Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘design’

29 OCTOBER, 2009

Strange Maps: The Book


What George Orwell has to do with the Amazons of California and Utopia.

Today is the day we’d been waiting for for a long, long time. For today, Strange Maps — an absolute favorite blog of ours, a frequent source of inspiration, and one of the shiniest hidden gems on the Interwebs — is finally gifting the world with its eponymous book.

Strange Maps: An Atlas of Cartographic Curiosities features 138 of the most fascinating, absorbing and remarkable maps from the blog’s 3-year history of culling the world’s forgotten, little-known and niche cartographic treasures.

From the world as depicted in Orwell’s 1984, to a color map of Thomas More’s Utopia, to the 16th-century portrayal of California as an island where people live like the Amazons, the book is brim-full of priceless anecdotes from our collective conception of the world over the centuries.

But what makes all these maps really special is that they somehow capture and reveal a great deal about human psychology and thought — the humor of political parody (Hey there, United States of Canada vs. Jesusuland), the tragicomic bias of a New Yorker’s vantage point, the odd propositions of science gone awry (No, we won’t rename the stars after famous dictators), the inflation of political ego (Sorry, China, you’re not the Middle Kingdom at the center of the world), the absurdity of rampant religious fundamentalism (Really? The final battle between God and Satan in Armageddon will take place exactly at the Megiddo Valley in Israel?), the universal and age-old mistrust of cabbies (Who knew a hexagonal layout of London would prevent passengers from getting ripped off?).

Strange Maps: An Atlas of Cartographic Curiosities is certainly unusual and idiosyncratic — in the most wonderful way possible. At the intersection of history, design, politics and humor, it’s one of those rare beasts that tackle so many facets of culture with utter ease, readability and can’t-put-it-down magnetism.

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26 OCTOBER, 2009

Art of the Toilet Paper Roll


Simplicity and complexity, human emotion, and the intersection of craft and storytelling.

While Charmin gets busy staffing NYC bathrooms with bloggers this holiday season, we thought we’d focus on the less commercial, more artistic side of the backbone of this whole toilet paper thing: The toilet paper roll. Here are three artists who have turned the inglorious brown tossaway into beautiful and inspired design goodness.


French artist Junior Fritz Jacquet has been fascinated by paper since a very young age. Among various other paper and cardboard creations, he transforms plain toilet paper rolls into remarkable miniature masks. His technique is inspired by origami, in that it uses a single piece and folds it into a shape, but has a unique smoothness that deviates from the sharpness and jagged edges of origami, creating shapes that are astonishingly human.

The masks are sculpted by hand, then coated with shellac and different pigments. A testament to the power of taking something incredibly simple and transforming it into something impressively expressive, each piece exudes a complexity of human emotion conveyed in just a few brilliantly orchestrated folds.


French artist Anastassia Elias is a master of collage. But her Paper Cuts series is something else entirely.

Like a pop-up book that unfolds inside a toilet paper roll, Elias’ work is a beautiful intersection of art, craft and modern storytelling.


Japanese artist Yuken Teruya, whom you may recall from our paper art omnibus feature, takes everyday objects and transforms them into works of art. His toilet paper roll mini-sculptures are created just by cutting silhouettes into the paper and folding them out, adding and subtracting nothing.

Teruya’s work is as much an innovation in artistic technique as it is a conceptual criticism of contemporary culture’s preoccupation with adding more and more to our lives while taking more and more from nature — an ode to the brilliance and charm of simplicity.

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23 OCTOBER, 2009

Vintage Album Covers


Private collections, public perceptions, and all that jazz.

We love jazz. We love album cover art. And we love vintage design. So we’re incredibly excited to bring you three fantastic collections of vintage jazz album and LP cover artwork.


Vintage Vanguard may be an obscure Japanese website, but it’s brimming with remarkable cover designs of classic and rare Western jazz albums from the iconic Blue Note record label.


LP Cover Lover is both an archive of “the weird and wonderful world of record covers from the golden age of LPs” and a social bookmarking platform where anyone can submit a cover and everyone votes on the artwork. And while we wish the collection were browsable by rating, it’s still an absolute treat for musicologists and vintage design junkies alike.


In 1938, Columbia Records hired designer Alex Steinweiss who, at the age of 23, invented the concept of the album cover. Until then, records came in plain brown paper wrappers. Steinweiss’ idea was not only a pivotal moment in packaging history, but also a monumental shift in the relationship between music and art which, through the introduction of illustration, typography, vivid color and bold graphics, completely revolutionized the record industry.

Columbia Records’ Birka Jazz Archive houses rare and beautiful album covers by Steinweiss and other iconic designers from the golden age of jazz — some from private collections not previously available to the world. Sorted by label and country, the artwork also features fascinating historical notes about the labels, designers, photographers, and the music itself.

Explore this incredible cultural gem and, if you find yourself fascinated by the history and heritage of jazz, we recommend the Jazz + Culture course on iTunes U, a free podcast from Arizona State University. While it may lack the charm and production value of a TED talk, the course is a densely informative and captivating journey through the evolution of a cultural movement much grander than its musical foundation.

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