MIT Hobby Shop Instructor is an Origami Master

Brian Chan creates intricate works of art with paper.

October 10th, 2013

Origami representation of the MIT Mens et Manus seal, by Brian Chan.

Click to view larger: Origami representation of the MIT Mens et Manus seal, by Brian Chan. Photo by Tom Gearty.

Mention “origami”, the Japanese art of paper folding, and most people picture colorful paper cranes. To Brian Chan, a simple piece of paper holds endless possibilities for creating intricate works of art. In 2007, he won the MIT OrigaMIT Club contest for his origami design of the MIT Mens et Manus seal.

Made from a single, uncut piece of square origami paper, it took Chan more than a year to design the crease pattern and twenty hours to fold into the seal. A highly condensed version of the folding process is featured in this six minute video, “The Making of Mens et Manus“, wryly subtitled, “in 3 Easy Steps.” Mind and hand, indeed.

Growing up in Millbrae, California, Chan played with Legos and Transformers, read Popular Science magazine, and enjoyed experimenting with paper and clay crafts. He recalls being aware of MIT from a very young age, mostly through mentions of MIT in Popular Science. This love for tinkering inspired him to join a FIRST Robotics Team in high school. “That was probably my first experience creating something that had a mechanical function designed to fulfill a goal,” says Chan, “and it was my first experience with a real machine shop.”

When he arrived at MIT in 1998, he sought out MIT’s various student shops where he could work on projects that did not have a deadline and were not necessarily for a class.

Three mechanical engineering degrees later, Chan is an instructor at the MIT Hobby Shop. He has a deep appreciation for the pressures felt by MIT students and the respite student shops can provide. “I think they are an essential part of many student and community members’ lives, especially at a place like MIT where creating is so important.”

He often advises students to have patience with the design process, especially when they are in a hurry to start making something. “A lot of design work is making things that don’t work, drawing things that don’t work, drawing a whole notebook of things that don’t work. All of those completely failed inventions, or sketches of ugly creations that never got built are artistic works. The entropy that’s created is also a document of the learning process, part of the final work.”

When Chan is not helping students with their projects, he pursues his own hobbies, making musical instruments like the two-stringed Chinese erhu, banjos, lutes, and even a folding ukulele. “I build them better than I play them,” says Chan.

The Mens et Manus origami seal is on display along the Infinite Corridor in Building 8.

The seal isn’t the only MIT-themed piece Chan has created. Watch him fold a Brass Rat.

See more of Brian Chan’s work at his website.

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The MIT Hobby Shop celebrates its 75th anniversary with a newly refurbished and expanded space on Friday, October 11:

* Open house at the shop, 2:00 – 4:30 p.m.
* Gala reception at Sala de Puerto Rico, 5:00 – 7:30 p.m.
* More details and registration

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