Making a Life-Size Origami Elephant

Slate’s design blog.
Dec. 13 2013 1:18 PM

Folding a Life-Size Origami Elephant Out of a Single Sheet of Paper  

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Swiss artist Sipho Mabona will use the template for this origami elephant to create a life-size version.

Courtesy of Sipho Mabona

Origami has always been an artform that's fun to watch. But now one Swiss artist is attempting to elevate the concept of origami as performance art with an Indiegogo campaign to help him realize his whimsical ambition to fold a life-size elephant from a single sheet of paper.

The Lucerne-based Sipho Mabona folded his first paper airplane at age 5 and has since made a career producing stunning origami animals, roses, human figures, and insects, among other more abstract creations. He has shown his work and taught origami workshops around the world.

Now the 33-year-old artist is appealing to Indiegogo's crowdfunding angels to help him realize his ambition of folding a life-size elephant out of a single sheet of 50-by-50 foot paper.* (So far he’s raised $13,843 of his $24,000 goal with three weeks to go.) Mabona says his aim is to show what a single sheet of paper can do by using it to create a replica of one of the world’s most imposing land-dwelling creatures.

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A crease pattern used to fold the elephant took a month to work out.

Courtesy of Sipho Mabona

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Mabona told me by phone that he developed the pattern for the elephant in about a month, a process that was sped up by having already worked out how to make patterns for origami tigers, bears, and rhinos. He said that his process is a combination of precise geometry and artistic intuition. To make a work of origami, he makes all the folds in the paper before refolding along the crease lines to assemble a finished 3-D object. The beauty of a piece of paper with intricate crease lines has also inspired him to produce crease patterns as wall art and ceramic plates.

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The crease pattern used to make the elephant is a work of art in its own right.

Courtesy of Sipho Mabona

The artist said that this is the most ambitious project he has ever attempted. “I’ve never folded anything larger than 6-by-6 meters [20-by-20 feet],” Mabona said. “But in principle the whole folding part stays pretty much the same. I’m not too worried about the beginning, the folding of the base. But the transitions, the shaping of the body and making it three dimensional—that’s what I’m worried about.”

Mabona expects the process will take about two weeks. The project will require three assistants and the elephant will be shored up by an aluminum frame and sealed with white acrylic paint. He plans to set up in a local art venue and provide a live online video stream of the process. If all goes well, he hopes to repeat the performance in other venues.

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Swiss artist Sipho Mabona with a baby elephant

Courtesy of Sipho Mabona

Check out this video to learn more about the project and for a glimpse of the giant crease pattern that will be used to make the elephant.

*Correction, Dec. 16, 2013: This post originally misstated the dimension of the paper being used to make the elephant. It is 50-by-50 feet, not meters.

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