2016 AIGA Medalist Maira Kalman has been delighting readers for decades. Both on her own and alongside her late husband, 1999 AIGA Medalist Tibor Kalman, she’s carved out a very personal niche in illustration, design, and writing. Who else would think to contact the estate of the important but rather stodgy Elements of Style writing manual to reinvent the tome as a playful illustrated book and theatrical performance? Who else could write and illustrate the series of beloved children’s books about Max Stravinsky, the poet-dog? A frequent contributor to The New Yorker with exhibits in museums and galleries, it’s not surprising that Kalman has over a dozen works in the AIGA Design Archives.
Born in Tel Aviv and raised in Riverdale, The Bronx, Kalman attended the High School of Music and Art in Harlem (now LaGuardia High School) as a music major. It wasn’t until after attending NYU that she set her sights on being a poet and illustrator. It was also there that she met Tibor. I recently spoke with Kalman about her creative process, the importance of daydreaming, and how she balances her roles as a designer, illustrator, and writer.
Did you create art as a child?
The way all children do, with complete abandon and no thought about the future.
What was the experience of attending your high school as a music student?
Ecstatic years. Music is such a big part of my life and work. There were all of these musicians and artists running around New York City, experiencing the bounty of ideas, beauty, and performance. We had such a good time. And we believed in the power of music and art.
You intended to be a writer first and you refer to all your work as narrative. Do you consider yourself a storyteller first, or an illustrator, or designer? Or is there no separation between the three?
The writing is probably what I consider the most difficult to produce and the most important. That might be one of the reasons I try to edit the text to the fewest possible words. After that, the art and design and text all flow together. In the end, it’s probably not necessary to distinguish or separate. They are greater than the sum of their parts.
Did you work towards a style or did it occur organically?
Both. Things are done instinctually. A need to find your own body in the work. Everyone gravitates towards influences that resonate for them. But of course, I have looked at art for many years and the learning never stops. I’m always wondering about style, and then trying to forget about it.
What’s the power of daydreaming?
Critical. It is the mind wandering. Taking a walk with no agenda. Liberating and inexplicable in its power.
How important is humor in your work?
Critical and vital. My work would not exist without humor. And I have understood that the humor is potent because there is a parallel thread of sadness. They seem to work well together. The human condition.
Do you have heroes?
My mother. Writers. Artists. Musicians. And then all people who have the courage to wake up in the morning and go about their occupations and live their lives.
Any advice for today’s design and illustration students?
Be who you are.