Atlases have been around for centuries, but up until the 1950s, most were maps, pure and simple. Former Bauhaus master Herbert Bayer’s unique contribution (not simply as a designer, but as an author) was to show that maps did more than illustrate space and place. Maps were, he proffered, a record of time and perhaps even a tool of prognostication. The 1953 World Geo-Graphic Atlas, published by Walter Paepcke’s Container Corporation of America (CCA), is a monument to Bayer’s singular vision, a precursor to current trends in information design, and an example of how complex data can be made accessible.
The data was conveyed in a Modernist visual idiom, and the governing style of Atlas, which allowed for transparency, was adopted by other map designers for decades after. There are few comparable documents that measure up to the sublime complexity and relentless functionality of Bayer’s Atlas. Although some data has changed since 1953, the fundamental form and overarching concept—to chart the impact of natural phenomena on the planet—is as valid today as when it was first conceived.
Bayer supervised a team of three designers (Martin Rosenzweig, Henry Gardiner, and Masato Nakagawa) over a three-year period. The atlas was designed to address the geopolitical landscape of post-WWII life. The graphics were straightforward, but the research was complex. Bayer traveled throughout Europe to find maps and data that would help him reinvent the classic map. Drawing on Bauhaus methods, Bayer advocated the concept of a total work of art—painting, typography, and, indeed, information design were all interconnected. Moreover, all art, even the most muse-driven, served a purpose—to inspire, inform, or both. In undertaking the Atlas, Bayer addressed environmental concerns that he had previously tackled in his series of Mountains and Convolutions paintings (1944–1953), which artistically explored the earth’s mutability. Of course, with the Atlas he was much more concrete in visualizing the earth’s surface as influenced by millions of years of climatic and geological forces. Building on the foundation of his painting, the Atlas was a means to vividly show the awesome impact of environment, as well as to satisfy his own deep concern for climatic conditions and topographic change.
About Steven Heller
Steven Heller is the co-chair of the SVA MFA Designer /Designer as Author + Entrepreneur program, writes frequently for Wired and Design Observer. He is also the author of over 170 books on design and visual culture. He received the 1999 AIGA Medal and is the 2011 recipient of the Smithsonian National Design Award.View all posts by Steven Heller →