to the BOS home page
why join? membership, magazine, library, local meetings, conventions, mailing list, members area, copyright
tips, techniques, diagrams, folders, data, events, links, site search, videos, World Origami Days
paper, books, CDs, Merchandise
theory/essays/mathematics, glossary, the Lister list
fun models, puzzles & jokes
origami images
get in touch, find volunteers & commercial folders
learn to make a flapping bird!
to the Lister List index
The Exhibition of Paperfolding By Akira Yoshizawa in Amsterdam 1955 and its place in the origins of modern origami.


I was asked for information about the exhibition of the paperfolding of Akira Yoshizawa which was held in Amsterdam in the autumn of 1955. I was also asked if modern origami spread in Europe because of the exhibition and if any photographs, press reports or impressions of visitors are available.

I have written an account of the exhibition at the Stedelijks Museum in Amsterdam, so far as I am able with the information available. I have, in addition, thought it necessary to set the exhibition in its historical context in order to show just what part it played in the development of modern origami. I go on to give a short account of the exhibition of the works by Yoshizawa at the Cooper Union Museum in New York. I add an account of the ultimate fate of the models by Yoshizawa which were exhibited.


I have been conscious of the revolutionary contribution of Akira Yoshizawa to paperfolding ever since I first read Robert Harbin’s book, “Paper Magic” in 1958. During that period I have watched the development of the modern movement in what we now call “Origami” and I have increasingly become convinced that the principal inspiration for that revolution was the paperfolding of Akira Yoshizawa.

Akira Yoshizawa was born in 1911. Before his folding became influential in the 1950s paperfolding in Japan could be broadly divided between the simple traditional children’s folding which was largely uncut on the one hand and various advanced styles of paperfolding practised by adults on the other. These included such ways of folding as the multiple conjoined cranes of the Sembazuru Orikata of 1797, the Kayaragysa (otherwise known as the Kan no mado) which was completed about 1845 and much of the work of the elder Uchiyama, Michio Uchiyama (1878 – 1967). Much of this adult paperfolding employed extensive cutting. Michio Uchiyama, for instance, continued to publish books on his cut styles of origami, known variously as “Kirikami” origami or “Koko Style” origami into the 1930s. His son, Kosho Uchiyama also produced “cut-and-fold” origami which he published in his book Origami Zukan, which appeared as late as 1958. In contrast to this was the work of Isao Honda, (1888 – 1975) who was a collector of origami rather than a creator. His books largely amounted to collections of models which included the traditional figures of children’s folding. He also included figures modified from those previously created by Yoshizawa. While Honda’s books, and especially “All About Origami” (1960) and the ”The World of Origami” are very useful collections of early folding, few of the figures are Honda’s own creations. (The original edition of “The World of Origami” of 1965 is more useful than the abbreviated paper backed edition of 1976.)

The work of Akira Yoshizawa sharply contrasted with that of all these previous folders to the extent that it was revolutionary. He was largely self-taught from childhood and in the course of his investigations he discovered new geometrical techniques of folding and developed new bases. In particular he developed the “sideways turn” of the bird base. In itself the “sideways turn” was not invented by Yoshizawa. It is to be found in traditional Japanese folds such as the crow or “Karasu”. The sideways turn had also been used by Miguel Unamuno in the early years of the 20th century, but his work was not nearly so elegant as that of Yoshizawa and Unamuno’s discoveries did not become known outside Spain and Argentina. Yoshizawa developed imaginative uses for the sideways turn and refined it far beyond what had gone before. Yoshizawa also eschewed any cutting and he insisted on what he called “sosaku origami” or “creative folding”. He developed a new technique of wet folding or dampening the paper so that he could mould the final form and also he developed ways of folding three dimensional models. Moreover he had a genius for breathing life into the creatures he folded. Apart from actual folding, he introduced a new way of drawing diagrams which used different dotted lines for mountain and valley folds and arrows to indicate the directions in which folds were to be made. In itself, Yoshizawa’s method of diagramming facilitated the exchange of models between folders and made a world origami “movement” possible.

