[Tom Biederbeck] Paula Scher paints maps “to invent my own complicated narrative about the way I see and feel about the world.” The acclaimed Pentagram designer has for the first time collected these paintings and other works in her book Maps. Witty, thought-provoking and obsessively realized, Scher’s artworks hold insights into the relationships between place, truth and visual representation. Here, Scher offers thoughts on her motives in creating maps and why we should avoid placing too much faith in any map’s verisimilitude.
Your preface to the book is titled “All Maps Lie.” Why was it important for you to explore this idea?
As a graphic designer I have found that people view infographics — charts, graphs, diagrams and maps — as literal fact. They don’t realize that the information they are looking at is selected by an author and often biased or inaccurate. It is really a danger.
What got you started?
I had painted a map of the United States from memory on the back of an AIGA Annual cover I was designing in 1989. I forgot to put in Utah. It totally amused me. I loved controlling my own information.
There is a tradition of “maps of the imagination.” Some explore fantastic worlds, some show states of mind. Are your maps related to those?
I am not interested in fantasy. My maps are sort of right. They are just a bit skewed.
Maps often have elaborate systems of cartographic information — roads, mountains, rivers — as well as borders and place names. In your maps, the cartographic information is replaced by words. Why?
My medium is letterforms and words. My paintings are an extension of my design work. Type is image. It has spirit. The maps are abstract expressionistic information.
The selection of the words suggests thoughts about these places. Are there subtexts?
Yes, there are subtexts. I am controlling the positioning, the information, what’s in, what’s out. You are in my head and adding your own understanding of the world to it.
In addition to maps, your book includes other works like drawings of daily headlines … e.g., Shock and Awe. Even these seem map-like, somehow. What’s the relationship between the maps and the headline works?
They are both infographics, data visualization run amok because they are drawn by hand. There is organization and structure to both the maps and charts, and they function like maps and charts.
Where is this work taking you? Are you doing more maps, or are you into new forms?
My medium is words. Type as image. I have been doing this a long time and will continue to explore the medium in as many forms as possible.
Maps, by Paula Scher, is published by Princeton Architectural Press and is available from the publisher, here or at your local bookseller. One more reason to own a copy: The dust jacket folds out into a 37 x 24-in. full-color map.
Paula Scher is a principal of the international design consultancy Pentagram, where she is widely recognized for graphic identities, publications and environments. Her work is represented in the permanent collections of the Museum of Modern Art and the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, New York; the Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.; the Victoria and Albert Museum, London; the Museum für Gestaltung Zürich; the Denver Art Museum; and the Bibliothèque nationale de France and the Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris. She is a past recipient of the Chrysler Award for Innovation in Design, and in 2001 she received the AIGA Medal. She is a laureate of the Art Directors Club Hall of Fame, and in 2006 she was awarded the Type Directors Club Medal. She is a member of the Alliance Graphique Internationale and was elected its president in 2009. In 2006 she was named to the Art Commission of the City of New York.
Paula Scher’s maps are on exhibit at the Bryce Wolkowitz Gallery in New York through Feb. 18.
Top photo © John Madere. Artwork images courtesy Princeton Architectural Press.