Paula Scher's work is iconic. You may not be able to pick her face out of a lineup, but you are certainly familiar with the body of work that she's created since she started her career as an art director in the 1970s. Her greatest hits include the cover for Boston's eponymous 1976 album, which you probably saw in your mom's record collection, and her design for the hit musical Bring in Da' Noise, Bring in Da' Funk, at the Public Theater, which influenced so much design in the '90s. She was also responsible for the brand identities of Citibank and Tiffany & Co. as a partner in the Pentagram design firm. Scher is also an artist, painting large-scale, super-detailed maps that force you to look at the familiar in a new light. I talked with Scher on a rainy morning at the Bryce Wolkowitz Gallery in Chelsea, where her latest show is taking place, about how the rise of technology pushed her into painting, and the real difference between art and design.
Laia Garcia: How did you become interested in drawing maps?
Paula Scher: Well, I started doing this in the late '80s/early '90s. I started painting from something I was doing as a graphic designer, exploring these maps that were very small and detailed. They were very political, and they were more what I would call a combination of illustration and design. The writing was more opinionated, satirical.
At some point someone exhibited them, and these collectors bought them to a couple named Marvin and Ruth Sacker. They have a collection called "Concrete Poetry." To a degree, they inspired me to do it on a larger scale and more seriously, because they responded to them and they had started showing them. By the same token, as a graphic designer I used to work more with my hands, and what happened in the '90s was that [the work became more computer-based], so I never really touched anything anymore, and the desire to make something with my hands became very strong.
LG: Your dad was a civil engineer who worked on aerial photography in the mapping division of the U.S. Geological Survey. Was any part of your work trying to pay homage to his work with maps?
PS: I don't think I thought about it much until later. My father was a photogrammetric engineer, and he looked at camera as science; he was always trying to correct lens distortion. He would show me the inaccuracies of maps, and I remember being impressed with this neighborhood map where I really knew [the neighborhood], and I knew where the things were distorted and wrong in the map. Then there were the objects themselves, which were these incredible four-color topographic maps of the United States that we had around. They were amazing.
LG: When you are working on your maps, are you going for accuracy or distortion?
PS: Neither. It's not a question of distortion, it's a question of not … this is hard to describe. It's impressionistic. Like, I draw the maps by hand. I'm not tracing them, they're not being projected; they can easily be done on a computer, but they're not. So it's my impression of them. My inaccuracy becomes the inaccuracy of the map. I correct as I do it because sometimes they just come out very strange, and what I'm looking for is a layer of recognizability where you kinda get it, so you relate to it. I'm not doing things where you take the United States and change the shapes and move them around, it's not about that. It's really about, Do you recognize this thing, and does it have an emotional impact when you do? I guess I would call it abstract-expressionist information. The goal is not necessarily to alter, the goal is to intuit my way through mapping.