Yoshizawa was slow in gaining recognition. For many years he lived in poverty, determined to make his living by paperfolding. Then, in the late 1940s he began to win a little recognition at teachers’ conferences and displayed his work at the teachers’ meetings. His big break came in 1951, when his reputation reached Tadasu Iizawa, who was the editor of the Japanese picture magazine, “Asahi Graf”. Tadasu Iizawa sought out Yoshizawa and commissioned him to design and fold the figures of the so-called Japanese Zodiac. I have never seen this article, but I have read that three of the models were a rabbit, a snake and a dragon, so the figures were presumably the twelve animals which symbolised the successive years in China and Japan. Yoshizawa worked intensively to create and fold the models and his new creations appeared in the issue of Asahi Graf for January, 1952. He was immediately recognised by the Japanese public as a genius and from that moment his life was transformed. From that time Yoshizawa’s new style of folding led directly to the modern origami movement. Modern origami blossomed in many styles and approaches. Some of them were similar to Yoshizawa’s own style, but other kinds of folding branched in different directions, some of them geometrical. Not all of them met with Yoshizawa’s approval. Nevertheless all of these developments can be traced back to the innovations of Yoshizawa.


At the time of the Second World War, paperfolding was evolving only slowly. Because of the War communications round the world were non-existent. Cheap air travel had not yet been introduced. One development which later had a significant importance, was that many American servicemen became stationed in Japan and began to take an interest in Japanese culture, including origami. Nevertheless, after the war ended there were a few isolated signs of revival of an interest in paperfolding in widely different parts of the world. In the United States in 1945 Gershon Legman began to study the history of paperfolding. In England in 1946, Alfred Bestall began to introduce paperfolding into the Rupert Annuals; and in 1948 Maying Soong’s book “The Art of Chinese Paperfolding” was published in New York

Then, in 1953, coincidence seems to have taken charge. While it did not become apparent until seen in a historical context, in several places in the world events took place which presaged the start of a new interest in paperfolding. In 1953, in England, Robert Harbin suddenly rediscovered his childhood interest in paperfolding and began to pursue it with great enthusiasm. Around 1953, In New York, Lillian Oppenheimer also became keenly interested in paperfolding when at last, after seeking for it for some years, she discovered how to fold the Flapping Bird from Emily Rosenthal. (Curiously, my own interest in paperfolding similarly increased in 1953, when at last I discovered how to fold the Chinese Junk.) But most significantly, 1953 was the year in which, after writing repeatedly to Yoshizawa for many months, Gershon Legman at last received a reply. These strands were initially separate but it was their eventual coming together that brought about the revolution in paperfolding, not only in Europe, but in much of the world.

Gershon Legman had been appointed as the “official bibliographer and book buyer” for the Kinsey Institute of Indiana University in Bloomington, Indiana. This was an organisation that was carrying out extensive research into human sexual relations. Legman, himself lived in the New York area and much of his bibliographic research was carried on in the larger libraries of the eastern United States and he was able to combine this work with a search for books about paperfolding. Painstakingly he compiled a list of paperfolding books, not only in English, but also in other European languages and in Japanese. (Legman’s Bibliography of Paper-Folding, a slender booklet of only eight pages, was eventually printed privately in 1952.) Carefully noting the contents of the books, he was able to build up a hiterto unprecedented knowledge of paperfolding in both East and West. For instance, in one book he found a tear-off slip of paper which gave him information about how to make contact with Dr. Vicente Solorzano in Argentina. He wrote to Dr. Solorzano and began to correspond with him and was able to obtain copies of his book, which were at that time some of the most advanced books on paperfolding and its history written anywhere in the world. For instance, they included Solorzano’s series of “Papirolas” and his “Tratado de Papiroflexia Superior” which had been published in 1944. Legman also wrote to a professor in Argentina, who put him in touch with Ligia Montoya.

Legman also found information about books published in Japan and he wrote to a Japanese publisher to ask for information about a very modest paperfolding book. He was surprised to receive a reply which told him about Akira Yoshizawa and urged him to get in touch with him. Following this, Legman wrote many letters to Yoshizawa without receiving a reply. Some reports say that Legman wrote as many as two hundred or more letters without a reply. But the reason for this was that at the time Yoshizawa was just too poor to pay even the postage on a letter.

Then at last, at the beginning of August, 1953, Legman received a letter from Yoshizawa. Moreover, in a separate packet, Yoshizawa sent Legman models of a peacock, a “camel on four legs” and a chicken. Soon after, he sent a goose.

Almost at the same time as Gershon Legman first heard from Yoshizawa he went to France at the expense of Seymour Hacker to oversee presswork on books being published in Paris, including his own limerick collection. It was the era of the McCarthy witch hunts and because of the nature of his work for the Kinsey Institute, Legman had found that the United States Postal Service had begun interfering with his mail. The offer of a free ticket to Europe gave him the opportunity to escape from New York and he decided to move to live in France at least temporarily, giving the reason that he intended to attend a course in psychology in Paris. It has been suggested that he inherited a tumbledown farmhouse in the south of France, but this was not so. His wife Beverley soon joined him in France and they decided to visit Provence. There they were overwhelmed by the beauty and character of the region, by the warm climate and by the cascades of Bougainvillea and other flowers. They found a ruined farmhouse which they called Le Clé des Champs in Valbonne and made it their home. (Le Clé des Champs is a French expression for sleeping outdoors.)

