Engineering paper: an interview with Bill Lee

The examples shown in these pictures all started with a flat sheet of paper and were folded into the amazing objects you see. I learned very early in life to respect the mental capacity to design and the skill it takes to make something.
– Bill Lee, 1/10/14

This is actually Nadia’s interview, but she’s feeling antagonistic toward the WordPress dashboard right now, so I’m slapping it together. The person she spoke with is Bill Lee, a retired engineer who comes to our library and orders fascinating books. He once persuaded me to knit a mobius strip out of plastic tubing. It was not fun (broke a needle), but I hope to see strange fluids traveling through it someday.

Bill has a spectacular collection of origami, all created by a man named Joe Hamamoto. Bill doesn’t do origami himself, but he loves it from an engineering perspective. He’s a very private person, so we were grateful that he was willing to answer Nadia’s emails and let me clamber all over his living room photographing these beautiful things.

One of my favorite things about Mr. Hamamoto’s art is that he uses things like old envelopes and calendars. I think Bill forgot to mention that (so I just did), but, as with Paige’s interview, I thought Bill’s story of how and why he acquired his treasures really didn’t need much editing, so here it is:

These examples of Origami came to me by way of my sister Doris Scott of San
Pedro, CA, who has been studying, folding and teaching Origami for several
years. These pieces were folded by her teacher Joe Hamamoto, more about him

My sister’s interest in folding began with her teaching a “gifted
class” of elementary students. She was looking for activities that would
challenge the students while providing a physical outcome that was fun
to make and that they would like to keep. While my sister
had been doing things with paper all her life, it was when our mother, Ethyl
Lee, who had been doing paper folding with a
Japanese friend, showed my sister some examples of folding that
Doris saw the perfect activity for her students. The folding was such a hit
and my sister enjoyed teaching the students folding so much that she began
to look for more ideas. While at an arts and crafts exposition she met
Mr. Joe Hamamoto who was exhibiting his work and folding. Mr. Hamamoto got
started folding after a career as an electronic design technician. He
decided that he would fold a thousand paper cranes for his daughter’s

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Relevant links:

Here’s one from Bill about origami in space, which, as Nadia says, makes the link between Bill and origami more obvious. Also, I found a book called Kusudama Origami, which appears to offer instructions for Hamamoto-like creations. There are only two library copies, according to Worldcat, one at the Library of Congress and one at the British Library in West Yorkshire, so if you just have to see it, you may have to get it on Amazon. For people like me, here are two sites with paper folding projects that wouldn’t require a decade of training: Kate Lilley’s page on accordion paper folding, and the most fun you can have with a piece of printer paper at


Little books and beads: Gallery #2

The first nine pictures are of Thurid’s little books. If you remember, from what I wrote in the earlier gallery post, she makes her own paper, too.

She sent me an email after the first post, saying that she liked reading my interpretations (such as they were) of her work, but that for her, they were just something that needed to be made, and she doesn’t attach any interpretation to them, which is what I guessed. All her work fires my imagination, though.

The last pictures are of a few beads from Thurid’s collection; she’s been saving them for decades, and restrings them endlessly. As Nadia said, no wonder she never wears the same necklace twice. They’re just pretty, I like them, here they are :)

Bird altars and treasure boxes: Gallery #1

I’ve known Thurid slightly for years, and I knew she made beautiful things out of paper, but I hadn’t seen many of them; they aren’t for sale. Thurid herself is graceful, charming and slightly mysterious. We never talked much until the day we decided to go ice skating. I think she reassured me that she wouldn’t fall down. The second time I passed her – I skate faster than I should – she was skating backwards, marking these perfect feathered ovals on the ice, white on white. It was so beautiful to watch. And so typical of her – little bits of hidden treasure.

Thurid was an ethnographic objects conservator. During an internship in Fairbanks, Alaska, where she found opportunities for entertainment somewhat limited, she ended up out in the woods one day, learning to make paper. They used a blender powered by a generator. She had always loved texture – she used to weave – but making paper and fabricating objects from it gave her the medium and the technique to make things that she really loved.

She talks about the effects she wants to produce, rather than the significance her creations have for her, but I did notice the altars she showed me all have something to do with birds, and they all have a similar aesthetic. They look fragile and earthy at the same time, and have a lot of layered but fairly monochromatic texture. I have no idea what that might mean; they are, however, the pieces she has saved over many, many years of making them.

The boxes are almost entirely paper, except for surface decorations – a little cloth and bone and stone and paint, sometimes. I thought the boxes themselves were wood, but they’re heavy cardboard. There is one in her house that she uses to save seeds from her garden, and they do seem made to hold meaningful things. Like the altars, they are precise, elaborate, strange, deliberately worn and supremely decorative: artifacts from a world that exists only in Thurid’s head. I know that sounds very romantic, but that’s how I feel when I look at them.

I’m not much of an interviewer; I’m a little uncomfortable asking a lot of questions. If you would like to ask Thurid better questions about the things she makes, I will forward her your emails via I’m working on another post with pictures of the little books she makes, and her collection of beads, which should be up by this weekend.