Meet Toni Mair — Terrain Artist Extraordinaire

While I was in Switzerland for the mountain cartography workshop in Lenk this February, Tom Patterson arranged a visit with Toni Mair, an outstanding relief model artist working near Zürich. We met Toni at the train station and he drove us up to his house where we had tea and met his gracious wife Myrtha. Afterwards, we toured Toni’s atelier or artist studio where several completed and under-construction models were on display. Stefan Räber from ETH-Zürich has an article (PDF) on Toni and his technique that I’ll summarize inline with my photos after the jump.

Toni Mair has been creating sculptural, three-dimensional alpine landscape representations since 1972 (that’s over 35 years) and his talent shows. In fact, Toni is one of the only traditional artist still creating these models by hand. His first attempt was the Rafzerfeld while he was a high school geography teacher in Zug. He made models on the side during that time and after retirement in 2002 relief modeling became his full time job. Toni learned his time-honored craft from über model maker and eminent cartographer, Eduard Imhof.

There has been a resurgence in this field recently with automated, CAD-assisted solid terrain modeling that is capable but course in its ability to capture fine landscape detail or rock overhangs and suffers from fuzzy ink-jet printing.

Toni Mair has created dozens (list) of intricately detailed, large-scale, 1:1 vertical z-scaling models painted with the land cover, rock, ice, glaciers, forest textures, waterfalls, roads, tracks, town buildings, church spires, ski gondolas, mountain huts, and climbing routes. Besides the detailed painting, accurately carved rock textures best exemplify Toni’s unique talents. His work is displayed in museums and private collections around the world.

There are 10+ more photos and captions. Click the “Read more…” link below Photo 1 to continue.


Photo 1. Toni Mair showing off one of his terrain models in his studio (mountains around the village Engelberg in Central Switzerland, more details in Photo 9 past the jump).


Photo 2. Toni’s most recent work is of Simien Mountains National Park, Ethiopia. This model in 3 pieces is a “practice run” working on the shape and coloring at 1:10,000 scale. A final version can be seen on display at the Zürich Zoo. (Look for another of Toni’s models when you visit the zoo: Madagascar’s Masoala National Park.) Another original version of the Simien model will be placed at the wildlife office in Debark, Ethiopia courtesy of Professor Hans Hurni, Institute of Geography, University of Berne who is active in different research projects in Ethiopia. Toni consults a variety of source maps and airphotos to build up the terrain and give it the right texture and color. He often uses a airphoto pair mirror stereoscope viewing station (not shown). From left-to-right: Tom Patterson (US National Park Service), Michaela Kinberger (University of Vienna), and Toni Mair (artist).

toni mair relief semien 1

Detail from Photo 2-a. Simien Mountains National Park, Ethiopia

toni mair relief semien 2

Detail from Photo 2-b. Simien Mountains National Park, Ethiopia

imholf model stepstoni mair steps 1toni mair steps 2

Photo 3. This series of photos shows how the models begin: contour maps are pasted onto boards and then cut with a jig saw along 10- or 20-meter contour intervals, as appropriate to the model’s scale. These sheets are then stacked together and plastered to give a rough form. Finer details are then carved into the plaster with metal tools ala a dentist’s kit. Note: numbers in the two sets of illustrations roughly correspond in sequence but not 1:1 (Eduard Imhof and Toni Mair). More details in article 1 and article 2 by Stefan Räber of ETH-Zürich.


Photo 4. Once the form is complete Toni will make a negative mold using a plastic rubber (pink under the plaster). Then he will pour several positives back out of the mold and color them (models on the table). Needless to say he has a good relationship buying bulk with his suppliers!


Photo 5. Toni demonstrates the flexibility of the plastic (rubber) negative mold.


Photo 6. On the larger scale models Toni will use sand and small gravel collected from local sources and colored to give texture to wooded areas.


Photo 7. Toni uses pigments that are color lasting. There is no layer of polish applied over the original paint.


Photo 8. Toni will supplement overhead airphotos with land-based photos of mountain faces to capture minute details in the terrain. Here he demonstrates using a square to measure the XYZ of a location on the mountain and compare it with a terrestrial photo (model of the Eiger north face with climbing routes). It is important to note that Toni’s models are very precise in their detail; they are not generic, impressionistic abstractions but scientifically accurate models of the terrain and land cover often down to individual rocks, trees, and buildings that exist in the real world.


