No Spectators: The Art of Burning Man” — FoldHaus

  • The members of FoldHaus bring their experience in mechanical engineering and product design in creating their folded structures and sculptures. As a collective, they are able to participate in something larger than what they would be able to achieve as individuals. Two FoldHaus founding members discuss their design process, the strength of creative collaboration, and the history of designing projects for the Playa. Learn more about No Spectators: The Art of Burning Man.

    JOERG STUDENT: Foldhaus is a group of people who love building stuff. All the founding members of Foldhaus have a background in mechanical engineering or product design, and most of us are working or used to work for the design firm IDEO that’s based in the San Francisco Bay Area.

    JESSE SILVER: Foldhaus started as a small group, but as our projects got bigger lots of volunteers started contributing to them. There’s a core group of us who have a plan and keep it going, and that makes it possible for so many others to be part of something much bigger than what any of us could achieve by ourselves.

    STUDENT: When I was in grad school, I explored the concept of transformation unfolding, and I became interested in origami and what hasn’t been done before. I ended up designing a large-scale origami shelter that was more lightweight and more structural than a tent using that origami shape.

    SILVER: The first project that Foldhaus brought to the Playa was the static kind of origami yurt. For the next year we wanted to bring something that would be out there in the open Playa away from people and tents and things like that. We also wanted to capture another aspect of the origami, which is the ability for it to be kinetic and for it to move. The plastic and light create these wonderful gradients and we really wanted to take advantage of those.

    STUDENT: The first project was Blumen Lumen. Blumen Lumen is a garden of ten flowers that are 20-foot-tall and that open and close and follow the wind.

    SILVER: We learned a lot from that project. For one how to actuate and anchor them into the ground so that they don’t blow away with roughly 60 mile an hour winds that you get in the desert, but we also learned how people react to them and how people want to interact with them. After more than ten exhibitions of them outside of Burning Man we really use those to help us draw more volunteers into future projects of ours.

    STUDENT: When we started our new project, which would eventually become Shrumen Lumen, we looked into a different origami technique. The technique is called origami magic ball, and what’s interesting about that is that it can move in multiple directions, so you can essentially form a cylinder of it or you can turn it into a pancake. We played around with those two shapes and it looked like a mushroom, and we actually thought it’s kind of cute.

    SILVER: From paper you’d ordinarily go to a bunch of designs in the computer, a computer-aided design, and we did for a lot of the mechanical parts and the internal structure, but it doesn't work so well when you try to model the origami plastic shell in the computer. For that, we had to go to full-scale plastic prototyping. The full-scale prototyping helped us to develop the shape we were looking for as well as refine the smooth transformation of the top of the mushroom between the two different states that it can achieve.

    STUDENT: We used CNC routers to cut the fold lines and all the holes but from there it was all hand folding and that required a lot of people because we had big sheets we needed to get through. It really was a team effort, not just the folding but also all the mechanical structure that’s underneath the skin. It was really great to have this super diverse team. For example, Jimmy who works in our IDEO shop and has 50 years of metal work experience. We have all these complicated angles in the mechanism, and he just made all these parts for us, so we’re really lucky to have him.

    SILVER: There are about 1,600 serial addressable LEDs in each mushroom. All of them are connected together via underground Ethernet. The light spiral of the stem and then there’s 12 LED strips in each mushroom head that come out radially from the center. Those LEDs are currently controlled by a mini mat and programed with MadMapper. People were really drawn to them. I think the combination of the lighting and the very smooth movement of the mushrooms kept people wondering whether they actually moved or whether it was the lighting. How to activate them was also fun to watch people figure out. They’d always have these games and kind of grouped together and see what would activate them or not. People would scream in delight, and they drop their jaw it was really the most rewarding part of it all.

    STUDENT: My favorite part at Burning Man is the backdrop you get and that’s why I love designing for the Playa, especially if there’s dust in the air you get this amazing gradient from dust to sky. You don’t know where it starts and where it ends and everything looks so surreal because the origami is surreal in itself and you have no perception of the scale it has. You only start to get to understand the size when you have people that show up and usually when people show up out of the dust they look like aliens, and everything is just really beautiful.

    SILVER: Foldhaus is already hard at work on our next big project, which promises to be even bigger and more immersive and maybe even more alien than anything we’ve worked on before. We’ll be showing it at Burning Man 2018.