Maps

Paula Scher's Hand-Painted, Semi-Accurate Maps of America

The artist lets information guide expression in her latest show.

Image Mark Byrnes/CityLab
Mark Byrnes/CityLab

Frustrated with the amount of work time being spent on persuasion instead of creation as a graphic designer, Paula Scher paints maps as an outlet.

The Pentagram partner often refers to her experience creating Citi’s current logo, which she designed in minutes only to spend hours working on selling it to the bank. “As a practicing designer, the industry had changed rapidly,” Scher tells CityLab. “Everything became computerized and I felt like I wasn’t making anything.”

But in her weekend home in Connecticut, Scher paints for herself, creating maps that express her own perceptions and curiosities about the world. Currently, a show dedicated to her U.S. maps is at the Bryce Wolkowitz Gallery in Manhattan’s Meatpacking district.

Scher began planning for this exhibit (“U.S.A.”) two years ago, tightening her focus on America and letting information guide her expression. “I wanted to see what would happen if I was within the same territory but let the topics drive the aesthetic,” says Scher. “The expressions are different in each instance.”

The maps at the gallery show all sorts of ways to understand America: highway routes, drive times between cities, climate patterns, area codes, even median housing prices. Scher finds mapping more interesting as something more satirical than purely informative, and it shows in a knowingly comical overload of names and numbers. Her style always resembles pure intuition more than anything else. “It’s a little difficult to describe because the methodology is somewhat erratic,” she explains.

“Area Codes and Time Zones, U.S.A.” (Photo: Mark Byrnes)

Funnily enough, Scher grew up in a household where map accuracy really mattered. Her father, a photogrammetric engineer who worked for the United States Geological Survey (USGS), invented the stereo-template, which corrects the distortion in aerial photography caused by of the curvature of the earth. “I didn’t understand what he was doing,” Scher, who was in elementary school when her father finished his invention, tells CityLab. “When he first showed me maps he would talk about them in terms of distortions and if you’re a little kid you think distortions are essentially lies.”

She sees a lot of lying in maps and data visualizations, dating back to the maps sold at gas stations in her youth that highlighted routes where the company’s stations appeared most, to the kinds that get passed around freely on the internet today. ”You become accustomed to seeing this form of information without an author, as if it’s existing in space as actual fact because this thing looks so scientific and the charts and maps and graphs are so well illustrated,” says Scher, “but the fact of the matter is it’s opinion.”

Despite her acute sense of what makes a map valuable or deceptive, Scher doesn’t devote a lot of her design time at work to cartographic projects. “I’m not the best person at it, to be honest with you.”

U.S.A. is on exhibit at the Bryce Wolkowitz Gallery in Manhattan until March 26, 2016.

About the Author

  • Mark Byrnes is a senior associate editor at CityLab who writes about design, history, and photography.