Infinite City: Artfully mapped, multi-layered & many splendored

[Alyson Kuhn] About three years ago, writer Rebecca Solnit had an idea for an unusual atlas of San Francisco and its residents, past and present. Her idea became a series of live art events, sponsored by SFMOMA throughout 2010 as part of the museum’s 75th anniversary programming, and a book published last November by University of California Press. Solnit’s Infinite City is floating in a fog of great critical and popular acclaim, to which we’d like to add our voice.

“Poison/Palate: The Bay Area in Your Body” juxtaposes local foodie culture with repositories of toxic materials. Artist: Sunaura Taylor.

We recently had a chance to chat with the book’s designer, Lia Tjandra (pronounced CHAN-dra), art director at UC Press, about working with Solnit to bring the book into being. Tjandra is matter-of-fact about her contribution, but Solnit describes her as “one of the great, remarkable blessings of the project.”

Did Rebecca Solnit come to you with maps or with ideas for maps?

She had concepts for the maps, and I proposed that we work with two cartographers, Ben Pease and Shizue Seigel, a local husband-and-wife team that UC Press has used on other books. We had numerous meetings — Rebecca, the cartographers, our editors (acquisition editor Niels Hooper and project editor Dore Brown), and me – to develop rough maps, based on Rebecca’s marked-up maps from AAA and Google.

“Fillmore: Promenading the Boulevard of Gone” spans a century of culture and commerce. Artist: Gent Sturgeon, whose Rorschach inkblot was inspired by Fillmore Street.

At what point did you decide on the book’s format?

In an early conversation with Rebecca, I proposed that we make the trim size tall and skinny, so that when you open the book up, it’s a square-ish format. San Francisco is a square, and this is all about the maps. We also decided early on that UC Press would simultaneously publish a hardback and a paperback edition. This was economical for us — the two editions could use the same book block.

The paperback is affordable — and our intention is that you put it in your backpack and let it get beaten up while exploring the city. Even the hardback is not intended to be a precious object — its cover is relatively simple and more about the materials than the design. The coverboard is not covered — it’s just foil-stamped in black and clear. It’s utilitarian, and the ultimate goal of these maps is for people to use them. Overall, rough and simple seemed appropriate. The books were printed and bound at Friesen’s in Canada.

“Tribes of San Francisco: Their Comings and Goings” shows the city’s subcultures. Artist: Jaime Cortez, who suggested to author Rebecca Solnit this homage to the variety of human life in San Francisco.

Rebecca describes the paper the book is printed on as “creamy, luscious, uncoated” — almost as if it were a dessert. What is the stock?

I recommended Mohawk Superfine, which we use on many projects. Infinite City is printed on Superfine 80# Text with a smooth finish. The color is Soft White — and creamy is a perfect description. We rely heavily on proofs, because we do not normally go on press checks. Embassy Graphics in Toronto did an awesome job on our color proofing, and the Superfine held the color and detail beautifully.

“Monarchs and Queens: Butterfly Habitats and Queer Public Spaces” features a kaleidoscope of butterflies and a Sister of Perpetual Indulgence hovering above the City’s parks and gay bars. Artist: Mona Caron.

Were some maps more challenging than others?

Yes, the maps with illustrations — and there are 12 of these in the book —  were more demanding. [If you have a few minutes, you can hear Tjandra describe finding “the sweet spot where art and information complement each other.”] A particularly memorable one is “Monarchs & Queens,” which was one of the first, when I was still figuring out how the collaboration would work. Rebecca wanted to map the migration of butterflies and juxtapose queer hangout places. The cartographers made a black-and-white wireframe map for us, which I stylized and colorized. I sent that to Mona Caron, the artist for this map, with only one request: that she not draw directly on the specific areas. When it came back, it was so beautiful, it brought tears to my eyes. Mona had drawn butterflies, of course, but she’d also drawn a Sister of Perpetual Indulgence, which was unexpected and appropriate. And I thought, “This process works!”

“Phrenological San Francisco” assigns personality traits to neighborhoods based on their history, topography or social vibe. Artist: Paz de la Calzada.

Who selected the artists and essayists, of which there are quite a few?

The artists are friends of Rebecca’s. She selected 12 different ones, and each did one map. Some are well-known, others less so. Rebecca wrote about half of the essays, and the others are written by colleagues and friends of hers. Most of the people are local, and a few are from different parts of the U.S. Paz de la Calzada, the artist of the phrenological head, is originally from Madrid and lives here now. Paul La Farge, who conceived of the head, is a friend of Rebecca’s, and he lives in upstate New York. He had done some research on Google maps to identify San Francisco’s phrenological areas. I did a rough, and then we had a great back-and-forth with Paz. For me, the most fun maps are those where the artists do their thing.

Lia Tjandra grew up in Jakarta, Indonesia, and came to the Bay Area in 1993 specifically to go to California College of the Arts, from which she graduated in 1997. You’ll find an excellent profile of Tjandra on her alma mater’s website. Tjandra and her husband currently live in the Westwood Highland neighborhood of San Francisco — which Alyson Kuhn, a second-generation San Franciscan, does not recognize by name. As the author said, the City is Infinite.

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Comments (1)

  1. Posted by LEE MOODY on 03.15.11 at 8:21 pm

    ~ what would the world be without great cartographers and Rebecca ~ these are so lovely to study ~ Monarch is too much fun !
    I have to buy the book, I have to frame a map, and I need to go see San Fran again ! Wonderful

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