"Maps get us around, but they also hold our memories," says artist and entrepreneur Nikki Gunn Rodenbeck. "Personalized maps become something of a visual story of your life, either in the present, past, or future." To explore the sentimentalities of our personal geographies, Rodenbeck recently launched Soft Cities, where you can order cuddly textile maps of just about anywhere on earth, with personalized markers denoting any special location that’s close to your heart.
Using OpenStreetMap, a completely open-sourced mapping application with contributors all over the world, Soft Cities can zoom into any corner of the planet with stunning detail. But Rodenbeck is able to produce beautiful full-color maps thanks to design and technology partner Stamen, whose Prettymaps renders OpenStreetMap data gorgeous.
Two years ago, Stamen worked with CloudMade, a platform for building location-based apps, and designed a Tron-inspired theme for the OpenStreetMap data they called Midnight Commander, which assigns a different color or pattern to each bit of data, from inky black streets to deep blue public spaces. Rodenbeck was brainstorming with Stamen’s Eric Rodenbeck (who also happens to be her husband) on other ways to use the map theme. The idea of printing a large-format map that was also a blanket became an obvious choice.
When customers place their order, they choose a theme, like the fantastic rainbow-hued Candymap designed by Stamen’s Geraldine Sarmiento, and input an address. Rodenbeck plugs that address into the site getlatlon.com to get the latitude and longitude coordinates, then uses a special Stamen-authored script that pulls data from OpenStreetMap. A program called Mapnik and Soft Cities’ style sheet transfer the data into a .jpg. Rodenbeck adds the placemarks and other personal details requested by the customer using Photoshop and sends the file off to a textile printer.
When it came to producing the textiles, however, Rodenbeck experienced some challenges. "I was sad to learn that so much of the textile industry is no longer in the U.S.," she says. "Even in places like New York and Los Angeles there are just two large fabric printers." After much research, Rodenbeck settled on a company that prints signs and billboards in San Francisco, where she lives. "Our printer prides himself on running a green shop—nontoxic dyes and no waste water—so I knew it was a perfect fit," she says. The fabric is sewn and hemmed on-site, and the human touch continues all the way through the process: Rodenbeck personally drives over to the printer in a Zip Car to pick up the product, inspect it, package it up, and mail it out.
Right now, Soft Cities only makes fleece blankets or "mapkins," which come in sets of two or four, but Rodenbeck is already sourcing fabrics for new items. "We’ve had requests for tablecloths, tote bags, and scarves," she says. "But we’re also working on new map themes. A sparse black and white theme might be next."
While Rodenbeck is happy to cater to newlyweds who want to put a romantic X on the spot where someone popped the question, she also has a built-in audience with the OpenStreetMap community. "The OSM customers are really looking forward to seeing their mapping 'work’ in real life," she says "They’ve taken huge chunks of their time to contribute to OSM by filling in streets, restaurants, or obscure Northern England bridle trails, for instance." In fact, she recently heard back from a customer who took his blanket for a walk on those very trails he himself inputted into OpenStreetMap. "He took pictures along the way and sent them to me. Crazy but lovely, right?" she says. "It’s great to feel like we’re giving something back to those who care so deeply about open data."
And, incredibly, the data flows both ways. For some customers who live outside a major city where OpenStreetMap data is a little thin, Rodenbeck ends up adding their special locations to OpenStreetMap. "The customer provides addresses of their favorite restaurant or bar, park, or school and I feed it back into the OSM map," she says. "It’s fun to tell them they’ve contributed to OSM by putting their town 'on the map!'" In addition, Rodenbeck donates 5% of each sale back to OpenStreetMap, which I’m pretty sure makes this the only blanket you can buy that can help improve the way we see and explore the world.
Blankets are $175; Mapkins are $79 (set of four) at softcities.net