Thanks to a prolific career that includes covers and illustrated stories for the New Yorker, a column for the New York Times, and a string of beautifully crafted and successful books for adults and children, 2016 AIGA medalist Maira Kalman is a familiar figure no matter how far she ranges from her home in Manhattan. When she goes onstage at UCSB’s Campbell Hall on Monday, October 24, for an Arts & Lectures event called The Illustrated Life: The Beauty of Not Knowing (sometimes), Kalman will be greeted by an eclectic audience of aesthetes — lovers of dogs, books, travel, history, art, music, and, above all, great design.
Kalman and her late husband, Tibor Kalman, first came to widespread attention in 1979 with a series of witty, irreverent products that were created for the Museum of Modern Art and marketed under the label M&Co — the “M” stands for Maira. M&Co’s subversive timepieces featured irregularly numbered faces and modern, classic fonts such as Bodoni. In an era when, everywhere you looked, wrists sported Casio and Swatch, M&Co’s watches stood apart as sophisticated and subtly but decidedly unconventional — the kind of thing you might see worn by an up-and-coming architect or a stylish graphic designer. “We started doing products because nobody else would let us,” Maira told me. Their bold take on what Kalman refers to as the clock face’s narrative inspired countless designers to throw out superfluous elements or rearrange them in unpredictable ways. Other projects at the time included memorable graphics for Interview magazine and Talking Heads.
In 1999, Kalman lost her husband/creative partner, Tibor, to cancer. In the aftermath of his death, she found the strength to become a more prolific and wide-ranging artist than ever before. Since then, Kalman has authored more than 20 books and taken part in multiple innovative collaborations. For example, in conjunction with the 2005 publication of her illustrated edition of Strunk and White’s writing guide, The Elements of Style, Kalman commissioned composer Nico Muhly to write an opera based on the book.
When asked to describe her creative process in regard to books, Kalman is characteristically modest and self-effacing, beginning with “it’s a mystery to me.” She goes on to explain that she works on a lot of things at once and that her love of taking random walks and seeking out interesting details in everyday life both have a lot to do with it. There’s also the network of editors Kalman has worked with over the years, brilliant people in their own right with lots of suggestions for the constantly in-demand artist.
Kalman’s latest collaboration is with her son, Alex, who operates a space called the Mmuseumm in lower Manhattan. The Mmuseumm, which is located in a freight elevator, specializes in showing things that are “overlooked, dismissed, or ignored.” The show the mother-and-son team put together is a reconstruction of Kalman’s mother’s closet, and it won’t be overlooked for long as it is headed for installation in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2017. Catch this inspiring speaker while you can; there’s no telling where she’ll turn up next.
UCSB’s Arts & Lectures presents Maira Kalman Monday, October 24, at 7:30 p.m. at Campbell Hall, UCSB. Call (805) 893-3535 or see artsandlectures.sa.ucsb.edu.