what’s in your toolbox: maira kalman

Ok y’all, do you have your happy-dance shoes on? I DO! I am still in shock as I introduce the woman who has made a career out of daydreaming, the inimitable Maira Kalman. Her illustrations are as honest and idiosyncratically witty as they are wildly imaginative. Not only are her books delicious to look at it, her words draw on the well of emotions within us all. Reading a Maira Kalman book, visiting her phenomenal visual blog for the New York Times or stumbling upon one of her illustrations is like walking into a page of someone’s diary or scrapbook.

Maira records the moments most people don’t even notice and makes them beautiful. She finds poetry in the mundane and her children’s books are wonderful for the old soul and the young-at-heart alike. Maira updated Strunk and White’s timeless writing manual The Elements of Style with her iconic, offbeat and vibrant illustrations. She has also designed fabric for Isaac Mizrahi, accessories for Kate Spade, sets for the Mark Morris Dance Company, and, with her late husband Tibor Kalman under the M&Co. label, clocks, umbrellas, and other accessories for the Museum of Modern Art. Thank you Maira, for your sensational interview, you are such an inspiration to so many. I’m beyond grateful to have interviewed you. — Ginny

*I also can not wait to get my hands on a copy of Maira’s new book, And the Pursuit of Happiness, from her critically acclaimed and much-beloved blog!!

Maira decided to paint her studio portrait above. I asked her why . . .

Maira Kalman: In response to the question, why a painting and not a photo? Well. A photo is true. But a painting is truer.

1. Design*Sponge: What is in your toolbox? What tools and products can you not live without?

Maira Kalman: Fabriano Artistico paper. Winsor & Newton Gouache. Wooden pen holder and nib. Higgins Eternal Black Ink.

2. Design*Sponge: Fill in the blank, “when I am in my studio, I feel ____ .”

CLICK HERE for the rest of the interview after the jump!

3. Design*Sponge: What are on the top shelves of your inspiration library at the moment?

Maira Kalman: I have walls of pictures. Pages torn from magazines. Many obituaries. Fashion. On my shelves are books on photography, architecture, art, film, natural science, fashion, interiors, industrial design.

4. Design*Sponge: How do you combat creative blocks? What tools do you use to keep your creativity flowing?

Maira Kalman: I walk a lot and look a lot. Just walking and looking seems to do the trick. When I am back in my studio I am listening to music. Mostly classical. “St. Matthew’s Passion” has been listened to 100 times in the last six months.

5. Design*Sponge: In addition to being an illustrator, artist, designer and author of the blog-cum-book, And the Pursuit of Happiness featured in the NY Times, what would you like to conquer next?

Maira Kalman: I would like to continue doing what I am doing. Writing/drawing books, traveling, visiting gardens around the world. Working with children and the elderly. What that means I don’t know. But I will find out.

6. Design*Sponge: In a sentence, what advice would you give to young, aspiring illustrators? What was the best advice you ever received?

Maira Kalman: The best advice I ever received was “keep working” and “never never never give up.” That was actually said by Winston Churchill. Not to me of course, but still. That is the only advice I can give. If you actually like illustrating, find a way to do it, even if you need to have other work to pay the bills.

7. Design*Sponge: If you could peek inside the toolbox/studio of any artist/designer/craftsman (dead or alive) who would it be?

Maira Kalman: Marcel Duchamp.

8. Design*Sponge: What does your daily agenda book/planner look like?

Maira Kalman: I have lots of lists. Very organized. Or I tell myself I am.

9. Design*Sponge: Where do you like to shop for inspiration?

Maira Kalman: The Strand Bookstore. Flea markets, junk shops, thrift shops, antique stores.

10. Design*Sponge: If you had to make a mix-tape of songs that inspire you at the moment, what would they be?

Maira Kalman: Anything sung by Lorraine Hunt Lieberson. Ella and Louis (Fitzgerald and Armstrong). Getz/Gilberto.

  1. mina says:

    Wonderful, how simple and true.
    Loved Maira’s book, the Principles of Uncertainty. I read it several times.

  2. Moe says:

    Woohoo!!! Love it.

  3. Chloe C says:

    Thoroughly enjoyed this. Thank you.

  4. Carmen says:

    I just bought tickets for me and two girlfriends to see her in LA on Nov 16th!! Can’t wait…. thank you for this post!!!!

  5. Camille says:

    What a treat. Thank you so much for this post/interview. I find inspiration and beauty in her illustrations and humor. Thank you for making my day.

    Love all the way from Mozambique!

  6. I heart Maira. If you hurry, you can still catch her show at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Franciso. Wonderful, wonderful stuff. Thanks for this peek into her studio.

  7. Michelle Escudero says:

    Move over Ruth Bader Ginsburg and make room for Maira. Let’s do lunch and talk about that hand-on-the-bible verse the hand-on-the-constitution issue.

    Absolutely LOVE your eye, your whit, and your style!

  8. Maira is my hero! I nearly melted when I saw Various Illuminations (of a Crazy World0 in Philadelphia. Thank you for posting the interview!

  9. beth says:

    darn! the links to the pics are broken! can’t wait to see the thumbnails larger. great article and WIN for D*S! ;0)

  10. amy says:

    she is so cool! thank you for posting this, I love her work!

  11. jana says:

    what everybody else said. I love her. she’s like the ben franklin of illustrators. no. she’s the maira kalman of illustratos. she’s amazing. made my night!

  12. Ann K. says:

    I adore Maira Kalman’s work. I want Maira Kalman to be my friend! She makes me think hard, feel deeply and laugh. What an inspiration!
    Thanks for this post, DS!

  13. julian says:

    I always love anything I see and read about Maira. Thanks so much.

  14. Rhiannon says:

    Oh – this cheered up a very grey rainy cold morning in Scotland. I have loved Maira Kalman’s work for ages – what a treat to have this little peek into her creative world. Thank you !

  15. Anne says:

    Maria Kalman is the quintessential example of “drawing attention to life.” What an inspiration!

    All good wishes.

  16. Kat Gordon says:

    I just returned from the final day of Maira’s exhibit at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in SF. What surprised me was how much I appreciated her writing — not just her seductive illustrations. Thanks for a lovely post.

  17. Noelle says:

    This has pretty much changed my life. Thank you so much for spotlighting such an inspirational artist!

  18. Katy Gilmore says:

    Thank you D*S for visiting Maira Kalman and letting us come along. I never, ever can get enough of looking at how she organizes her world – in word and image and tabletop. Maira Kalman inspires!!!


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