Author Q&A with Paula Scher: Maps

By Steve Kroeter March 22, 2012

Paula Scher

Graphic designer Paula Scher: Pentagram (New York)

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Graphic designer Paula Scher talks about Maps (Princeton Architectural Press, October 2011), her recent book of map paintings, which was named a Designers & Books Notable Book of 2011 by Alissa Walker, who said, “As art, it’s gorgeous; as a process, it’s a lesson in obsession; and as a narrative, it’s storytelling at its best.”

Designers & Books: In the introduction to your book, you tell the story of your father and his work with maps and how this led to your awareness of them. How did it first occur to you to make the leap that maps could provide you with an artistic opportunity?

     Maps, 2011 (Princeton Architectural Press)

Paula Scher: When I was in college I painted over maps. Then as a professional designer I made jokey charts, diagrams, and maps for freebie jobs like AIGA competitions. I painted something called “New York, New York, Actual Size” for an AIGA/NY auction in the late ‘80s, which was a snide painting of Manhattan. A year or two later I painted an AIGA Annual cover that had a map painted from memory as the back cover, and I accidentally left out Utah. I liked painting maps and charts and fracturing information. That was something I could make because it used words and logic. I really don’t draw well.

D&B: You quote your father as saying, “All maps are distorted.” You also say, “I began painting maps to invent my own complicated narrative about the way I see and feel about the world. . . . They are paintings of distortion.” Your map paintings are very large and very detailed. Did you have any fears about how they would need to be distorted and scaled down to fit in a book?

Tsunami, 2006
Tsunami (detail)

PS: I confess that I never really like the paintings reproduced in any smaller form (though I do think the silk-screens are beautiful as objects) because viewing the originals is a very different experience. My favorite parts of the book are the details of the paintings at actual size.

China, 2006 (detail)

D&B: Your work as a graphic designer always has a very specific audience. Did you have an audience in mind as you were putting together this book?

PS: No, I didn’t have any audience in mind. I am mystified by the response to the maps. I had no idea who would like them, or why. I found it interesting that different groups of people seemed to enjoy them for different reasons; cartographers, travelers, political writers, artists and designers. It’s a pretty diverse group—I think they all found something different in the maps that they related to personally.

D&B: You chose vibrant colors for the cover (bright pink) and endpapers (acid green). What went into that decision?

PS: I chose the painting World Trade for the cover because at the time of publication it was the last painting I had finished. (I always have enthusiasm for the most recently finished piece of my work, and then that diminishes quickly). We used a section of the painting at actual size and we tried about ten alternatives. They all looked pretty good. They all had a lot of pink and fuchsia in them because the painting does. We chose the section for the cover that was most abstract and had a lot of black in the background so that the type overlay on acetate would read well.

The jacket of Maps folds out into a 3 x 2 foot poster of a portion of Scher’s map painting World Trade (below)
World Trade, 2010

The book was out for Christmas and I thought the cover looked festive, like a Christmas present. I guess The Gap thought so, too, because the Fifth Avenue store took the book and put it on a display table along with matching scarfs in pink, turquoise, and fuchsia and put a label near it that said “Color!” I couldn’t decide whether to be amused or horrified.

D&B: How close is the final result of the book to how you originally imagined it?

PS: I started designing it with my team and Pentagram and was dissatisfied with it, so I put it aside for a time, and then suddenly it had to be printed. I tried to let go and not think about it. It was too personal. There are things I would change if I redid it now, but I’ve also gotten used to it.

D&B: This is your second book, isn’t it? You have a book on your graphic design work (Make It Bigger) and now this one on your artwork. Do you have a third book in mind yet?

PS: Here are some little-known facts. This is my fifth book. The first book I ever wrote was a children’s book called The Brownstone, published by Knopf in 1973 and illustrated by Stan Mack. I wrote it when I was 23 and it was in the marketplace for over 20 years. I still am proud of it.

In 1980, I wrote The Honeymoon Book: A Tribute to the Last Ritual of Sexual Innocence. It was a satirical book about honeymoons and it was published at the time Prince Charles of England married Lady Di, and the media was obsessed with weddings. I was on television talk shows all over the country. Once I was on with Zsa Zsa Gabor and the discussion was about how to make a successful marriage. I was introduced as the “world’s foremost honeymoon expert.” I designed the book as well as wrote it and it is simply atrocious.

In 1991, I wrote The Graphic Design Portfolio: How to Make a Good One, on my design course that I teach at SVA. It was badly printed, but fairly instructional. The work looks terribly dated now.

I’d like to do a sequel to Make It Bigger. It looks like I manage to write a book on the average of every eight years, so that gives you an idea of when I’ll get around to it.

Images courtesy of Princeton Architectural Press.

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