Meanwhile, following the publication of his models in Asahi Graf, the first public
exhibition of Yoshizawa’s folding was held in the Gallery of the Toden Service Center in the Ginza, which is the main shopping district of Tokyo. It was sponsored by Tokyo Electric Power. Yoshizawa folded many new models to be displayed in the exhibition and at last the Japanese public had the opportunity of seeing Yoshizawa’s magical and revolutionary paperfolding for themselves.


When Gershon Legman heard from Yohizawa about the exhibition in the Ginza, Legman immediately thought how wonderful it would be if an exhibition of Yoshizawa’s could be held in France. The inside back-flap of the dust cover of the first,1956 printing of Robert Harbin’s “Paper Magic”, says: “During 1955 an amazing exhibition of Japanese paper models was exhibited in Paris (and there is some likelihood that this exhibition may eventually visit London!)”. Unfortunately this statement was already out-of-date. While there are indications that Legman did plan to hold an exhibition in Paris the arrangements fell through. Legman mentioned that he gave a few demonstrations in Paris, but that was all. Yoshizawa himself said that he sent his models but that they arrived too late for the exhibition in Paris, but it seems unlikely that plans for such an exhibition in ever made much progress. Nor did anything come of any hope that the exhibition would visit London. It seems that Legman was confronted by the difficulties met by all private individuals have when they try to organise an exhibition in a large city.

Eventually, it became possible to arrange for an exhibition of the work of Yoshizawa to be shown at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. Amsterdam was an unlikely venue, for Legman had no apparent connections with Holland. Possibly Yoshizawa was under the impression that Legman was organising an exhibition to be held in Paris, and he agreed to send the models he had shown in Tokyo to Legman. Following the exhibition in the Ginza, two or three Japanese women’s magazines had published series of instructions for models created by him and he used all of the money he had received for this in payment of postage. He carefully packed the models, each in a separate cardboard protector and sent the parcel by the Hankyu air carrier. Fortunately an exhibition in Amsterdam did take place with the help of a Mr. Felix Tikotin and the models sent by Yoshizawa were exhibited instead in Amsterdam instead of in Paris.

Yoshizawa’s first book, Atarashii Origami Geijutsu (“New Origami Art”) was printed in 1953, but issued in 1954, before the exhibition took place in Amsterdam. One of the introductions was written by Tadasu Iizawa, the Chief Editor of Asahi Graf. The publishers later prepared some copies for Westerners and an additional introduction in English was stapled into the book. In it Yoshizawa wrote that he had avoided the use of scissors because he did not want his origami works to transgress beyond the field of “paper folding”. He wrote: “The art of Origami should be differentiated from pure paper cutting. I did not color the patterns nor draw lines on them. That is, I did not add eyes and noses on the face part of my patterns. All of such additional touches deprive the Origami art of its symbolic beauty.” The book was one of quite simple folding, but all the models were of Yoshizawa’s creation. The book also used Yoshizawa’s system of diagrams, using dotted lines and arrows. Legman brought his copy of this book to Amsterdam and he hoped to find a publisher for it there or in Paris, London or Helsinki. Nothing ever came of these hopes. Soon afterwards Yoshizawa published other small booklets of simple folding. However, the most advanced and most influential of his books published in the 1950s was Origami Dokuhon I (also spelt “Origami Tokuhon”) in its first paper-backed edition. This was published in 1957 in a smaller format than the later reprint of 1967.

Legman received Yoshizawa’s models at his home in the south of France. He was able to hold a brief preliminary exhibition of Yoshizawa’s work in the garden of a studio at Cagnes-sur-Mer on the Riviera. Yoshizawa’s models were displayed for the first time in the West in the open air on tables and in trees. I have often wondered just how advisable it was to exhibit Yoshizawa’s precious models unprotected in the open air. It does rain sometimes even in the south of France and winds are liable to spring up. The thought of what might have happened becomes very poignant in the knowledge of the ultimate fate of the models following a later exhibition in New York.

The Stedelijk Museum is the “City” museum of Amsterdam. It now houses a collection of modern art and is also used for temporary exhibitions. The exhibition of Yoshizawa’s paperfolding was apparently opened at the Stedelijk Museum at the beginning of October, 1955. Gershon Legman presumably attended the opening of the exhibition (although this is not stated) and over its whole period the exhibition was a great success. It seems it may have been slow to start, but when reports about it began to reach the people of Amsterdam, crowds of visitors flocked in, both adults and children. Legman gave demonstrations of paper folding which were very popular and they attracted more visitors. The press attended and several Dutch newspapers and magazines printed reports.

