Rachelle Unreich on Maira Kalman
I first became aware of author-artist Maira Kalman when I lived in New York, and stumbled upon her unique children’s books.
There was the memorably named Sayonara, Mrs Kackleman—but the one that really killed me was Max in Hollywood, Baby, a book in her Max the dog series. In it, Max finds himself directing a movie in LA (long story), and it’s impossible not to delight in the rollercoaster language, like when Max’s agent gives him some tips:
‘Watch your step in this town. There are some back-stabbing, power-hungry, status-seeking vegetarians here. I know of what I speak. But hey, let’s driiive. If someplace is close that means you only drive for twenty or thirty hours with your eyes peeled for stars and with your mouth glued to the phone yackin and yammerin about this deal or that script and faster than you can say ‘Marcello Mastroianni likes to eat salami,’ you have arrived.’
If that wasn’t enough to do my head in—in the most fantastic way—there were the gobsmackingly good illustrations, each page crammed with colour and detail and innovation. It was a visual explosion.
So, I began collecting Kalman’s books, and was intrigued by her unpredictable and surprising work. There she was, illustrating the classic on grammar, Strunk and White’s, The Elements of Style. In 2006, she wrote and illustrated a blog that appeared in The New York Times, “The Principles of Uncertainty”, which was later published as a book. Then, she meditated on American democracy in And The Pursuit of Happiness. One of her most famous works is a cartoon map she did with Rick Meyerowitz that ran on the cover of The New Yorker in December 2001. It showed New York’s boroughs broken up into tribes such as Pashmina (the Upper East Side) and Taxistan (the Bronx). Coming after September 11, it gave New Yorkers some levity.
In college, Kalman met the designer Tibor Kalman. The two of them remained married until his death in 1999. Together, they had two children, and ran the design company M&Co.
It’s eight o’clock in the morning in upstate New York, where Maira Kalman has temporarily retreated to do some work…