Magazine article The New Yorker

Off the Map

Magazine article The New Yorker

Off the Map

Article excerpt


Paula Scher walked into Barnes & Noble in Union Square the other day and asked for the map section. The first female principal of Pentagram Design, Scher is responsible for some of the most recognizable graphics around, from Shake Shack's green outline of a burger to the blue Citibank logo with the red arch. In her spare time, she paints maps. She rode the escalator to the third floor in search of a little inspiration.

First, Scher pulled a tourist map of Egypt from a rack. She frowned. "Already, I can tell you I wouldn't like this map," she said, wincing at the stiff lamination. "Carrying this around is an unpleasant experience. And the type's too small." She eyed the broad V shape of the Nile Delta. "But this is very sexy. It's like a giant vagina sitting there. I never noticed that before."

Scher's maps tend to regard geography as a molder of culture and identity. "If you take Donald Trump's popularity in Iowa, well, Iowans don't see as many different people as New Yorkers do," she said. "There's miles and miles and miles of nothing. How many Muslims do they know? The location did that to them. They can't all be bad bigots."

Scher, who is sixty-seven, is petite and blond, and was dressed all in gray: skirt, vest, striped tights, and a voluminous orange-trimmed scarf wound multiple times around her neck. She used her iPhone to call up images of her latest work, devoted to the United States and now on exhibit at the Bryce Wolkowitz Gallery. Dense with colorful lines and text, the paintings record information both banal--airline routes, Zip Codes--and subtly charged, such as the median real-estate prices across the country.

"Roam," by the B-52's, played on the store's speakers, as Scher unfolded a map of Paris and noted the omission of the city's poorer neighborhoods. "They give you the half where stuff's going on, but you don't get to understand the city as a circle," she said.

She prefers to feel her way around European cities by picking up the socioeconomic clues offered by real estate. "The Old Town is always in the center," she explained. "Near the Old Town are the major historical things, and, therefore, the expensive hotels, so, theoretically, you could navigate back to your hotel by saying, 'Oh, that looks richer over there.' Google Maps has taken the joy out of that, because it is efficient--you get there--but what's great is looking around and figuring it out. …

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