Giant Origami Fractal

A three-dimensional, modular origami fractal has taken form for the first time in the history of the world—and perhaps the universe—at the USC Libraries in Los Angeles.

Led by the libraries’ Discovery Fellow Margaret Wertheim, USC students, faculty, staff, students from nearby middle schools, and other volunteers built the level-three Mosely Snowflake Fractal out of 49,000 folded business cards. The fractal takes its name from engineer and mathematical origami artist Jeannine Mosely, who designed the construction process. The snowflake is a relative of the famous Menger Sponge, which Mosely also built from business cards in 2006.

To break the construction process into repeatable modules that origami novices could build, Mosely created a software model to visualize the object, assess its structural integrity, and calculate the required thickness and number of business cards. USC community volunteers then assembled thousands of basic cubes, each made out of six cards. Others linked the cubes together to form more complex modules, which in turn connect and create even more complex structures.

The final object measures roughly six cubic feet, weighs more than 120 pounds, and resembles—at some angles—a giant snowflake. It took seven months to complete, from February through August 2012.

The snowflake is the culminating project of the inaugural USC Libraries Discovery Fellowship. USC Libraries’ dean Catherine Quinlan established the fellowship to highlight libraries as places where art, science, math, and library collections converge to encourage discovery and creative works.

Discovery Fellow Wertheim describes the fractal as an object that “resides at the boundary of mathematics, engineering, and physical making. Like a fantastic book, it opens your eyes to linkages to disciplines that are often kept far apart.” Wertheim also co-directs Los Angeles’ Institute for Figuring.

The USC Libraries unveiled the fractal at a public reception and exhibition opening in September on the USC University Park campus. You can also make your own level-one Mosely Snowflake.

Nathan Masters and Hugh McHarg of the USC Libraries.


  1. “first time in the history of the world” … Apart from the entire plant kingdom… And possibly all of life?

    1.  I think the “first time” is referring to this particular fractal; clearly it can’t be any fractal.

      Congratulations J9!

      1. i think you must be right about it being for this particular fractal, since i’ve had a level 2 menger sponge (modular, made out of business cards) sitting on my desk for a few years now.

    1.  Then no-one has ever drawn a fractal either… because they didn’t use an infinite amount of ink/pixels.

       Here in the reasonable world, some of you are welcome to insist on calling this a limited resolution rendering of a mathematical object that has an infinite amount of detail.  The rest of us will skip to the chase and use the same name for the object and its rendering, where the context is clear and there’s no confusion.

  2. We have one of these – slightly smaller – in our office. After moving offices and we had a bunch of extra cards, so instead of chucking them out, the Creative department stuck them all together. We made the sponge.

  3. I had the pleasure of attending a lecture/workshop by Jeannine Mosely at MIT in the mid-1980’s: “Paperfolding Stellated Polyhedra”.  Her talent for designing simple paper modules that assemble into beautiful mathematical shapes is sheer genius.

  4. When I first saw this article on Boing Boing I thought “this reminds me of that person who made a Menger sponge out of business cards a while back.”

    And it is that person.

    1. Strictly speaking, Origami involves one uncut unadorned square of paper. In practice, each of those five qualities is accepted or rejected on a widely variable basis.

      Cutting is most widely frowned upon (though many early models relied on it).

      Almost no one cares if the paper is decorated, but most prefer to have the figure’s features defined by the folds (stripes and spirals good, drawn eyes or faces bad).

      The vast majority of folders use paper, but many of us use a wide variety of materials including sheet metal, thin sheets of wood and an assortment of edible options.

      Most models are built for squares, but many use a variety of rectangles (when folding currency or the euro-prevalent A4) and some even use triangles, pentagons and hexagaons.

      Lastly, while the bulk of origami, especially organic forms, uses a single sheet, there are countless innovative geometric designs that use multiple sheets. While many of these models are hypothetically possible with a single sheet, the necessary thickness would make them impossible in reality. Modular origami is a widely practiced subset of the art. Models that use more than one sheet where one would do are less appreciated by practitioners of the art.

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