 

The models I created for my first three books — Jewish Holiday Origami, Animated Origami Faces, and Origami Games — were based on different themes. In each case, I set myself the constraint that the models could be folded almost entirely with valley and mountain folds, so that beginners could make them. I also wanted my origami to be meaningful outside of the realm of origami. For example, In Jewish Holiday Origami I tried to show how origami could be used as a means of spiritual expression. In Animated Origami Faces I wanted to explore the process of creativity, how you can start with a simple concept and expand upon it to create something quite complex. In Origami Games I tried to encourage understanding of game concepts, such as the difference between competitive and cooperative games. When Tuttle Publishing offered me the opportunity to create an introductory origami kit, they didn’t care if I had created the models or not; they simply wanted me to diagram the folding process in a fun way. My First Origami Kit was and continues to be successful, and Tuttle subsequently invited me to create other kits — Origami Zoo Kit, Origami City Kit, My First Origami Fairy Tales Kit, and My First Origami Animals Kit. In these later publications I continued to constrain myself to designing models that were accessible to the beginner.

Can you describe your technique? What materials do you use? What is the step-by-step process you take? You mentioned your collaborations – could you discuss how these work?

Most people who do origami do not have access to specialty papers, so I design all my models to be folded from regular kami (square paper colored on one side) or printer paper (8½ x 11 inches). Unlike when I was growing up, beautiful square origami paper is now very easy to obtain, and is also included with kits. My creative process varies, depending on the model. I often try to start from an origami base that will provide the required shape and number of flaps. For example, for the show NCIS-Los Angeles I was asked to create an origami version of a Cuban Solenodon–a rare, rat-like mammal–out of an orange Tootsie Roll Pop wrapper. I started with a blintzed Fish Base, since it offered long flaps for the snout and tail, and four short flaps for the legs.

Sometimes I just play with the paper until the model emerges. For instance, for the Witch in the My First Origami Fairy Tales Kit, I started to fold a Diamond Base to get the shape of the hat, and when I saw the face emerge below the hat, I stopped. The model is minimalist in design, and one of my favorites. The face sticker comes with the kit.

My editor at Tuttle is my only “collaborator,” in the sense that he might tell me a model might be too complex for a beginner’s kit. The only other people I work with are my graphic designer, who designs the stickers and papers for the kits, and my set designer, who creates the backgrounds for the model photos, and a photographer.

How many books have you published and which one is your favourite one?

My first book was actually not an origami book, but Washington Pops!, a book of do-it-yourself pop-up cards of famous buildings in Washington, D.C. Since then I’ve published seven origami books/kits (mentioned above) and one pop-up book—In a Spooky Haunted House—which came out this past summer. So the number is 9. One book—Origami Games—was republished as a kit last year, so I guess that makes 10. I have no favorite book, because each book is like my child, and one loves each of one’s children intensely and differently.

Where / how do you store all your creations?

Because space is a premium in my home, I keep very few of them. But I do keep diagrams of all of them so that I can recreate them anytime I want.

What are the biggest struggles you have overcome?

At first, my biggest struggle was diagramming. I use Microsoft Visio, which no one else I know uses, but I find it has everything I need to create vector-based diagrams. Teaching origami to groups had always been a challenge for me until I learned four important techniques: 1) a model can never be too simple; 2) you have to break the teaching up with stories; and 3) no session should be longer than an hour; 4) arrange the tables so that you can circulate and help when needed.

What specific skills can origami teach?

Lots of things — spatial reasoning, fine hand coordination, patience and perseverance, creativity

For you, is origami about the process or the final product?

Both the process and final product can be beautiful and elegant. If the final product isn’t satisfying, then no one will want to fold it. But if the process isn’t clear or logical, then no one will be able to fold it.

How do you approach / handle mistakes? Can they be fixed, or do you throw out / recycle the paper?

When I’m working on creating a new model, I’ll try maybe a dozen different approaches and keep them all until I come up with the right one. Sometimes I’ll revisit an earlier version and tweak it. I look at the creative process as one of problem-solving. Each model poses a handful of different problems that need to be solved.

When I was a kid, I kept everything I folded. I was so proud of it all! Nowadays, I usually toss the models I don’t keep in the recycle bin. A few I give to friends.

Which paper would you recommend?

Whatever you have on hand. I’m not fussy about paper choice, though color can play an important role in the finished product.

Could you recommend your favorite books?

It depends on the kind of origami you like. For modular origami, Unit Origami by Tomoko Fuse is great. Her book Fabulous Origami Boxes is also wonderful. For an all-purpose book, Secrets of Origami by Robert Harbin, which was published in the 1960s, is a great introduction to the art, and it’s still available. John Montroll has written dozens of books, and I’ve enjoyed working through his models.

What is your favorite origami model that you created?

Aside from the Witch that I mentioned above, my other favorites are “Talking Teddy Bear” in My First Origami Kit and “African Mask” in Animated Origami Faces.

What advise would you give young folders?

1. Learn to read diagrams. Most of the greatest origami works are only available via diagram.

2. Change just one thing about any model after you’ve mastered it. Then change two things. Keep going. That’s when the creative spirit takes over.

3. If you get stuck while folding a model, put it aside for a while. When you get back to it, chances are you’ll figure it out and be able to move on.

Can you share photos / diagrams of the step-by-step process of making something simple?

Wizard (from My First Origami Fairy Tales Kit)

Spinner (from Origami Games)

Dusty Dog (from My First Origami Animals Kit)

Can you provide a quote that encapsulates your feelings towards origami?

Origami is magic, pure and simple.

Joel Stern Origami

Joel Stern’s website:

There are also videos on the Amazon pages for each of his books!

If you liked this article, then add it to Pinterest so that it can also help others find Joel Stern’s fun and creative books & kits! 


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