The exhibition was honoured with a visit by Japanese Ambassador to the Netherlands, Suemasa Okamoto. He was very impressed and afterwards sent a report to the Japanese government. He also wrote to Yoshizawa an enthusiastic handwritten letter praising the exhibition of his work. The ambassador sent Yoshizawa copies of articles that were printed in the newspapers and magazines. Yoshizawa was deeply moved when Suemasa Okamoto told him that after the ill-feelings brought about by the War, the exhibition had helped to foster a better relationship between the Netherlands and Japan. It was probably this report that led to Yoshizawa being sent on later missions to many countries of the world as an ambassador for Origami and Japanese culture.

The newspaper and magazine reports did not begin to appear until November, so the press may not have been at the opening of the exhibition at the beginning of October. The earliest recorded report was a long one in the newspaper Utrechts Nieuwsblad dated12th November, 1955. When they eventually appeared the reports were all enthusiastic.

Not only was Yoshizawa mentioned by the papers, but they were also interested in Legman himself. They printed accounts of how, towards the end of the War, Legman had tried to rescue a cat from a tree, but had fallen and injured his ankle. During the enforced period of rest that had followed he had passed the time folding and refolding paper models that he knew from his youth. (Legman was especially fascinated by the “Lover’s Knot” or “Lotus”, which his school friend Cy Enfield had found in a book. Legman always rued the fact that he was never able to trace this book, but it was the search for it that sent him off on his intensive quest for books about paperfolding.) Curiously, some of the reports inaccurately described Legman as a professor at Harvard.

The newspaper reports also included a short mention of paperfolding in Japan and how it may, in the past, have been brought to the West by sailors, likely to have been Dutch sailors because the Dutch traded extensively with Japan. The reports also related how Yoshizawa had taught himself to fold; and how he had lived in poverty, but had persisted until at last he had been discovered at last and had become famous in Japan.

Most of the reports were illustrated with pictures of the exhibition and several of them showed Gershon Leman teaching paperfolding to groups of eager children.

The article in “Goed Nieuws” dated 17th December, 1955 paints a picture of one of Legman’s folding sessions:

“Everywhere he goes [Legman] teaches children the basic steps of paperfolding. And adults, too: parents who bring their children stand watching but then begin themselves.

“We did it too, in the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam: in about twenty minutes we patiently and carefully made a bird from thin red paper ten centimetres square – and when the bird was finished we could pull its tail and it started to flap its wings. Never yet has a child or an adult who has been taught by Mr. Legman been unable to make the flapping bird. More difficult to make is a horse from one sheet of paper, because the horse has four legs. And even more difficult is a newt or a lizard because of the crest on its back; or two fighting cocks

“An eleven-year-old boy, Appie Stokvis from Amsterdam discovered that every day brought something new. Like the sailors and Unamuno and Frobel before him, he became fascinated by the centuries-old art of paperfolding. He managed to make the difficult frog and he keeps on every day making something out of a piece of paper.”

There is little in the reports describing or commenting on the actual models on display, but some information can be obtained from the illustrations. The models are, in general, much more advanced than in Yoshizawa’s first book “Atarashii Origami Geijutsu”, published in the previous year, 1954. This book had been intended for beginners. One model that is illustrated in more than one newspaper report is a model of a bird feeding her chicks at the nest. It is a model that Yoshizawa called “Willow Tits” and was one that he folded again, perhaps several times. Another famous model is the mask of his own face. He said that he folded this because he was invited to come to the exhibition, but had been unable to do so, so he sent his portrait instead. The mask does look remarkably like its folder! Yoshizawa folded this model on later occasions and it has become a familiar icon of his art. This was not the only mask by Yoshizawa that was shown. He also sent several Noh masks. The report in Utrechts Niwewsblad for 12th November, 1953 comments: “This is the first exhibition of the Master in Western Europe. The number of exhibits has had to be restricted. For instance, there are only a few of the masks for the classic Noh drama. But please notice that these are not self-portraits, for in Japan an artist is identified by his type or mask”. It may be, however that Yoshizawa became so proficient at folding his own portrait because of his experience in folding Noh masks.

Another model illustrated in the papers is a horse. This horse was apparently folded from a single square of paper without any cuts. If this is so, it must have been folded either from a blintzed square or some other method of folding that would provide sufficient “points” for a head, a tail and four legs. That would make it one of the earliest models which used either the technique of blintzing or some other advanced technique to fold a true quadruped. (Yoshizawa said that he had folded thousands of three-legged animals, but destroyed them all!)

