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At Home With | Paula Scher

Graphics' Grande Dame Remakes the World in Type

Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times

Part of "The Brylcreem Man" series by Paula Scher's husband, Seymour Chwast, hangs over Aalto chairs.

Published: January 12, 2006

SEVEN years ago, Paula Scher - the designer behind graphic icons ranging from the band Boston's first album cover to the Citibank logo - was feeling beleaguered. She had just turned 50. She was spending her days as a partner in the Pentagram design consultancy dealing with the demands of corporate clients, and her time away from work absorbing a ceaseless barrage of news about the Lewinsky scandal. She was "inundated with other people's information," she said recently, and exhausted by the renovation of her weekend house in Salisbury, Conn.

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Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times

Paula Scher, a graphic designer, on a Le Corbusier chaise in her Chelsea loft.

So one cold Connecticut weekend, she shut herself in an upstairs bedroom, tuned her radio in to the impeachment hearings and began feverishly painting the states of Arkansas, Texas and Louisiana.

"Everyone on the radio was from there," Ms. Scher said, explaining her choice of subject. "The only difference was, now I controlled the information."

A year and a half later, she had finished the whole "United States," a 9-by-12-foot acrylic-on-canvas painting that is now on display, along with 11 others, at the Maya Stendhal Gallery in Chelsea. The exhibition is Ms. Scher's first solo show as a fine artist, and every piece in it has sold, for between $40,000 and $135,000, or has a firm offer in the same range.

Maya Stendhal, the gallery's owner, has extended the show for four weeks, until January 21, and she and Ms. Scher have just decided to produce silk-screened prints of some of the maps, starting with "The World," which will be issued next month in an edition of 100, to be sold at the gallery for $3,500 each.

The paintings, large-scale images of cities, states and continents blanketed with place names and other information, are full of mistakes and misspellings and visual allusions to stereotypes of place ("Africa" has a parched black-and-gray palette; "South America," Ms. Scher said, is "very sexy, in hot colors, with two ovaries on the sides"). They are not meant to be reliable as maps, but to convey a sense of place that is mediated, and mangled, by Ms. Scher's imagination and by the overload of media-generated information that feeds it.

"You know everything, you know nothing," Ms. Scher said of life in contemporary America. Ms. Stendhal, who said she was "taken aback" and "smitten immediately" when she first saw one of the paintings at the Pentagram offices in Manhattan, describes them as Ms. Scher's way of retaliating against the constant stream of news - which, like the paintings, presents skewed versions of reality in a deceptively authoritative way.

Michael Bierut, a fellow partner at Pentagram and an old friend of Ms. Scher's, sees the paintings as very much of a piece with her design work, and her personality.

"The maps aren't about restraint or subtlety," he said, "they're about more is more is more is more," much like the typography-choked posters for the Public Theater in New York that helped make Ms. Scher famous in the design world. "Unlike some designers, who make a fetish of editing out what they consider to be extraneous information," Mr. Bierut said, "Paula will just keep adding things." He believes that she distrusts the "mysterious aura" that many designers rely on minimalism to create.

"She thinks if you have something to say, say it," he said. "Paula is very candid. She will speak the truth even when it's not in her own interest."

Ms. Scher herself rejects the idea that she has suddenly turned into a fine artist. "I don't want to be a new painter, but an old graphic designer," she said. "The only thing I'm really good at is painting typography."

She sees in the maps the same fascination with letterforms that has always defined her graphic design. She has had a maximalist, typography-driven approach to design since her early days as an art director for Atlantic Records and CBS Records in the 1970's, where she was responsible for more than 150 album covers a year. It was also in the 70's that she met the illustrator and graphic designer Seymour Chwast, whose elegantly comic work she has always admired. In 1970, 22 and fresh out of art school, Ms. Scher took her portfolio to Mr. Chwast at Push Pin Studios, the seminal design and illustration office that he had founded with Milton Glaser and Edward Sorel in the 50's.

"Seymour is Paula's idol," Mr. Bierut said. During her years designing records, he added, "There's not a single rock star she was more thrilled to meet."