Art + Science

Art + Science

Erik And Martin Demaine, Portrait

Erik and Martin Demaine apply mathematical rigor to uncommon origami. Photo: Cary Wolinsky

With their rhythmic curves and graceful twists, the hand-pleated paper sculptures of Erik and Martin Demaine look so sensuous, so lyrically lovely, it’s safe to say most of us wouldn’t recognize them as math problems. But, in fact, that’s what they are.

For Erik, it’s the under-­lying geometry of the pieces – moments of equilibrium, captured – that gives them their aesthetic allure. “Ultimately, that beauty must come from mathematics,” he says. “By trying to stay bent at the creases and folded flat everywhere else, the paper naturally makes these beautiful curved forms.” 

If ever a pair personified the dynamic interplay of art and science, it’s the Demaines. A child prodigy, Erik, now 33, is a professor of computer science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a job he got when he was just 20. His father, Martin, an artist-in-residence at MIT, is both a mathematician and a glassblower. Working closely together, they blend handwork and materials with theory and numbers, in a spirit of discovery and play. Science inspires their art, while art informs their scientific re-search. Their curved-crease paper sculptures, some of which are in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art, evolved  from their interest in the centuries-old craft of origami. Understanding how things fold and unfold, they believe, holds untold potential for practical applications in everything from robotics to medicine to the design of a safer airbag for our cars.

It’s also a lot of fun. “We’re just curious to explore things,” says Erik. “That is a scientist way, but I think it’s also a craftsman way, to understand the material and see what’s possible, push the limits.” Working with their hands helps them visualize possibilities, he says, which is  “actually really critical for solving a math problem. You need to have some intuition, some sense of what might be true, before you know what to do.”

“We think of the creativity required for science as being the same as for art,” says Martin, 72. “If you want science to work, it has to be elegant and beautiful, just like art. A lot of art, to work, has to be balanced and well structured. I don’t think it’s that important what you call it, but you should enjoy what you’re doing, do it out of pleasure and fun and wanting to share it with other people.” Much of what he and Erik try to teach is how to be creative in any endeavor, “whether it be cooking, conversation, or travel.”

Originally from Halifax, Nova Scotia, the Demaines have always done things creatively – and differently. In the late 1960s and early ’70s, Martin was a pioneer of the studio glass movement in Canada, with the first one-man hot-glass shop in the country. “Those were exciting days,” he recalls, “because we didn’t know what we were doing. We taught ourselves processes.” Later he became a goldsmith and jeweler. A single parent, he homeschooled Erik, devising for his exceptionally bright boy an eclectic, free-form education that included travel around North America and exposure to people from all sorts of backgrounds and occupations. Father and son grew extraordinarily close, as their lives became a shared adventure in learning. They invented their own language based on whistling (they still use it today), and for a time had a puzzle company called Erik and Dad. When, at age 12, Erik enrolled at Dalhousie University, Martin sat in on his classes, cultivating his own longtime interest in math. He did the same when Erik went on to the University of Waterloo to earn his master’s and PhD.

During graduate school in the late 1990s, Erik was looking for mathematical challenges, “good problems to solve.” His dad showed him an old origami trick he’d read about years before in Martin Gardner’s popular Mathematical Games column in Scientific American magazine. Performed by Houdini, it involved folding a piece of paper flat, then making one straight, complete cut, to produce a five-pointed star. The magic of folding captured Erik’s imagination. He set out to prove that any shape made of straight sides could be achieved by the fold-and-cut method, and, working with his father and his PhD advisor Anna Lubiw, he succeeded. Next, he proved (again, with his father, and with mathematician Joseph Mitchell) that any straight-sided shape could be folded (without cuts) from a large enough square of paper.

It’s all vastly more complex and momentous than it sounds, but the point is, Erik’s groundbreaking research helped launch the field of computational origami, and won him the MIT post, not to mention a Mac­Arthur Fellowship (known as the “genius” grant), among other honors. The resulting surge of innovation in origami science happened to dovetail with a new origami art movement that had begun in the ’90s, as artists took the form to unprecedented heights of intricacy and expression. When the Demaines began making their curved-crease sculptures, they became part of that scene, too. (They were profiled, along with Robert J. Lang and other major figures in modern origami, in the 2008 documentary film Between the Folds.) Martin went with Erik to MIT, at first as a visiting scientist. “Then, when they saw how cool he was on the art side, they created the artist-in-residence position for him,” Erik says proudly.

The Demaines have their offices at the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, a Frank Gehry-designed building on the MIT campus in Cambridge. “Often at night, we’ll kind of take over some of the lounges and spread out and make things,” says Erik. The institute, of course, leads in technology – it’s the “T” in MIT, after all – but it’s also a stimulating environment for art, offering grants, pottery and glass studios, and lots of fabrication shops.

“It’s so supportive of the arts, it’s just remarkable. That opened the door in a dramatic way for us to become who we are,” says Martin. “The big challenge in craft today is how to combine the old and new,” he adds. “We want new technology to be accepted into the craft world. But you still need some combination with the traditional skills to make it work well.” 

The Demaines take advantage of rapid-prototyping tools to play with new ideas; in experiments with folding sheet metal, for instance, they’ve used a computer-driven water-jet cutter to score creases. When it comes to the paper sculptures, though, “we really like to make it,” Erik says. “There’s something very enriching about creating something by hand. It feels good.”

At the MIT Glass Lab, they enjoy giving that medium an unconventional spin. They’ve put folded paper inside glass vessels for a ship-in-a-bottle effect. (“We imagine these as kind of the thoughts inside your head,” says Erik.) They’ve folded hot glass itself, grabbing on with Kevlar gloves and manipulating it directly, or using tools and molds. Martin has even blown glass wearing a blindfold, a don’t-try-this-at-home stunt he admits was extreme, but that nonetheless gave him a new sensitivity to the material. (“We joke that it was one of the few times I didn’t burn myself.”) Occasionally Erik and Martin play in a band that uses glass objects as musical instruments.

Collaboration is key to their process, and deeply rewarding, say the Demaines, who have worked with hundreds of colleagues on various projects over the years. They’d like to see sharing ideas and skills become as common in the arts as it is in science. One of their many interests is improv comedy. In that world, there’s a technique called “Yes, and…” It’s when one performer takes information offered by another – a line, a gesture – and builds on it to move a scene forward. That, says Martin, pretty much sums up his and Erik’s all-embracing philosophy and approach.

“We like to open doors and see what’s there.”

Erik and Martin Demaine are among 45 master folders featured in “Folding Paper: The Infinite Possibilities of Origami,” a touring exhibition organized by Meher McArthur, on view at the Bellevue Arts Museum, Washington, through September 21. Joyce Lovelace is contributing editor for American Craft.