Stephan Van Dam's career as a map publisher and design entrepreneur began with origami. Such was his fascination with the Japanese art of paper folding that the Swiss-born designer, 30 years old, came up with ''The World Unfolds,'' an award-winning series of maps that presented the lay of the land in major cities in the United States in tidy, fold-up booklets small enough to put in a purse.
Mr. Van Dam's maps hold both a United States patent and a copyright as kinetic sculpture. Now his small publishing house in Manhattan has moved on to what the designer likes to call ''a hip approach to looking at the cosmos.''
His pop-up ''Eco- Guides'' to the ocean, desert, Moon, Mars, universe and rain forest are whimsical, brightly colored investigations of the wonders of earth and sky. They are educational tools as well as graphic design with a social conscience.
Rand McNally he is not. ''We feel information has a lot of play value,'' Mr. Van Dam explained. ''We want to show that there's more than one way to understand something. Hopefully, the guides will make the information more accessible as well as excite, confront, provoke and engage the reader.''
Billed as ''Handy in the Jungle, Handsome in Your Study,'' the ''Rain Forest Unfolds'' guide includes pop-up maps of flora and fauna, rain forest facts and myths and stories. The ''Eco-Guides'' are $9.95 and are sold in museum shops and major bookstore chains.
Mr. Van Dam's own little corner in the map-publishing world is in the meat-market area of Manhattan. That, perhaps, is fate.''We look down at the bone trucks and think about the cosmos,'' he said.
Stephan Van Dam: a hip approach to maps.