Photo 9. Here you can see the Engelberg model that was displayed at the conference. These mountains are around the village Engelberg in Central Switzerland. The most known mountain in this model is called Titlis (3238m), a glacier covered peak in the picture on the right (detail below). Other modeled high mountains are Uri-Rotstock (2928m), Gross Spannort (3198m), Fuenffingerstoeck (3023m), Zwaechten (3080m). The lake on the edge (right at the bottom) is called Truebsee. The other lake called Bannalpsee, left in the picture. The pond next to the village is unnamed. The photo has taken from direction northwest to southeast. This model is not finished yet; it will extended to the west in another section. The final Engelberg relief model will be composed of three main blocks. Final dimension: 3 meters square.

toni mair engelberg titlis

Detail from Photo 9.a. Titlis (3238m) in the Engelberg model, Central Switzerland.


Photo 10. Here’s a small terrain puzzle Toni is working on for a friend.


Photo 11. At the end of our tour Toni surprised us with gifts of small plaster models. Kevin McManigal (left, soon of Adventure Cycling Association) and Martin Gamache (right, National Geographic Magazine Maps) show off theirs. Perhaps in 15 years of practicing I could master the plaster art but in the meantime I can practice painting Natural Earth II onto my model ;)

Many thanks to Toni Mair (photo credits 2a, 2b, 3, and 9a), Stefan Räber (conveyance of Toni’s images, author of the 3 articles), and Tom Patterson for the invite. All other photos by Nathaniel Vaughn KELSO.

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19 Responses to “Meet Toni Mair — Terrain Artist Extraordinaire”

  1. [...] Physical landscape models Meet Tony Mair [...]

  2. [...] Kelso, the staff cartographer for The Washington Post and an acquaintance of mine, has published a fascinating look at the work of Toni Mair, a Swiss artist that creates 3-dimensional models of landscapes. Nat, and a few other [...]

  3. furnod says:

    These models are magnificent. The only thing that looks strange are the places where he uses a yellowish green, but I guess the color must be right. So I went to to see the color shown by satellite and it was much greener. Perhaps he’s using a different season. Check it out.,+switzerland&sll=37.0625,-95.677068&sspn=48.421237,68.378906&ie=UTF8&ll=46.819953,8.400647&spn=0.082344,0.133553&t=h&z=13

  4. [...] Kelso Cartography is owned and run by Nathaniel Vaughn Kelso works as cartographer at the Washington Post. You can see some of his Award winning cartography for that newspaper here (well worth a look at all the exceptional cartography).  In another article from the same site, he meets with Toni Mair in Switzerland, a terrain artist. Toni Mair has been creating sculptural, three-dimensional alpine landscape representations since 1972 (that’s over 35 years) and his talent shows. In fact, Toni is one of the only traditional artist still creating these models by hand. [...]

  5. iapad says:

    Hello Nice models! You may e interested in having a look at my web site where Participatory 3D Models are featured. Here is the link:

  6. [...] reception to my Toni Mair photo essay blog post continues to blow my mind. The first day it was up on March 11th my site got [...]

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  8. [...] most popular blog posts: Meet Toni Mair — Terrain Artist Extraordinaire Dorling Cartograms – Carbon Atlas – SND [...]

  9. [...] intricate and beautiful: an old school craft but scientifically accurate models of the terrain. Kelso´s Cartography explains how he does it and what distinguishes him from the digital 3d scanning, lasering and [...]

  10. Anil Agashe says:

    Extraordinary work! Suitable for Himalyan Ranges too.

    Does the group work on Anaglyph Cartography? If not any other contacts?

    An anaglyph cartography worker.

    Dr. Anil Agashe, Pune, India

  11. [...] Kelso, the staff cartographer for The Washington Post and an acquaintance of mine, has published a fascinating look at the work of Toni Mair, a Swiss artist that creates 3-dimensional models of landscapes. Nat, and a few other [...]

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  14. matt wilkie says:

    wow. I am in absolute awe. Thank you for sharing and providing such wonderful photos.

    What is that big blue machine in the background of the last photo?