John Metcalfe was CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, covering climate change and the science of cities.
A San Francisco mapmaker’s work appears so real you can smell the varnish.
Melody Cao is a freelance map designer in San Francisco; most of the work she does involves moving data and pixels around. But she also loves woodworking. Her new project has found a way to combine those interests: She creates digital maps of world cities designed to look like they were hewn from exquisitely finished kinds of wood, so convincingly craftsy you can almost smell the beeswax finish.
Different surface types have different textures—there’s a nice maple for certain buildings, while water has a wave-y bird’s eye veneer. The result is an interactive and antique store-worthy view of the world produced via Mapbox Studio Classic, based on data from OpenStreetMap, that references the intricate inlaid patterns used in cabinets, tables, and other kinds of quality furniture. “I looked for photos of real wood online and used different species for different layers of the map,” Cao says. “For example, I used a walnut-burl veneer texture for land use areas and red oak for schools and hospitals.” (She also color-adjusted some of the “woods” to maximize the map’s contrast.)
Cao traces her interest in wood designs back to her student endeavors at the Rhode Island School of Design, from which she graduated last year. “In industrial design, the teachers started us off with cutting joinery—half-lap, finger joints, dovetails—by hand,” she says. It was at RISD that Cao learned the names and qualities of different wood varieties.“We were first subjected to soft-but-stinky poplar, then slowly moved up to birch veneers for laminations, then worked with walnut to hand-form discs using chisels and rasps, or bowls using the lathe. My favorite species is probably cherry because it has such a beautiful tone, though it’s an awfully hard wood.”
She initially started her Mapbox project as a tool to help laser-print city designs onto wooden cellphone cases—“I thought it would be ironic and fun to print a wood-map style onto wood”—but it turns out to just be a fun, beautiful world to explore. Take a gander here, and be sure to move in and out to get the full effect of the map’s 22 different zoom levels.