Other models illustrated in the journals were two fighting cocks and two scorpions confronting one another. Models which were mentioned, but not illustrated were a large inflated frog, grasshoppers, salamanders, boats and elephants, including an elephant only two centimetres high.

Some of the models from the same collection were also shown in New York in 1959, but they did not include all of the models on display at Amsterdam. Yoshizawa also sent further pieces to New York which he had folded specially for that exhibition. Accordingly what was shown in New York is little indication of what was shown in Amsterdam. However, we now have a much better idea of Yoshizawa’s collection of exhibits and the kinds of things he was folding at that time since a box of models were found among Gershon Legman’s effects following his death and which have now been returned to Yoshizawa.

It is uncertain how long the exhibition lasted. The Japanese Ambassador indicated that it was intended to last for only one month from the beginning of October. But the newspaper reports about the exhibition did not begin to be published until the November. Other indications suggest that the exhibition lasted for two months and Legman himself said “several months”. Nor do we know how long Gershon Legman remained in Amsterdam, but he said that he taught thousands of schoolchildren and adults, so he must have attended the exhibition for more than a brief period. He also wrote that foreign visitors had attended and had aroused interest in other counties.

Following the exhibition, all of Yoshizawa’s models were boxed up and taken back to Legman’s home in the south of France. He had hoped to take the models to England, but this proposal for an exhibition in England came to nothing. For the time being, and possibly in the hope that something would materialise, Legman retained all of Yoshizawa’s models at his home in the south of France.


Akira Yoshizawa has sent me copies of some of the newspaper and magazine articles that appeared in Holland at the time of the exhibition in Amsterdam and a Dutch friend has made translations of some of them. Paperfolding was certainly known in Holland, for many years before the exhibition. It is possible that Dutch sailors trading with the East brought back paperfolding with them and, indeed, there is a Dutch drawing of a small boy riding in a tiny Chinese Junk sailing in a teacup which dates from 1806. The Junk has one pointed end in the manner that is common in Japan. The Frobel kindergarten movement in the 19th century, which made a feature of paperfolding, also made its impact in Holland just as in other European countries and a Dutch lady, Elise van Calcar wrote a book called “De kline papierwerkers” in 1863. The first of its four sections was devoted to folding.

However, in 1955 there was nothing that could be described as an active paperfolding movement in Holland. The only participation of Dutch people in folding at the exhibition was in demonstrations and lessons given by Legman himself. While some of those who attended the exhibition may have cherished memories of it and may eventually have become members of future origami societies I have not found any accounts written by such people. So the exhibition did not directly lead to any movement or paperfolding in Holland. The Dutch paperfolding movement started some years later

The first Dutch paperfolder who came to the notice of folders in other countries was Amarins Hopman de Jong, a journalist who lived in the province of Friesland in the north of Holland. However, she did not discover origami until about 1966, when her husband bought her a book of paperfolding in Dutch. This was probably “Het Grote Vouwboek” by Aart van Breda which was published in 1963. (A translation into English with the title, “Paper Folding and Modelling”, was published in 1965.) Amerins quickly got in touch with Lillian Oppenheimer and with the British Origami Society and later was one of those folders who helped to found the Belgian-Netherlands Origami Society in 1979. These events took place long after the Exhibition of 1955. Amerins was privileged to meet Yoshizawa when he visited Holland towards the end of 1972, following his visit to England the previous October. But Amerins never mentioned the 1955 exhibition. Every paper folder was saddened when Amerins died from a brain tumour on 17th December, 1981 at the age of 44.

In addition to the reports in the Dutch papers, there was another report of the exhibition in the Italian newspaper, “La Patria Unita” but not until 15th January, 1956. A copy was sent to me by Roberto Morassi of Florence. It is not clear how it came to be published so far away from Holland and it is an article mainly about Gershon Legman but it gives further light on the exhibition and illustrates some of the models displayed there. Just as in Holland, there is no suggestion that either this article or the Amsterdam exhibition led directly to the Italian origami movement when it started in 1977. This article describes Gershon Legman as a medical doctor and a psychologist, although he was neither of these.

Another echo of the exhibition came in a maagazine published as far away as Argentina, where there was an illustrated article in the magazine “Munda Argentina”, dated 18th July, 1956. The article did not mention the exhibition in Amsterdam, but it was illustrated by several of the same photographs. A clue to the responsibility for the article is given by a note that the photographs were provided by Ligia Montoya.


