Maira Kalman turns curiosity into an expressive art. The illustrator’s books and visual essays examine eclectic phenomena through what she calls "innocent eyes." This past summer, for example, she followed Lewis and Clark on their famous explorations and documented the experience in an illustrated travel story for The New York Times. And this month, in the books Ah-ha to Zig Zag and My Favorite Things, she illustrates some of the quirky holdings of the newly renovated Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum.
For the books (which are timed to accompany the museum’s forthcoming exhibit Maira Kalman Selects, opening December 12), Kalman was free to choose any random pieces from the museum’s rich and varied collection, and then paint, draw, and riff on each one from a personal perspective. “I wasn't sure what I was going to do,” she told me. “But I knew that every story starts in the first gauzy memories of childhood. And that’s why we care about objects—often because of their relationship to people and places that were part of a loved past.”
Kalman was already familiar with many of the museum’s objects, having seen eclectic shows at the Cooper Hewitt about everything from beds to eating utensils. But what’s in the collection is in many cases just a jumping off point for what’s in the book. “If I see a rubber band that I like, the story comes out of that,” she says. “And I remind myself that I wish I had a stationery store. Then I remember that I loved stationery supplies because I loved to write with a Parker ballpoint pen, and I loved writing the alphabet, and I loved the paper that I wrote it on. And I also loved Mrs. Walters, my 6th grade teacher, who told me I could write. And I would love to share that love in a shop where I could earn a living. And so on it goes.”
A spread where she painted otherwise seemingly inconsequential tickets stubs and tags, including one for the fictional company “United Pickle,” are so lovingly rendered they seem like they must contain personal resonance for Kalman. Not always, she says: “Sometimes [the pictures] evoke a memory of a time or place. But often they call to me calligraphically as design, as letterforms.” Kalman, a deep lover of typography, even gave her daughter the middle name Bodoni.