Tibor Kalman was one of the most influential figures in graphic design throughout the Eighties and early Nineties. He and Maira met as undergraduates at New York University while working for Leonard Riggio, who then ran the campus bookstore. When Riggio later bought Barnes & Noble, he hired Tibor as his creative director. Tibor went on to form M&Co, and then to edit Benetton's controversial Colors magazine.
“He was a force,” says Kalman. “He was incredibly intense, phenomenally alive, with the energy of 20 people.
“My grieving was permanent,” she adds. “But I was really loved, and it enabled me to use my energies in a productive way and not be annihilated.”
Her cheerful apartment, where she and Tibor raised their two children (Lulu, 23, and Alex, 20) is part modernist showcase, part quirky aunt's attic. There's a La Chaise chair by Eames (a gift to the Kalmans from the president of Vitra), but there's also a funny-looking lamp she and artist Rick Meyerowitz (her boyfriend of the past five years) made together, a floor-to-ceiling display of fezzes and a few examples of one of her all-time favorite obsessions, shoes. An exaggeratedly long men's shoe by Junya Watanabe for Comme des Garçons is on the mantel, as is a Helmut Lang clog covered in long, fuzzy black hair. “It's like Cousin It!” she says, holding up the latter specimen. (She's planning to include it in her next children's book, tentatively titled The History of My Shoes.)
One of Kalman's favorite expressions is “Wouldn't it be great if,” and this open-ended way of thinking has long shaped her creative life. By asking herself this very question not too long ago, she came up with the idea for her fourth major project coming out in October: a musical production of The Elements of Style.
“I found that when I was painting, I was singing the words,” she says. Composer Nico Muhly was commissioned to write a series of songs set to the text, which will be performed by singers and musicians on October 19 in the main reading room of the New York Public Library. “The audience is going to sit at the tables, and the musicians will stand on the balcony,” Kalman says excitedly. “And I hope that the last song will have everyone singing everything together in one big cacophony.”
It would be very much in the spirit of the last spread of Elements, which features a happily chaotic painting of broken doors and windows beside all of the book's copyright information, printed in dizzyingly askew strips of text.
“It's really about, ‘You know the rules, you know the rules,’” she says. “And now—if you have any brains at all—you'll break the rules.”