While Yoshizawa was ultimately the inspiration for the modern origami movement, this could not happen until the paperfolders of the world were able to communicate with one another. Already by 1955 Gershon Legman had begun the process by getting in touch with Yoshizawa and with Dr. Vicente Solorzano in Argentina. He later became introduced to Ligia Montoya, another Argentinean folder. Before 1953, when he was still living in the United States, Legman had already made an effort to trace other paperfolders, all of them, until then, folding in isolation. Legman’s main way of contacting people was by personal enquiry, but he also relied heavily on the stage magicians who could easily be traced through the many magical magazines. But only a few magicians were really interested. They included Jay Marshall of Chicago (later the proprietor of Magic Inc.) and Martin Gardner who won fame as the author of the recreational mathematics column in “Scientific American”, a series that began with an article about Flexagons in December, 1956. Actual creative paperfolders were very few but significantly included Jack Skillman and George Rhoades. The other well-known American folders such as Samuel Randlett, Fred Rohm and Neal Elias did not become interested in paperfolding until later, after the formation of the Origami Center in New York in 1958.

In England, Robert Harbin, himself a magician, started presenting paperfolding on television in 1955, in the feature “Mr. Left and Mr. Right” on the children’s teatime television programme “Jigsaw”. Only Harbin’s hands appeared as he folded a chosen model. I saw only one programme and I found the folding difficult to follow, but the appearance of paperfolding on television made a big impact. About the same time Robert Harbin was engaged to play the part of a magician in a film, “The Limping Man”. It was sheer coincidence that the producer of this film was Cy Enfield, the school-friend of Gershon Legman who had shown him the Lover’s Knot and who still kept in touch with him. Like Legman, he had left the United States because of McCarthy witch-hunts. Cy Enfield was an amateur conjuror, but he knew a little paperfolding, so when he saw Harbin filling in time between the shots by folding paper, his immediate reaction was to put Harbin and Legman in touch with each other. This link-up was just in time for Legman to pass on to Harbin information which Harbin would use in his book “Paper Magic” in 1956. Legman told Harbin about the 1955 exhibition and also about Yoshizawa. Harbin quoted Legman’s words in “Paper Magic”: “Akira Yoshizawa is far and away the greatest folder in the world and devoted to his this delicate and graceful art form to an extent which it is hardly possible to believe”.

Harbin’s contact with Legman took place too soon for him to be able to include any of Yoshizawa’s models, in “Paper Magic”, published in 1956 because the book was already at an advanced stage of preparation when Harbin first heard form Legman. Quite apart from the need to obtain copyright permission, Harbin’s book also used the free hand drawings of Rolf Harris instead of Yoshizawa’s system of dotted lines and arrows. Even so “Paper Magic” was like no other book on paperfolding that had appeared before. Most important, although it contained many traditional folds, it wholly it embraced Yoshizawa’s concept of Creative paperfolding.


Lillian Oppenheimer’s interest in paperfolding was revived around 1953, when, at last, she discovered how to fold the Flapping Bird. (The precise date is not known.) With her friend Frieda Lourie she started to teach paperfolding to anyone and everyone prepared to learn. They began to make friends who were also interested in the art, including another magician, the Revd. Robert Neale, who, like Frieda, worked at the Belle Vue Hospital in New York. One of Lillian’s sons was William Kruskal (Bill), who was a mathematician and had spent some time at the Statistical Laboratory at Cambridge University in England. Bill had caught something of his mother’s enthusiasm for paperfolding. At Cambridge he made a friend named Harry Daniels to whom he imparted his knowledge of paperfolding. Robert Harbin’s. “Paper Magic” was not published until after Bill returned to the United States. However, Harry came across the book as soon as it was published in England and told Bill about it. Bill was able to obtain a copy direct from the publishers. He was very impressed by the book, describing it as “the first serious and systematic treatment of paper-folding that I have ever seen”. Realising that the book would be of even greater interest to Lillian than to himself, he passed it on to her.

Lillian was most impress and excited by the contents of “Paper Magic”. For her it greatly extended the known extent of the realm of paperfolding. Then another remarkable coincidence took effect. Lillian had a daughter, Rosaly Evnine, who had married an Englishman and who lived in London. So, the next year, 1957, Lillian flew across the Atlantic to visit Rosaly and her grandchildren but also to enable her to pay a personal visit to Robert Harbin. She was also able to seek out the elusive Thoki Yenn in Copenhagen. Thoki Yenn was not then a paperfolder, but Robert harbin had mentioned him in “Paper Magic”.


