Flat-Pack Flats

09.20.13

Origami Shoe Design to Revolutionize Footwear

One-piece, one-material, printable design could change the way shoes are made all over the world. Nina Strochlic meets the designers.

A new 2-D concept for footwear could bring affordable, environmentally friendly shoes to your mailbox.

One day, you’ll open a flat package delivered from a nearby production factory, take out a piece of pliable biodegradable material, cut along the pattern lines, fold it into a shoe, and slip it on your foot. That’s if all goes according to the plan of 23-year-old designer Horatio Yuxin Han.

The concept is simple: it’s a one-piece, one-material, printable shoe design, which, when cut out from a pliable material, folds like origami into a sturdy-looking sandal or closed-toe flat. Han and four other just-graduated designers are working on taking the patterns they built in a shoe-design class at New York’s Pratt Institute this past spring to the masses with UNifold. But the uses are more nuanced. The venture could, depending on the direction chosen, bring shoe production to a local level, cut down the environmental cost of footwear, and even put something on the feet of the estimated 300 million people without shoes.

The project was born from a challenge posed by visiting assistant professor Kevin Crowley, a 40-year industry veteran who’s been teaching classes at the Brooklyn-based design school for 13 years. Crowley says the department chair told him to “design shoes the way you think they should be designed.” So, he instructed his class on the concept of one-piece, printable footwear cut from foam material made of reclaimed bottles that can be recycled once the shoe wears out.

Over the next four months, Crowley brought in top designers from Perry and Timberland, who were, he says, blown away by the concept. “They said, ‘Kevin, what the hell are you trying to do here?’ And I said, ‘I’m trying to bring [shoe design] into the 21st century,’” he recalls proudly. It was also a rare way to make actual shoe production accessible to young designers without the pockets to start a typical production line, which can require millions of dollars in machinery.

In Crowley’s classroom, Han sketched out and built two designs. He posted his conceptual pictures on his online portfolio on Behance after graduating in 2013, and the affordable ease of the concept quickly gained traction. Soon after, companies were calling him wondering if he would be selling the blueprint.

“He just took this thing and ran with it,” Crowley says of Han, who he’s been coaching on business tactics, like the importance of settling on an ethos and selling point. “Do you want to tell an environmental story, or just make another fashion project?” Crowley asks.

Crowley’s frustration with the waste of making a shoe for mass production began in 1970, his first day on the job at Converse. He didn’t understand the need to spend millions on machinery and dyes when sturdy, attractive shoes could be made more simply. “Look at the Roman sandal,” he says. “They walked all over Europe and they wore sandals.

He told his class at the beginning that marketing such a shoe was “85 percent feasible.” Han is taking those odds. The most important aspects have yet to be decided on, like the material, which will have to undergo a series of durability tests. Hopefully the shoes will be biodegradable. The prototypes are built from a recyclable flat foam-rubber called ethylene vinyl acetate (EVA).

UNifold could, theoretically, provide a cheap and easy way for hundreds of millions of people without shoes to put something on their feet. The humanitarian aspect is an exciting prospect, on top of the environmental considerations and enormous cost efficiency the single-material design offers. For children in the developing world, not having shoes often means a stunted school attendance and health issues like hookworm and parasitic infections, which are transmitted via soil and estimated to affect 2 billion people.

They could, theoretically, provide a cheap and easy way for hundreds of millions of people without shoes to put something on their feet.

Han is intimidated by the distribution hurdles of this direction, which he says was pushed by a recent article on Mashable, and isn’t actually his primary objective at the moment. “This idea could be translated into that if we, or anyone, wants to push it,” he says. But he notes: “They used their imaginations a little too much.”

The group hopes to first focus on “bringing production back into the country.” With the fairly low-cost machinery—he cites a die-cut machine costing around $2,000 as the main expense—and no need for skilled labor, the investment needed is minimal and production could be a job creator as well. He also sees it connecting shoe designers across the world, where one in Hong Kong could email a design to someone in New York.

There’s no set timeframe yet for UNifold, as the designers are scattered across the East Coast doing various internships, but the design prospect is growing. “We are just college graduates,” said Han, who’s interning in Massachusetts for New Balance. “It’s the first time we’re thinking, ‘Hey, maybe there’s something in this project.’” Crowley’s glad the idea is out there and believes, if not Han and UNifold, someone will be able to make it work. “It’s a long ways from production,” he says.

As they fiddle away, they can rest assured future Pratt classes aren’t already rolling out similar designs. Crowley isn’t planning on resurrecting the single-piece concept in his classroom again quite yet. “I’m a designer, I get bored,” he says. Fall term, he’s teaching the same class, but this time there’s a new target he’s hoping to bring into the 21st century: stilts.