Friday, June 4, 2010


EXACTLY ONE YEAR AFTER HER DEATH, the Greenwich Village gallery Fifty/50 staged a solo show of work by the modernist designer and illustrator Ilonka Karasz. In the New York Times article on the show, Karasz's versatility was highlighted.
...very few designers had such breadth in 1912, when Miss Karasz's career began, according to Ralph Cutler, the gallery's co-owner.
     "I had a guy who collects her ceramics and didn't know she did magazine art," Mr. Cutler said. "Another woman knew her as The New Yorker's most well-known cover artist, and had no idea she did anything else."
Karasz did more than anything else. She designed textiles, wallpaper, wrapping paper, furniture, nurseries, tea sets, china plates, and book jackets. She illustrated books and magazine covers. She practiced interior design and painted. She co-founded the Society of Modern Art, a collective of European-born American Artists, and provided many of the illustrations for the Society's arts journal Modern Art Collector. She appeared in Vanity Fair, House Beautiful, and countless art magazines. She was an immigrant (born and educated in Hungary), a mother of two children, and an important player in introducing European modernism in the United States. And as Ralph Cutler said in The New York Times, "Her success is more remarkable because she worked in a time when few women were designing..."

Another skill, rarely talked about, was Ilonka Karasz's cartography. On numerous occasions, her work as an illustrator called for her to draft maps, always with illuminations and her distinctive style.

The Outline of Man's Knowledge: The Story of History, Science, Literature, Art, Religion, Philosophy (1927) by Clement Wood was illustrated by Louis Bromberg. But its maps, depicting three stages in world history, were by Ilonka Karasz.

As were the four-color endpapers for the 1944 My Unconsidered Judgment by Noel F. Busch, which credits Karasz with "Decorations in line" even though the maps were her only contribution to what is otherwise a book without illustrations.

In her wallpapers, Karasz believed that decorative designs should be two-dimensional; they should not try to introduce depth to a room. She carries this adherence to two-dimensional design in her maps, rendering the illuminations for the maps in My Unconsidered Judgment as mere silhouettes, so as not to detract from the overall flatness (they are in a book afterall) of the composition.

In addition to books, Karasz also did large scale maps, such as this stunning Plan de Paris.

But the book for which she prepared perhaps the greatest number of maps is New York: Not So Little and Not So Old (1926) by Sarah M. Lockwood.

From the front cover to the endpapers...

and throughout the book...

Karasz's distinctive maps blend perfectly with her woodblock illustrations.

And her proclivity for maps combines directly with her illustration in her most famous work, the covers of The New Yorker.

Background information on Ilonka Karasz's life and widespread art career comes from the only book length study of her work Enchanting Modern: Ilonka Karasz by Ashley Callahan, which, however, makes no mention of Karasz's maps.

To see all of the illustrations from New York: Not So Little and Not So Old, visit my Flickr set here. Don't miss Karasz's rendition of the Jolly Roger, the stocks and noose, and the Flatiron Building.

All images are copyrighted © and owned by their respective holders.

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