So the web of paperfolding now spread around the world. It included Akira Yoshizawa in Japan, Dr Vicente Solorzano and Ligia Montoya in Argentina, Gershon Legman in France, Robert Harbin in England and Martin Gardner, Jack Skillman, George Rhoads and Robert Neale in the United States, all of whom had previously been working in isolation. But always the person who was their inspiration and who kindled their enthusiasm for the new kind of paper folding was Akira Yoshizawa, whose work had been displayed so impressively in Amsterdam.

Lillian Oppenheimer’s enthusiasm for paperfolding (or “Origami” as she now began to call it, adopting the word from the Japanese) was redoubled on 27th July, 1958 when an article about her by the distinguished journalist Meyer Berger appeared in the New York Times. It was followed by invitations to appear on chat shows on television. As a result of the great interest that this unexpected publicity aroused, Lillian founded the Origami Center of New York on 6th October, 1958. From the start, the Origami Center adopted Yoshizawa’s ideas, not least his concept of creative origami, his system of diagrams and his basic rule of “no cutting”. However, there was no enthusiasm in the West for his models folded from two squares of paper joined together. Lillian also began to issue a newsletter called “The Origamian” which carried the knowledge of the new kind of paperfolding and of Yoshizawa far beyond New York. Very soon a new generation of creative folders with wholly innovative ideas of their own were transforming paperfolding throughout the United States.

Coincidentally, in 1958, the Cooper Union Museum of New York was planning to hold in the summer of 1959, an exhibition, mainly of mathematical paperfolding made by the students of the schools attached to the museum. Lillian was invited to contribute a section of Origami. She turned for help to Gershon Legman and Akira Yoshizawa. Yoshizawa asked Legman to send to Lillian the models he had sent him for the exhibition in Amsterdam. Legman did so and, furthermore, Yoshizawa sent Lillian more models direct from Japan. They included a large-sized Ostrich and Peacock.

In the meantime, Lillian flew round the world on a grand origami mission, first to Britain, then to mainland Europe, and then to Japan where she met Yoshizawa in person. The final choice of the models and the setting up of the exhibition was largely in the hands of the Cooper Union Museum authorities, but Lillian returned to New York in time for the opening of the exhibition, which was called “Plane Geometry and Fancy Figures”. It was planned to take place on 30th May but was actually opened on 1st June, 1959. The origami exhibits were not limited to those sent by Yoshizawa, but other folders of the worldwide web also contributed. The exhibits were selected by the museum authorities from among the models provided by Lillian Oppenheimer and others. The number of models exhibited was not large and the catalogue of the exhibition lists only 198 models of which 44 were by Yoshizawa. The next highest number of origami models was that of Giuseppe Baggi, of whom 31 models were shown. From this it is apparent that less than half of Yoshizawa’s models that were sent to New York for exhibition were actually shown. Nevertheless, Yoshizawa’s models were the ones that made by far the greatest impression.

Apart from the origami, there were exhibits prepared by the Cooper Union School of Engineering and the Cooper Union School of Design, many of them models of mathematical structures and exercises in design. There were exhibits illustrating modern industrial design that were based on folding. There were also old books, and miscellaneous items which showed the development of pleated folding from fans to napkin folding and nuns’ headdresses.

The exhibition was a remarkable success and greatly exceeded that of any previous summer exhibition at the Cooper Union Museum. The catalogue of the exhibition had an introduction written by Edward Kallop, who had been inspired to do research into some very interesting and unusual aspects of the history of paperfolding.


Like Gershon Legman, in Europe, Lillian Oppenheimer hoped that it would be possible to take the exhibition of Yoshizawa’s folding to other cities in North America. Like Gershon Legman, she failed. The only exhibition she was able to arrange was at Princeton, where another of her sons, Martin David Kruskal was a distinguished professor of mathematics at the university. His wife, Mrs. Laura Kruskal was (and still is) an enthusiastic paperfolder. However, it was a small exhibition that lasted only a short time and it took place in Gallery 100, which was a private establishment. After the exhibition Yoshizawa’s folds were boxed up again and returned to Lillian’s apartment in New York where Alice Gray saw them during her first visit to Lillian’ apartment.

Lillian made one more attempt to exhibit Yoshizawas’s folds and she arranged to hold a small exhibition which took place in the auditorium of the Japan Center in New York. Both Americans and Japanese attended. Unfortunately, the exhibition closed in disaster when, one-by-one, some people unknown began to pick up exhibits as souvenirs, thinking they as they were only made of paper they were of no value. Others followed suit and before Lillian could intervene all of the models had been taken.

Mrs Oppenheimer was profoundly embarrassed by the incident and was at a loss to explain what had happened either to Gershon Legman or to Yoshizawa. She could not bring her self to mention it to them. Because I came to know of the concern of both Legman and Yoshizawa I made a point of asking Lillian about it when she last visited London in 1989. She told me the whole story. When I next met Yoshizawa I explained the unfortunate incident to him. He was clearly distressed and bewildered that such a lapse of security could have taken place. I did not, however, feel free to make public during her lifetime the information that Mr. Oppenheimer had entrusted to me.


