Designer Grids: Paper Artist Karen O’Leary’s Handmade Maps


Photography by: Lauren Rosenau

Karen in her Charlotte studio.

Karen M. O’Leary, an artist and architect from Charlotte, NC, can recognize many cities by the grid of lines that represent their streets. She began cutting paper maps as part of a project for her fifth-year thesis in architecture at Virgina Tech, and has been fascinated by creative cartography ever since.

Since 2009, O’Leary has been selling custom and ready-to-ship maps on Etsy under the name Studio KMO, and has expanded her work to include ink-line map drawings. We asked her to describe her craft and chart her creative process:

What makes maps a compelling subject matter for you?

A map is a portrayal of place, and my modern maps combine the places of our daily lives and the memories we cherish into one.

What do you do before tackling a new city?

I quickly research each city, looking for the downtown, the different neighborhoods, and any special elements or landmarks that are unique to that city.


Photography by: Lauren Rosenau

Karen cuts away the spaces between a city’s streets to create her beautiful maps.

What is the cutting process like?

My pieces are all hand-cut once ordered, block by block. Cutting them by hand allows me the opportunity to design and customize each one.

Which locale’s map takes the longest to cut?

London is the most tedious and time-consuming city to cut. The blocks are so irregular and dense, unlike any other.


Photography by: Karen O’Leary

The city of Paris’ tree-lined streets translated into a paper-cut map.

How does your architecture background affect your work?

As an architect, I think very logically and minimally; my maps reflect this.

What are the tools of your trade?

X-Acto blade, pencil, and eraser.


Photography by: Lauren Rosenau

Karen at work.

How would you describe your state of mind when you’re at your drafting table?

I get this question a lot. It’s not meditative because so much concentration is needed, but the hours do go by quickly. I study the maps as I cut, and I continually think of new things that I can create with them.


Photography by: Lauren Rosenau

A notebook featuring a line-drawn map of Boston.

When you visit a city you’ve made a map of, do you know your way around?

I oddly remember so much of each city, and I do know most cities by the nameless grid.