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Cartography Features Fun Maps Weekend Reads Maps

She was cut out for a future in mapmaking

After moving from Eastern Asia to live in the US as a child, some might say that Korean-born Karen O’Leary was always destined to have a special relationship with places, travel and maps.

Her childhood was spent in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania, until it was time to head for college at Virginia Tech, where she studied Architecture and Public and Urban Affairs.  It was while completing her 5th year Architecture thesis that Karen created her first hand cut map; a site map.  After graduating, she created a larger version that was 6 feet x 8 feet and comprised of Manhattan, The Bronx, Brooklyn and Queens.  Images of that impressive mapcut began to circulate online and the response was far greater than she could possibly have anticipated. It was like this, that her unintentional business; Studio KMO was born.

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Karen’s architectural background shines through her work in its minimalistic style and logical approach.  She strips the traditional map of its detail and leaves only the urban plan behind.  The result is something quite beautiful and emotional, despite its simplicity. To know that the artist has spent hours cutting pieces out of a single piece of paper that remains whole and eventually depicts a city that holds sentimental value – well, that is powerful stuff, isn’t it?

“A map is much more than just a navigational tool. It can also serve as a reminder of where we have been and where we aspire to go”

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Most creative cartographers recognise the fact that people are passionate about nostalgia, travel and storytelling and Karen is no exception to this line of thought. She uses maps to enable us to enjoy those passions through location-inspired art.

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The process of making these handcrafted pieces of art is time-consuming and awe-inspiringly intricate, with some cuttings taking up to an agonising 80 hours to complete. Using only an x-acto blade and watercolour paper, Karen has created thousands of custom maps for places all over the world.

When we ask her which places are mostly requested for custom commissions, she informs us that they vary widely but people are usually looking for reminders of hometowns, favourite holiday destinations or the places where they met or married their spouse.

Karen’s re-imagination of the traditional map goes even further than the precise map cutting, as she also creates painstakingly accurate hand drawn maps with ink pens, for her ‘City Prints’ collection.

In addition to finding O’leary’s work on display in thousands of private homes worldwide, you will also find her work hanging in The Cosmopolitan Hotel in Las Vegas, the Hyatt in New Orleans, the Four Seasons Hotel restaurant in D.C and numerous Nike stores in Minneapolis. 

The hours that she has spent mapping a plethora of cities leaves us wondering whether a yearning to travel to any particular places or perhaps even move to a new city has developed within her but it seems that her work has had the opposite effect and Karen is more content than ever, with her family in Charlotte, North Carolina.

On being asked what she envisages for the future of her maps, Karen informs us that she hopes to open a brick-and-mortar shop some time soon.

We’re looking forward to stopping by one day but for now you can stock up on Studio KMO maps or commission a custom cutting via the online shop.

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