People are seeking refuge from today’s chaos in the soothing promise of graph paper

So peaceful.
So peaceful.
Image: Reuters/Alessandro Garofalo
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There are few things more reassuring in life than the simplicity of a gridded notebook. The orderly squares associated with our school days promise that knowledge can be neatly condensed into periods and tables, rows and columns; our mornings and afternoons divided into blocks, and our years into quarters.

In these chaotic and uncertain times, perhaps that’s why the gridded notebook is experiencing a popular resurgence among creative-minded adults. Nearly all of today’s popular luxury notebook brands—Moleskine, Rhodia, Leuchtturm, Fieldnotes, MUJI—have gridded options. The London-based Present & Correct, a specialty stationery shop dedicated to sourcing paper products that nod to “the things we have enjoyed since school,” offers a steady supply of gridded goods—from the functional (a 1970s graph paper roll) to the purely decorative (gridded envelopes). McNally Jackson’s Goods for the Study, a high-end purveyor of new and vintage office goods in New York City, sells chic gridded paper; Poketo, in Los Angeles, stocks graph-paper-patterned pens. The trend has seeped into markets beyond stationary: Urban Outfitters sells graph paper wallpaper, and the Company Store sells a graph-paper duvet cover.

“I think the attraction is nostalgia and a curiosity,” Neal Whittington, the owner of Present & Correct, writes in an email. “My customers love any kind of niche graph paper which they haven’t encountered before.”

It’s easy to see graph paper’s appeal. The mathematically-ordered lines and squares imply an unwavering rationality and logic—qualities that many people are desperate for in an era of unpredictable natural disasters, unchecked prejudice, and under-qualified political leaders. In times of stress and anxiety, our impulse is to find a way to break down an overwhelming situation into simpler, more solvable parts.

But a dive through the history of the gridded notebook—and its immutable predecessor, the grid—reveals that it’s not as straight and narrow as it might seem. From the 15th century to today, gridded paper’s cultural significance has taken swerving, unpredictable, and altogether fascinating path.

A brief history of the grid

Off paper, the grid can be found everywhere—from bathroom tiles to prison cells to the longitudinal and latitudinal coordinates used to locate any place on earth. As far back as the Romans, urban planners have used the grid to layout cities and counties, making them easier to regulate and navigate.

Put the grid to paper, and our association tends to narrow. We think of elementary and secondary school, where graph paper helped us learn decimals, plot coordinates, and navigate the tricky waters of trigonometry. We used it to draw maps in geography and create charts in science classes. In some countries, its uses are not limited to math and science: In France, for example, students learn to perfect their cursive handwriting on sheets of gridded paper.  

egyptian artist sketch
An Egyptian artist’s sketch, from between 1479-1458 BC.
Image: Metropolitan Museum of Art/CC0 1.0

In fact, graph paper has long been appreciated by artists, architects, and scientists for its ability to give infrastructure to their visions. Cesare Cesariano, for example, used hand-drawn graph paper to render Vitruvius’ ideally proportioned man in his 1521 translation of De architectura (three decades after de Vinci’s Vitruvian Man). But the actual origin of gridded paper is near impossible to pinpoint. “Nobody invented the grid,” professor Rosalind Krauss told Radiolab in a 2008 interview. “It’s graph paper, there are grids in cave painting—it’s simply a way of rationalizing the deployment of images on a plain surface.”

A 2006 academic paper (pdf) detailing the milestones in “cartography, statistical graphics, and data visualization” credits the patenting of commercially-produced printed graph paper to a Dr. Buxton of England in 1795. One prominent early adopter of the commercial paper was Thomas Jefferson, who drew up plans for the Virginia Capitol on specially engraved “squared paper”—originally intended for silk weavers—ordered from Paris. A nut for the decimal system, Jefferson preferred gridded paper that was graduated in decimal divisions. Across the pond, the British 19th-century scientist Luke Howard, who invented the cloud classifications, was another early advocate. He used it to graph barometric variations in his published research.

The grid goes modern

In the hands of 20th-century modernists, the meaning of the grid evolved. Before that time, artists and architects used the grid as an invisible tool—a compositional device to accurately map a depiction of reality. But as Krauss writes in an influential 1979 paper “Grids” (pdf), the graph soon became “emblematic of modernist ambition within the visual arts.” Modernists used the grid as an abstraction, incorporating it directly onto the surface of the work itself. In Krauss’s words, the grid is “stridently modern”: pure, ordered, unadorned, and uncorrupted.

