Dialogue: Nicola Twilley - Design Bureau

Foodprint Toronto

A panel at Foodprint Toronto, organized by Twilley and Foodprint Project co-founder Sarah Rich

Twilley uses maps as research tools and storytelling devices that reveal and reimagine how food shapes cities. Based on research at Vosshall Lab, the Los Angeles writer made a scratch-and-sniff map of New York for an exhibition in the Pratt Manhattan Gallery. Photos via

Writers and designers as visual anthropologists. Twilley researched galleries of lids to look at the evolution of the disposable coffee-cup topper.

A film by Berg London on Nearness, which explores the idea of “interacting without touching.”

Chewing gum art by Ben Wilson

Chewing-gum art by artist Ben Wilson. Photo by Andrew Testa for The New York Times

Work from Landscapes of Quarantine, a multi-disciplinary group exhibition at Storefront for Art and Architecture, curated by Twilley with her husband, Geoff Manaugh of BLDGBLOG, which explored the dimensions of quarantine through a variety of lenses, including a series of quarantine-inspired dinners. Photo by Emiliano Granado, via

Dialogue: Nicola Twilley

Wednesday, June 29th, 2011

by Sarah Handelman

Nicola Twilley craves a good design mystery. And on her blog, Edible Geography, the Los Angeles-based food and design writer uncovers fascinating stories that leave her flock of hungry readers coming back for more. Whether she’s sleuthing cupcake code or exploring the tradition of three-dimensional biscuitry, Twilley says that food and design can reveal how we shape the world.  Drawing from the blog’s hyper-interdisciplinary nature, Twilley is also the co-founder (with Sarah Rich) of Foodprint Project, a traveling series of public seminars that explores how food and cities interact. As a contributor to The Atlantic and former GOOD food editor, Twilley is a writer who knows her stuff. Still, she isn’t seeking definite answers. “I’ve always been interested in what food can tell us about the world,” she says. “But it’s not about right or wrong. My approach is about opening up the conversation, rather than closing it down. This way you can always reimagine the possibilities.”

How is using design as a lens to write about food a powerful tool?

I think of it both ways — using design as my lens to talk about food, and using food as my lens to talk about design. It’s an intellectual trick. When you use something as a lens to look at something else, you can see it in a different way. And if you can flip that lens, you see it in a different way again. The real joy of writing, speaking, and thinking about ideas, for me, is in that process of trying to see things in different ways, and to use whatever intellectual scaffolding you can to reimagine them. Using design as a lens gives me a way of writing about food that is actually a way of writing about space, geography, culture, and architecture — which are big ideas about how we shape the world and how food is a part of shaping the world.

Why are maps important to food and design writing?

Mapping is a pet love of mine. Maps have a wonderful kind of poetry of locating yourself in a world. I particularly like the openness of maps now that digital technology has made them easier to create; they've become personal, particular, and multiple.

Maps are always telling a story based on what data you choose to put on them. But now the proliferation of mapping (realtime mapping, crowdsourced mapping) has opened up an explosion of different maps, which are all different ways of seeing food in the shape of the city. You learn more about your city when you look at food’s spatial implications. You see the way the city feeds itself, and the way the city shapes and is shaped by its food supply.

Mapping is an unbelievably important tool to play with — to allow you to see what’s there and also to tell a visual story.

What can food writing be?

What I’m always interested in is what food can tell us about the world, and expanding the territory of what food writing is. And then, for me, online writing is about finding something to add to the conversation and trying to say something that hasn’t already been said.

If I don’t keep on top of my Google RSS Reader, it explodes on a daily basis. If I’m not careful, I have 50 tabs open in my browser — it all slows down and crashes. There’s so much online! And that’s before we get to books. Should I switch to Kindle? I can’t move ever again because I have so many books. There’s too much to read already. Why add to it if it isn’t something new?

Snapshot: Nicola Twilley

Anything lately that has made you look twice?

I loved this New York Times article about Ben Wilson's chewing gum paintings. Given that London spends something along the lines of £4 million each year to remove chewing gum litter, it's pretty lovely to see a way to embrace it, rather than fight it.

What designer/studio/project should we have started watching yesterday?

So many! But start with BERG and Stamen.

Best place to get things done:

I'll let you know when I find it.

Best place to get nothing done:

Everywhere else.

Best exhibition you’ve been to lately:

Yesterday, I was at the Museum of Jurassic Technology for the first time in five years, and it has a number of new exhibits (one on trailer parks, including a lovely section on trailer park disasters, and one on the mechanical illusions of Greek theater set design), as well as old favorites such as the Peruvian stink ant and the micromosaics made from individual scales peeled from butterfly wings. It is one of the best places in the world to "get oneself reoriented in a fundamental way," as its neighbor, the Center for Land Use Interpretation (which is equally mind-expanding) says.

Favorite person to follow on Twitter:

Half my Twitter usage is as an alternate RSS reader, following publications like @newscientist, @PopSci, and @naturenews, and organizations such as the Institute for Augmented Ecology: @IforAE. In terms of an actual person, I'd have to say @bldgblog, but since I'm also married to him, I'll say @pruned instead. I also quite like @MrJamesReeves, not for links, but for tone (Sample: "Last night my neighbor started cranking Billy Ocean at 3am. I try to imagine the circumstances leading to this decision and I shudder.")

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