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what’s in your toolbox: maira kalman

by Ginny

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.

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  • Incredible. She is such a huge inspiration of mine.

    This is awesome timing: I was very lucky to hear her speak at the Texas Book Festival in Austin on Saturday and I was moved to tears several times by what she said. She said something along the lines of “what you produce will reveal where you are going” and I have been pondering that, as a mantra, for days. . . .

  • thanks *so* much for this! maira kalman is such an inspiration and delight for me! and wow, i had no idea until today that i’ve been using the same gouache and eraser and ink that she uses *¬}

  • Such a rich interior world. There is a reason designers are foragers and collectors of visual bits of this and that – it does feed your muse.

  • LOVE her work…And really LOVE that she seems so grounded and accessible…Makes me more motivated to keep doing what I love , even when there are days I feel done with it…Thankyou…

  • So cool! Wow! I’ve admired her work for a while now but never put the name to it until I picked up Elements of Style. I loved her blog post about immigrants for the NYT.

  • Thank you for this post! It’s the gentle shove I needed to get me into my studio today!

  • This was terrific, thanks! I have, and absolutely love, her book MAX IN LOVE. I loved reading it over and over to my son when he was first born…I keep reintroducing it now and then, mostly because I love to read it out loud so much. Did I mention I loved it?

  • heather, YES! i creep my husband out when i tell him i want to start a collection of her books for our future kids. but they are the best kind of children’s books for adults :)

  • Thank you so much for this post! Maira Kalman is one of my favorite artists. Made my crappy week brighter.

  • Reading this post and the responses was so inspiring – what a delightful woman and interview. I now want to paint my work space and write fun words of wisdom on it! :)

  • I did a triple take to make sure I really was seeing this. Maira Kalman! Get out of here! Thank you for an inside peek…such wisdom, it’s inspiring. ps. I want the chair made of paper. I would like to sit there and peruse what’s on the shelf behind it.
    Suzi Q

  • I was very fortunate to be invited to Maira’s home and studio a few weeks ago. She is really a magical person not afraid to share exactly what’s going on in her head. Her studio iss full of cataloged boxes containing bits and pieces of whatever-may-come. And that cardboard chair was comfortable beyond words.

    Great interview, d*s Crew. Keep em’ commin’.

  • I’m starstruck! Maira Kalman…here on D*S.

    Her version of “The Elements of Style” is my go-to gift for students of all shapes and sizes!

  • that last illustration CRACKED. ME. UP! Just goes to show that if you have an unconventional (illustration) style, stick with it and believe in it, and never, ever imitate!

  • The Maira Kalman show at the Jewish Museum in San Francisco was fabulous – I went to see it twice. It is still there until the 26th of this month and I would urge anyone who likes her art to go. Afterwards, walk a few feet to Beard Papa and get a yummy eclair to eat and/or paint a picture of!

  • wow! it’s a thursday morning, i’m sitting at my desk at work, sneaking in a little blog catch up with a morning coffee. i’m in awe of the creative energy and freedom and peace i get just reading this from the other side of the globe. wow!

  • I love Maira Kalman. Anytime I encounter one of her illustrations I smile. My stuffed Max doll sits on my bookshelf and watches me, but mostly he composes poetry.

  • Ah! I love her! I was raised on her books – sayonara Mrs.Kackleman was always my favourite and I still keep it with me – her illustrations are so interesting, they really hold your attention whether you’re a kid or an adult.

  • ‘A photo is true. But a painting is truer.’ Wow! Love every word and every image. Thank you design*sponge!

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

  • 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!!!!

  • 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!

  • 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.

  • 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!

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

  • 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!

  • 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!

  • 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 !

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

    All good wishes.

  • 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.

  • 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!!!