One of the most famous fans of the grid is minimalist artist Sol Lewitt, who first used the pattern in his three-dimensional modular cube structures. In 1968, he started translating the concept to drawings. Lewitt’s grids harken back to school days: They are math lessons in and of themselves. For a 1968 publication called The Xerox Book, Lewitt worked out a system of 24 permutations of a line drawn four different ways: horizontal, vertical, 45º diagonal right and 45º diagonal left. Soon after producing that drawing, Lewitt created his first in a series of wall drawings, in which he (or an assistant) would draw his complex and mesmerizing grids directly onto a gallery wall.

Other artists, including the cartoonist and illustrator Saul Steinberg, avant-garde composer Morton Feldman, and German conceptual artist Hanne Darboven, all made extensive and experimental use of graph paper and the grid. In the hands of abstract artists, the graph made the surface of an artwork total and complete. Its purity and rationality was a way of expressing the modernist belief in an optimistic future.

Bending the lines

Contemporary American artist Chuck Close started out using the grid as a way of ordering reality in his photo-realistic portraits. In his early paintings, he famously used the grid as an invisible mapping tool, much like the 15th century artists, but later he brought the grid to the forefront as a present, and defining, aspect of his work.

“I’m often overwhelmed by the whole,” says Close in a video for SFMOMA. “And I’ve found that if I break things down into small, bite-sized pieces, this big overwhelming problem becomes much more solvable.” Close struggled with learning disabilities in school. But the same grid that may have been frustrating for him when it came to mapping coordinates in math class comes in handy when it came to artistic expression.

chuck close
A self-portrait by Chuck Close.
Image: /Mike Segar

For Close, the underlying order of the grid doesn’t feel “strident,” as Krauss put it, or even limiting. In the grid, he found a way to work intuitively. Eventually, he began to bend the grid to his liking, tilting the angle of the grid so that the squares become diamonds, and the order inherent in the grid feels less imposing.

Postmodern graphic designers in the 1970s and 1980s took a similar approach to the grid, seeking to subvert its association with rationality and cool calculation. The ripped and collaged graph paper in Wolfgang Weingart’s State Art Aid poster, for example, and April Greiman’s theme of fragmented gridded planes viscerally expressed the postmodern notion that surfaces—whether in the form of conventions and norms, or hollow consumer ads—covered up the truth. A disillusionment with the Vietnam war, capitalism and government corruption led postmodernists to parody the fakeness of surface appearances.

In another sense, everything we now experience on a computer screen is courtesy of a graphical user interface and its underlying grid. In the early 1980s, Susan Kare, the designer famous for creating the first computer icons for the Macintosh, did so at first by mapping them onto graph paper. Using one square to equal one pixel, Kare filled gridded notebooks with fuzzy blown-out versions of the tiny icons—the “Happy Mac,” the error bomb, the trashcan—in black ink or hot pink highlighter. Now part of the permanent collections at MoMA and SFMOMA, the first icon drawings Kare did for the Macintosh were actually transferred from the graph paper to the computer screen before Apple built an icon editor for her to use.

Using a computer may not feel as though you’re working within the confines of a grid. But the fact is that the world you are clicking around in online—or anything you create on a computer screen—is made up of thousands of tiny, gridded pixels. And that’s the beautiful paradox of the grid. The challenge of working within constraints can lead to more expansive, more imaginative things. Parameters can actually feel rather freeing.

Back at Present & Correct, Whittington points out that it’s not only elementary-school nostalgia that seems to drive sales for stylish gridded-paper goods. The UK artist Alison Turnbull, for example, finds a very specific use for P&C’s paper, as well as other graph paper she collects from around the world. Turnbull’s graph-paper drawings—Cloud Drawings and Another Green World, in particular—recall the mathematical and scientific uses of graph paper in scholarship, but have a colorful, enigmatic, and imaginative quality that evokes equal parts wonderment and rationality. As Turnbull’s work shows, if at first graph paper appeals to an instinctual need for simplicity and order in the midst of turmoil, those same little squares can be an escape hatch into more imaginative realms.

“We all know squares are aesthetic creatures full of symmetries, congruences, similarities and other niceties,” reads the chirpy article on graph paper exercises from a 1978 issue of the journal The Arithmetic Teacher, published by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. It’s hard to deny that the square’s main virtue is its inherent reliability. Miniaturized and multiplied into a grid, squares become the foundation upon which almost everything in physical life is built. Printed onto graph paper, the grid becomes the ideal surface for new creation—portraits, paintings, posters, architectural drawings.

As the postmodernists show, there’s no need to stay within the lines. The grid is ripe ground for tilting, warping, ripping, and otherwise distorting into new forms. As autumn and the back-to-school season get underway, it’s only natural to crave order. But a crisp gridded notebook needn’t be a way to restrain our thinking or reign in our imaginations. As Jefferson and other architects have long known, the grid is simply an underlying structure—upon which we may be able to build something new.