Issue 004 — My obsession with topography

Issue 004 — My obsession with topography

Originally published on Apr 25, 2021

Topographic maps are the perfect design

[image of yosemite map]

At some point in 2018, once I was more comfortable with carving blocks, I decided it was time to start dabbling with carving maps. They're the subject matter that initially piqued my interest in printmaking. At the time, I had this plan to hang a large topographic triptych in my apartment. Little did I know, a single 9 x 12 topo map takes forever to carve. Working through three has now taken years. I'll let you know if I ever get around to hanging them.

I've always had an obsession with maps. It comes from spending most of my childhood camping or road tripping with my family and always wanting read the atlas or help plan the route. As a boy scout (...yeah), I learned to read the changes in topography and how to navigate with a compass. And the ability to plan and way find in areas I had never visited was fascinating.

Yes, I still spend hours panning around Google Maps for fun. It's not weird.

It was unclear to me as a kid why I was always drawn to reading maps for fun. But as I eventually matured as a designer, it started making more sense: the idea of recording complex spatial data into a flat, repeatable medium is an incredible design challenge. And it's one that was solved in a way that any person, from any culture, with any level of outdoor experience can quickly learn to comprehend.

[image of table]

We've all got our own design opinions. When you think "oh, that's a cute house," are you normally looking at a Victorian or a converted warehouse? When you're buying furniture, do you shop for comfort or for aesthetic? The answer to each of these can start to define your personal design tastes.

I'd consider myself a utilitarian minimalist.

What does that mean? Well, besides just sounding really pretentious, it actually defines a lot of the art style that I gravitate towards – and I promise you that it'll get back to maps in a minute.

You've likely heard of minimalism. You may also associate it with 'owning nothing' and 'not knowing how to decorate the inside of a house.' That's not entirely wrong. I blame Netflix documentaries for that one. For my definition, I like to tack on a little bit of utilitarianism: the idea of creating something based on function rather than aesthetic. I think exposed I-beams and concrete floors are beautiful not because they're trendy, but because they celebrate the materials used to construct the building. I loathe crown moulding not because I think the intricate designs aren't pretty, but because it was specifically created to hide gaps between walls and ceilings instead of figuring out how to hang walls more elegantly.

What I'm saying is, I find more beauty in acknowledging the necessary materials to make something than in adding extra layers to hide them. For example, the image above is of a table I made in college and will never get rid of. It's concrete and raw steel. I was trying to celebrate the materials. My teachers hated it.

[image of ipad drawing]

In my eyes, perfect design is the ability to remove everything from a product that isn't inherently needed to solve the problem. It should only use the most necessary pieces and ideally celebrate those pieces for exactly what they are.

Topographic maps are perfectly designed.

A single piece of paper can take an incredibly complex bit of data (the changes of elevation over a given distance) and record it with only the most necessary lines. With those lines, a hiker can plan a route for a trip, or avoid a dangerous descent, or find a natural stream of water for hydration. Creating a useful map isn't about aesthetically pleasing illustrations, it's about communication. It's repetitive, tedious, predictable, and a perfect example of how something as beautiful and organic as natural landscape can be translated into a replicable system. That is perfect.

Taking something so well thought out and translating it into only a series of inked lines on a paper is how I personally blur the line between design and art... But that's a discussion for another day.

[image of print]

Cypress' maps take longer than I initially realized. But I find them worth it.

Sometimes people ask to memorialize a location that means a lot to them. Other times I just need to lose myself in the tediousness of drawing, tracing, and carving hundreds of lines.

Either way, I hope you find them beautiful too.


Topo 001 – Mt. Tam, Small

[mt tam product image]

The first topo print from Cypress. It's been around for a long time now. You'll get the story of why Mt. Tam is special to me some other day – and hopefully the full 12 in print with it. For now, this version of Mt. Tam is great for a small taste.

Playing in the studio

Larry June

[Adjust to the Game]

I'm sharing this one for a friend of mine. Sometimes I stumble upon music when I'm deep in the Spotify rabbit hole. Other times, friends share music that immediately clicks with me. Larry June is one of the latter.

Larry June's rap style struck me right out of the gate. His flow feels effortless and his production style feels classic. And without laying a regional stake in hip hop, I can appreciate that he's both from the Bay Area and heavily influenced by his part time Atlanta upbringing. Adjust to the Game is the type of album I can actively listen to or having playing in the background.


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