Designing "it's a small world" - Mary Blair

Mary Blair was an American artist best known for the striking concept art that she produced for the Walt Disney Company. She contributed to the design of the "it's a small world" attraction in many ways.

Blair is credited with the color scheme for "it's a small world". Her unique, amazing sense of color can be found throughout the ride.

Mary Blair's use of color is characterized by a faux naive use of pure primaries 'straight from the tube'. These colors are often put in violent contrast to each other.

Sometimes she made a daring, surprising selection of hues: a mocha sky, salmon mountains,...

Her use of color is reminiscent of Josef Albers color theories about how colors affects spatial perception. Families of saturated reds, ranging from oranges through violet to cerise, can be found in 'hot' regions of the Small World.

Blair's witty, childlike and utterly charming style is clearly reflected in the theatrical sceneries. The buildings seem to be collages, made of colored paper that comes in a standard set of colors and shapes.

All angular cutouts are lopsided, domes and circles have egg-shaped profiles and arches are taller than they are wide and slightly unsteady on their stork-like legs.

Mary Blair's treatment of place makes one venue look a lot like all the others in the Small World, and reduces architecture to a kind of universal principle that changes only by degrees from Paris to Anaheim, and from Orlando to Hong Kong.

The "it's a small world" dolls, with their big heads and tiny features, came directly from a series of Hallmark note cards designed under the Walt Disney label by Mary Blair in the 1940's.

One set used country themes tied to the release of the Disney movie 'So Dear to My Heart'. Another was based on places Blair visited during the Disney expedition that toured South America in 1941.

What the subjects had in common was intense, sometimes dissonant color, simple shapes, and children with the huge heads of infants.

Blair's design of the attraction's facade is a miscellaneous collection of rectangles fitted together like the segments of an abstract painting.

The shapes hint at temple fronts and minarets but act like a curtain, screening off a panorama of world architecture. This reinforces the theme: 'it's a small world after all'.

While it has been popular to think of "small world" as all Blair's creation, many other talented Disney artists contributed significantly to the ride. Marc Davis worked on sweetly funny details that enlivened the trip (like a trio of Dutch geese that quacked in time to the music or a five year old Cleopatra).

Walt Disney Imagineer Claude Coats laid out the path of the global river that carried the boats. Rolly Crump and Jack Ferges worked on the animated toys scattered throughout the scenery. The dolls were sculpted by Blaine Gibson and costumed by Alice Davis.

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Dolce Danielle
Meandering Mouse
Peter Pan Fan
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Shared Knowledge

Submitted by Dolores on August 18, 2014 - 02:54 #

Actually two of the photos (Mary Blair with Walt Disney holding picture boards and Mary Blair drawing directly onto a wall) are from her mural she designed for the Jules Stein Eye Institute building at UCLA. The mural can still be seen at the center, it is in the pediatric waiting room on the first floor.


Submitted by Anonymous on June 27, 2012 - 20:31 #

Thanks for the article. Very Nice. Just curious why your photos are not from the World's Fair interiors or the Disneyland attraction, since those would be the shows Blair had the most influence on (although I know she consulted on the WDW Magic Kingdom version).

Although I realize Blaire's influence is in all versions of the attraction, there are variations in the way color is used. It looks like your photos are from Paris.

I've always thought the Paris Small World has a much brighter feel. In Disneyland the massive black walls of the show building seem to be present much of the time, which gives me the feeling of some of Blaire's artwork. Paris has less blank black walls and more larger color backdrops and lights which give it a different, although equally as pleasing, but perhaps less pure Mary Blaire style. Also, the finale scenes use a different color style.

I believe the predominate use of white in the Disneyland version was Blaire's concept. If my memory is correct, Paris has a much more colorful finale scene. I'm not pretending to be an expert on this subject, but this is just my observation.

Submitted by Cory on October 14, 2011 - 18:46 #

When I first went to Disneyland, I intended to skip It's a Small World because of its reputation. My friends dragged me on it and, actually, it was pretty amazing. The difference was to not look at it as a ride, but as a massive work of kinetic sculpture by Mary Blair (and co.).

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