An Interview with Stephan Van Dam

Map maker, designer and entrepreneur Stephan Van Dam shares the vision and inspiration behind his unique maps, from sexy packaging to the “art of ellipses.”


  Longitude. How and when did VanDam Maps begin?

Van Dam. While studying environmental design at Parsons I invented an origami design which refolded automatically. It craved cartographic uses. So I sought out a group of European cartographers to show me the ropes and became a map maker. I also patented the fold and built a machine to fold the maps. When American Express agreed to offer The World Unfolds to card members I was in business and a publisher.


Longitude. What makes your maps unique?

Van Dam. Their clear cartographic design, sexy packaging and the fact they are in the design collection of MoMA. Our maps make the complex clear and legible. They practice the art of ellipsis, of knowing what not to show.

Longitude. Did the changing political relationship between the U.S. and Cuba inspire you to publish your timely Havana and Cuba maps?

Van Dam. Yes, absolutely. I've been a Latin Jazz aficionado and mambo dancer for a long time and political change was in the air. Given the lack of internet access and availability of current city information, a clear, legible and up-to-date print map is essential to navigate the place. Both maps have been reprinted twice this year. Longitude. What is your relationship to the regions that you map, including Cuba?

Van Dam. I am interested in understanding the culture and history of a region and like to share my passion by cartographic storytelling. Havana is the oldest city in the hemisphere and a museum of architecture with its urban fabric largely intact. Building styles include Plateresque, Cuban Baroque, Neoclassicism, Art Nouveau, Deco, Streamline, Mid-century to Soviet Brutalism. And they seemingly all blend together in a 5 beat clave rhythm. A new interactive map will show these connections between architecture and music. Here are examples from our History Mapped series which combines cultural travel and the history of US presidents and was produces in conjunction with the National Park Service.

Longitude. Window seat or aisle?

Van Dam. Aisle during flight, window when landing.

Longitude. Who do you see as the ideal audience for Van Dam Maps?

Van Dam. Anyone who wants to read maps from 3 feet away, appreciates them as beautiful objects in print and/or likes to fly into a mapped landscape and become part of dimensional map space. Here are examples:

4DmApp FlyIn

Atlantic article by Steve Heller

One Map for All Media


Longitude. What kind of research goes into the planning of a map?

Van Dam. We sift through open source (OSM) data sets as well as data from public agencies and research cover ideas to express the spirit of the place with arty mapping. In the case of Cuba we worked with the CIA for terrain data and the Havana City Historian's office for cultural resources. The editorial is the result of ground truthing on location and input from Cuban and American friends who've traveled there for years. It's the latest data available.

Longitude. Where do I go for the best cigar in Havana?

Van Dam. La Casa del Habano 5th and 16 Av. 5 y Calle 16, Miramar

Longitude. What’s your next map?

Van Dam. The official map for the National Gallery in Washington DC is just shipping, and we are working on an interactive map app that lets you see Havana's music and hear the architecture.