When choosing sheets, thread count is of utmost importance, simply because sheets touch your whole body. For Haptic Lab’s Emily Fischer, this presented a design opportunity. When glaucoma complications began to take her mother’s eyesight, Emily began making quilted maps. “The idea was that a visually impaired person could use the quilts as a representational wayfinding tool, physically feeling the patterned streets with the surface of their body,” she says.
Fischer sells both a collection of pre-made pieces and custom soft maps, made to order. The City Quilts collection features five major metropolises (with more to come). The commissioned maps tend to represent very personal spaces, such as a street corner where a marriage proposal was made or a childhood home that no longer exists.
Fischer’s work sits in a strange place between the high tech and the handmade. Fischer’s first pieces were custom artworks made using an 11-foot Amish quilting frame. She experimented with rapid-prototyping on computerized quilting machines, but ultimately returned to the hand stitching. “I love the idiosyncratic, tactile beauty of a handmade quilt and the scale of the stitched map feels best when informed by a human hand,” she says.
Still, the maps rely heavily on the digital world. The City Quilts collection is “the product of years of research: a synthesis of complex digital information (GIS and open source mapping like OpenStreetMap.org) and painstaking craft technique.”
For the custom pieces, Fischer must find a density of data that conforms to “Amish rules of quilting” which requires a stitch roughly every two inches. “I spend a lot of time researching each project to express that density, something beyond what is shown via Google. The stitches can be anything: from topographic contours in the California hills, historic property lines in Brooklyn Heights, ski trails in Aspen, the abstract patterns of nautical charts in Penobscot Bay.” All of this feeds into Haptic Lab’s larger purpose, “to explore the tactile sense, to ground our lives in the physical world and the physical space of our bodies.”
“The quilts are a starting point,” says Fischer, “and express the emotional core of what I find essential in design: how people can graft their lives to the objects around them, and how those objects in turn can carry our stories.”