Originally intended purely as tools for navigation, maps have long branched off from this practical function to become an unexpected medium for visual expression. The mappae mundi of medieval Europe, for example, featured rich and complex illustrations, existing as schematic maps that relayed information from an area’s climate to the bizarre monsters that supposedly inhabited some regions. While the maps we may be most familiar with today are the clean grids installed on our smartphones, the art of creative mapmaking — from the physical to the more abstract and thematic — persists. Mind the Map, a book published recently by Gestalten, celebrates the art of contemporary cartography.
Packed with colorful images and a number of interviews with creative cartographers, the dense volume features works by a long roster of international mapmakers, from those working at the New York Times, who crunch news into graphics, to independent artists, who relay personal experiences including accounts of long journeys to unique representations of their home cities. Short descriptions of the artists’ styles accompany each map, but Mind the Map largely lets the images speak for themselves.
Kenny Be, for example, has catalogued public artworks across the United States, illustrating them within their home states. Through the endearing drawings, his map offers a glimpse of both renowned and lesser-known works, while also conveying the incredible variety of public art. In a different portrait of the country, but one that is just as extensive, environmental designer Michael Pecirno’s ongoing Minimal Maps series involves him superimposing the US Department of Agriculture’s data on crops over satellite photos of the entire nation; the results are soft, two-toned images that capture the nationwide distribution of individual commodities, from cornfields to shrublands and evergreen forests.
Also grounded in research, although of a much more playful nature, are Kate McLean‘s sensory maps, which record the tastes, textures, and scents of different cities through extensive fieldwork. For her smell maps, McLean organizes “smellwalks” during which people sniff out and note specific smells, culminating in colorful maps of neighborhoods that plot their odors from “cigar smoke” to “empty pizza box.” Such whimsical maps focus on less straightforward representations of environs that are nonetheless illuminating and fun to examine.
Still others works featured in Mind the Map are abstract interpretations of locales, like the city maps by Archie’s Press that eliminate the typical detailed labels of a navigational map in favor of circles that communicate through their simple geometry the size of neighborhoods and their relationships to each other. Even though these maps are highly simplified and not as useful as a conventional one for navigation, each still gives an intelligible and illuminating sense of a place. These types of works, which evoke rather than state the nature of an area, especially emphasize the myriad ways we may orient ourselves in relation to our surroundings.