Following the death of Gershon Legman on 23rd February, 1999 I corresponded with his widow, Mrs. Judith Legman, who continued to live at Le Clé des Champs in the south of France. I was able to tell her the history of her husband’s immense contribution to paperfolding and in return she filled in some gaps in my knowledge.

Then in June 2003 I unexpectedly received a letter from Mrs. Legman to ask if the British Origami Society had an archive of origami materials because she had found a box of folded models by Yoshizawa among her late husband’s effects. I immediately telephoned Dave Brill, who was then the Chairman of the BOS and he wrote to Mrs. Legman to say that the BOS would be delighted if she chose to entrust the Yoshizawa models to the Society. In due course, Dave received the boxes of models, promising to hold them as a historical record for the benefit of the whole origami community.

Following this, Dave Brill took photographs of the models and two of them were printed in copies of “British Origami”, the British Origami Society’s magazine. An Owl appeared in issue 221 for August 2003 and the Self-portrait in issue 222 for the following October. Yoshizawa is a Vice-President of the British Origami Society and receives all copies of “British Origami”. He was astonished to see photographs of his own models that he had folded fifty years ago and which he had thought had been lost. The only explanation could be that Legman had not sent to New York the whole of the models he had received for the Amsterdam exhibition, but had kept some back. Yet when Yoshizawa visited Legman in the south of France in 1972 Legman told him that he had sent all of Yoshizawa’s models to Mrs Oppenheimer with the exception of three mice which had been placed in front of them on the table. The BOS had presumed that the models held by Legman had been given to Legman and that they were his own property, the ownership of which had passed to his widow but it was now clear that this was not so. In the light of this the Society unhesitatingly and gladly returned the models to Yoshizawa They were only 40 of the 300 models that he had originally sent to Gershon Legman but Yoshizawa received them with delight. They were examples of his folding in the 1950s, a period from which he had not retained any examples. Yoshizawa was pleased to find that the models were still enclosed in the protective cardboard containers that he had made for them and that for the most part they were still in excellent condition. Yoshizawa has said that there are plans to open a Museum of Origami at which his models will be shown to the public.


Important though the Amsterdam exhibition was, it was not the direct cause of the development of Origami in Europe or in any other part of the world. The real reason for the new origami movement was the build-up of links between the world’s paperfolders at a time when communications had become far easier, both by correspondence and through air travel. The time was ripe for a new era in paperfolding. The link-ups between folders were fortuitous and sometimes depended on very unlikely coincidences, but because of those coincidences, they were surprisingly rapid. The building up of a web of folders round the world who were informed enough to appreciate the new developments was encouraged by three strong personalities, Gershon Legman, Robert Harbin and Lillian Oppenheimer. None of them was a great paperfolder, but each of them was an enthusiastic lover of paperfolding and was able to use that love and enthusiasm to start a world-wide movement. By the time the exhibition was held in New York, links had been forged between paperfolders in many parts of the world and the origami revolution was well under way.

But behind all of the developments of paperfolding in Europe and the United States was Akira Yoshizawa, with his single minded devotion to origami and to the ideas which he perceived were essential to the art. He was the inspiration, but without other people he could not have brought a new world origami movement into being. But through his exhibitions and his books he was able to inspire folders throughout the world. The exhibition in Amsterdam in 1955 was the focal point which enabled the knowledge of Akira Yoshizawa to be brought the West. As a result a new movement for creative origami took fire and it still burns even more brightly today as each year passes and as each year brings the discovery of new ideas, new unexpected techniques and constantly renewed creativity. It is all a monument to Akira Yoshizawa. It was he who unlocked the door to the vast and unimagined possibilities of paperfolding as an art And we continue to pay homage to him and his genius.

And so, with the return of some, at any rate, of his models to Yoshizawa we come round a full circle. We come back to the days when the magazine Asahi Graf presented Yoshizawa to the Japanese public and when he worked so hard to fold models for his first public exhibition in the Ginza, an exhibition that was followed in turn by the exhibitions in Amsterdam and in New York. It is a story that is full of unlikely coincidences and stranger than any fiction!

David Lister

5th March, 2005

Corrected 8th March, 2005.

All contents are © BOS and/or individual contributors. The BOS is a registered charity (293039). Site copyright & disclaimer. Site design courtesy of 12testing. No part of this website may be reproduced in any form (including e-books) without specific permission.