Ask Maira Kalman about a box labeled FRUIT WRAPPERS high up on the shelves of her painting studio, and the trim, Birkenstock-clad 55-year-old will climb up on a sofa to retrieve it. Inside, very neatly stacked, is her collection of 100 or so crinkly, multicolored squares of cellophane that once protected individual oranges and lemons. “You don't see these around so much anymore, except in Europe,” she says thoughtfully, pulling out the exquisitely designed ephemera. “There are some really beautiful ones here that I'm nuts about!”
Laid out near Kalman's desk are five or six candy bars that she recently picked up in Cuba. “Aren't these great? Look at this one, it's called Cratch,” she says. “It sounds like some kind of a disease!”
If it's true that individuals are best defined by their enthusiasms, it could take an entire Merriam-Webster's to describe Kalman, who is, by her own admission, “nuts about” lots of stuff. “I'm crazy about boxes and string and packages,” she says, pointing to a cardboard box tied with cord. She also loves shoes, fezzes, dogs, old notebooks, spools of colored thread and modernist chairs, examples of which are displayed throughout both her studio and her apartment (just a few floors upstairs in the same Greenwich Village building).
“I get passionate about a lot of different things,” she says, her blue eyes gleaming behind cherry-frame glasses. “Whether it's a person or an object, I just fall completely in love and then I want to do something about it.” Often that means painting it, in her exuberant, unself-consciously naive style.
Over the past 20 years, Kalman has had a hand in an impressive range of projects. She has written and illustrated nearly a dozen children's books—including a lyrical series about Max, a dog poet, that has a devoted adult following—and painted covers of The New Yorker. She has also designed fabrics for Kate Spade and Isaac Mizrahi; sets for Mark Morris; and quirky clocks, coasters and other objects for M&Co, the legendary design company founded by her late husband, Tibor Kalman.
“She's a poet trapped in the body of a designer,” says her friend and neighbor Mizrahi. They have lived in the same building for the past 13 years, and Mizrahi regularly pops upstairs to Kalman's for aesthetic consultations. “Whether it's about a sketch or a color, she's like a touchstone for me. She has this incredible ability to tell you if something is good or bad. I don't make a move without her.”
Though her fans would describe her as an artist, Kalman, who paints in gouache on paper, says she thinks of herself as an illustrator. “Wonderful illustration tells a story and makes you think about things,” she says. “Artists usually take themselves more seriously. You're allowed to be more of a jerk when you're an illustrator—‘I'm an illustrator! I didn't know any better!’”