Maira Kalman is an American author, illustrator, designer, and book artist. She has written and made pictures for numerous books including Ooh-La-La Max in Love (for children) and The Principles of Uncertainty (for grown-ups).
Maira was born in Tel Aviv, Israel in 1949. She moved to New York City with her family when she was 4 years old. She attended the High School of Music and Art, made famous by the movie, Fame. She wanted to write short stories. So, she studied English in college at New York University.
Mrs. Kalman helped her husband, Tibor, found a graphic design company in 1979. Their studio, M&Co. was very successful. Some of their pieces can even be seen at the Museum of Modern Art. Tibor was the star and Maira was the “in house muse.” They designed album covers, magazines, film titles, clocks, umbrellas, and more. They accomplished all this while raising their two children, Lulu Bodoni and Alexander Onomatopeia.
Ms. Kalman also worked as an illustrator. In 1987, she illustrated a children’s book for David Byrne. He’s the lead singer of a band, the Talking Heads. Their book, Stay Up Late, launched her career as a book artist. A year later, she published her own book, Hey Willy, See the Pyramids. The book played with words and pictures. Kids and parents liked it so much that it started a new kind of children’s book: The expressive picture book.
A big hero of Maira Kalman’s early books was a dog poet named Max Stravinksy. Her books about Max won lots of awards. Kalman also wrote and illustrated Chicken Soup, Boots (about finding the perfect job); Next Stop Grand Central (based on murals she created for New York’s Grand Central Station); What Pete Ate From A-Z (a story about her own dog, Pete) and Fireboat (about an old fireboat that helped stop the fires in New York on Sept. 11, 2001). Each book celebrates Kalman’s love for New York City. They also tell a little bit of her own autobiography.
Before her husband died in 1999, Maira curated ‘Tiborocity’, a museum exhibition about his life’s work. She drew a beautiful story for New York Magazine about Tibor’s last days. She continued many of the projects that they began together like (un)Fashion, a book about world-wide fashion, and Colors, a magazine that Mr. Kalman founded.
Maira Kalman lives and works today in Manhattan in New York City. Her paintings are sold in galleries. She writes and draws for The New Yorker and The New York Times. She speaks on public radio. She paints murals. She designs handbags. She paints sets for dances and operas. She teaches at the School of Visual Arts. She is on the board of the American Institute of Graphic Arts. Kalman illustrated The Elements of Style, a textbook for writers. Her illustrated blogs, The Principles of Uncertainty and The Pursuit of Happiness, were published as books. In 2010 and 2011, her work was collected for exhibitions at the Jewish Museum in New York, The Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco and the Skirball Center here in Los Angeles. You can find her online at MairaKalman.com.
Maira Kalman has been a favorite artist of my family for as long as I can remember. Her Max Deluxe was a coffee table book in my high school home and her first New Yorker covers hung framed in our kitchen. My favorite is this one (above) that I also took with me to my first apartment. Beyond being one of my favorite artists though, Ms. Kalman serves as a wonderful example in my classroom. Her work is accessible, diverse, experimental, and cross-curricular. Consider, for example, how her recent books, Looking at Lincoln and The Pursuit of Happiness, make history personal. Not to mention how her illustrations for The Elements of Style make grammar warm and beautiful. I’ll be using Maira Kalman this year to inspire the kindergartener’s coloring book, the third graders’ still-life drawings, the fifth graders’ illustration project, and the seventh graders’ political cartoons.
Portrait of Maira Kalman drawn by yours truly, Rama Hughes