Artist Imagines What Phantom Islands Might Look Like

Inspired by the errata of cartography, a German designer renders the phantom islands discarded by history.

Phantom islands are landmasses that existed, on maps, until someone proved that they either no longer exist or never existed at all. Perhaps an island had an identity but was later misidentified. Or it was an iceberg attributed to the wrong explorer. Or a volcanic island that rose, until the sea rose above it. It may have been a “superior mirage” and nothing more. Or it may only have existed in the minds of drunk or dishonest sailors.


Hamburg-based designer Tobias Wüstefeld has 3-D rendered these phantom islands in the uncertain space between imagination and cartography. In a stunning series, Wüstefeld imagines these islands not as mysterious anomalies on a 2-D map, but as the dreamlike points arrayed within the vivid archipelago of his mind.

A 3-D designer by trade, with a background in children’s illustration, Wustfeld has always been interested in fuzzying the borders between the two techniques. “I think my training as a children’s illustrator has helped me keep away from the most cold and calculating repercussions of using digital tools,” Wustfeld tells Co.Design. “I always try to put some kind of analog mood into my work.”

In designing Phantom Islands, Wüstefeld tries to create more than just digital dioramas. Each diorama imparts a sense of that particular island’s self-contained history. Real or not, Wüstefeld points out that historically, many imaginary islands have had elaborate sagas. Sailors argued about who inhabited them, for example. Was this island home to cannibals, or to even more dreadful anthropophagi? Islands that never even existed were traded between nations and shipping companies for exclusive rights to their trade. These places may never have existed, but for many people, they were very real; as such, Wüstefeld tries to make sure that each island reflects that.

To create an island, Wüstefeld starts by making a series of sketches in which he establishes the overall form of the Phantom Island, as well as the elements and architecture of which it will be comprised. Afterwards, he constructs these sketches as a 3-D model. Then Wüstefeld injects a little bit of chaos. Choosing his textures randomly from his hard drive, he automatically assigns different elements textures.

“For me, my Phantom Islands are mostly about capturing a mood,” explains Wüstefeld. “I want to try to show the spot where imagination meets truth, and show that in every truth, there is a blind spot. In my Phantom Islands, this blind spot is crucial. No light from these islands ever reached the eyes of the sailors who said they saw them, but they still thought they saw them all the same. That is why a Phantom Island is a nexus point between reality and imagination.”

You can see more of Wüstefeld’s work at his official site here.