The Many Faces (And Sculptures) Of Edward Tufte

  • Edward Tufte's Larkin's Twig contains elements from his sparkline stat graphic, pulled into three dimensions and scaled tenfold.
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    Edward Tufte's Larkin's Twig contains elements from his sparkline stat graphic, pulled into three dimensions and scaled tenfold.
    Photo by Edward Tufte
  • In Millstone 3 (foreground) and Millstone 1 (background) Tufte used scrap metal from a power plant to play with circles and light.
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    In Millstone 3 (foreground) and Millstone 1 (background) Tufte used scrap metal from a power plant to play with circles and light.
    Photo by Edward Tufte
  • Tufte's Bird Series was made to emulate a bird's gentle movement.
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    Tufte's Bird Series was made to emulate a bird's gentle movement.
    Photo by Andrei Severny
  • Like many of Tufte's sculptures, Dear Leader resembles a three-dimensional interpretation of the simplicity he proposes in his theories of information design.
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    Like many of Tufte's sculptures, Dear Leader resembles a three-dimensional interpretation of the simplicity he proposes in his theories of information design.
    Photo by Andrei Severny
  • Tufte crafted Magritte's Smile as a tribute to Belgian painter Rene Magritte.
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    Tufte crafted Magritte's Smile as a tribute to Belgian painter Rene Magritte.
    Photo by Edward Tufte
  • Tufte's Buddha Mobile depicts the deity with a bird's nest on his head. Tradition has it that the Buddha was able to meditate so serenely, birds could nest there.
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    Tufte's Buddha Mobile depicts the deity with a bird's nest on his head. Tradition has it that the Buddha was able to meditate so serenely, birds could nest there.
    Photo by Andrei Severny
  • Made of 48,000 pounds of scrap steel, Tufte's Rocket Science casts a long shadow.
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    Made of 48,000 pounds of scrap steel, Tufte's Rocket Science casts a long shadow.
  • Known in design fields as the father of information design, Edward Tufte is the author of a renowned series of books on the topic. The cover of his first book, The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, features E.J. Marey's graphical train schedule, displaying travel times from Paris to Lyon in 1885.
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    Known in design fields as the father of information design, Edward Tufte is the author of a renowned series of books on the topic. The cover of his first book, The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, features E.J. Marey's graphical train schedule, displaying travel times from Paris to Lyon in 1885.
  • Tufte considers Charles Joseph Minard's figurative maps, produced in 1869, "the best statistical graphic ever drawn."  The upper map details Hannibal's dwindling army wandering the northern Italian Alps 2,200 years ago. The lower map visualizes the losses suffered when Napoleon invaded Russia in 1812.  To designers everywhere, this map is now synonymous with Tufte's work.
    Hide caption
    Tufte considers Charles Joseph Minard's figurative maps, produced in 1869, "the best statistical graphic ever drawn." The upper map details Hannibal's dwindling army wandering the northern Italian Alps 2,200 years ago. The lower map visualizes the losses suffered when Napoleon invaded Russia in 1812. To designers everywhere, this map is now synonymous with Tufte's work.

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Edward Tufte has a big backyard that stretches for hundreds of acres near Cheshire, Conn. Over the years, he's filled that space with giant metal sculptures as big as the trees.

"I think it was Richard Serra who said that the market for big, outdoor landscape pieces is like the market for Canadian experimental poetry," he says. "So I can never be accused of being market-driven in the art world."

Tufte is an accomplished grand-scale sculptor, but he is perhaps more famous for making charts, graphs and diagrams beautiful. He's been called the "DaVinci of Design" and the "Minister of Information." His books — with titles like The Visual Display of Quantitative Information — are widely read by Web architects, scientists and basically anyone else who's interested in presenting data creatively and clearly.

And, the new edition of Microsoft Office will include a Tufte creation: the "sparkline." It's a small graphic, the size of two short words, which can be embedded in text to depict stock markets or baseball stats.

If that weren't enough, Tufte has also been recruited by the White House to join the Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board, to advise and devise ways to track how the $787 billion stimulus package is being spent.

A Gallery For ET

Edward Tufte and "Magritte's Smile" i i

Scott Simon caught up with statistician-turned-sculptor Edward Tufte at ET Modern, his new art gallery in New York. Thomas Pierce/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Thomas Pierce/NPR
Edward Tufte and "Magritte's Smile"

Scott Simon caught up with statistician-turned-sculptor Edward Tufte at ET Modern, his new art gallery in New York.

Thomas Pierce/NPR

Now, the man known as "ET" has just opened a gallery, ET Modern, in New York City's art district. It showcases some of Tufte's smaller pieces. It has the look of what might be a playroom for children — if that playroom were at MIT.

Two grinning aluminum fish, each twelve feet long, swim on wires in separate rooms. Tufte says they were crafted as an homage to Rene Magritte's painting of a fish with a sly smile. Another sculpture, called the Lunar Lander, looks like an enormous, playful steel Schnauzer.

"It's candy-apple red. It's meant to go to the moon, so it should look good," he says. "It's made from scrap metal from the Millstone nuclear power plant, so it glows in the dark."

Tufte says he's not sure he could sell some of the pieces in his gallery.

"I have a very big problem selling pieces, because I don't want them to leave," he says. "For a long time, I believed that any successful piece was a tremendous luck-out, and that I'd never be able to do it again ... My fellow artist friends, who are serious with me, told me to grow up."

When The White House Calls...

Tuft credits the combination of his Midwest and Scandanavian heritage plus an Ivy-league professorship for his attraction to public service. "I sincerely believe that to whom much is given, much one should deliver back," he says.

So when the White House called to ask him how they could make government spending easier to track on websites, he advised them to steer clear of what he calls "chartjunk": graphics that look flashy, but actually conceal or distort information.

"Your metaphor should be: You're reporting," he says. Like Google News or The New York Times. "You're reporting — that's the model."

That advice helped shape a website, Recovery.gov, which helps track the use of the stimulus package.

"I'm working on things where people can see immediately the 100 biggest projects, the 100 smallest projects, the 100 biggest medical projects, the 100 smallest medical projects," he says. "So it's a way of — in one click — of getting down to the material. And also you can put your zip code in and see the projects."

When asked if his work with the government and with information design has any overlap with his art, Tufte says he does see a commonality. In the end, he wants to try and leave things that are forever — and that "make people see a little differently."

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