Interviews, Essays, Etc.

Just Sit Under a Tree and Read
October 11, 2011

Maira Kalman—graphic designer, illustrator, author of more than a dozen books for adults and children, and dedicated reader—sent us a book list that she introduces with, “Walk to a garden. Take a book with you, maybe a cup of coffee or tea. Just sit under a tree and read. That is the only answer to everything.”

So Designers & Books decided to ask her not about “everything” but about a few things: books (on her book list and off), reading, and writing.

Designers & Books: The comments on the titles you sent are a lot like lines of poetry—distillations—and you say that the fiction writers you prefer tend to be lyrical. Do you have any favorite poets?

Maira Kalman: I used to say e.e. cummings. Now I say Wallace Stevens—but that may not be true. I have a Lydia Davis poem on my wall— “Head, Heart”—about the head talking to the heart. That is my favorite poem right now.

D&B: Are there contemporary works of fiction or nonfiction that you would take outside under that tree with you, along with Flaubert, Proust, Nabokov, Austen—the “classic” novelists you mention?

MK: I would take Nicole Krauss. Jhumpa Lahiri. Christopher Hitchens.

D&B: You also cite a couple of children’s books—Alice in Wonderland and Winnie the Pooh—children’s books that are as much appreciated by adults as children for their sense of the “absurd,” as you say. Did you first read these, or others, as a child, or as an adult?

MK: I read Pippi Longstocking when I was a child. And The Secret Garden. But everything else, I only have adult memories of.

D&B: Lists—we like lists at Designers & Books! I’m thinking of the typed list of the colors you found in Madame Bovary that you included in your recent exhibition, "Various Illuminations (of a Crazy World)"—what you call on your book list comment, Flaubert’s “tiny color phrases.” Do you make lists when you read?

MK: Yes. Lists of words I don't understand from Beckett and Nabokov and Joyce. Lists of ideas in Lucretius.

D&B: Your own books are very popular with Designers & Books designers—from The Principles of Uncertainty to the illustrated Elements of Style. Are there any design books you’d recommend in general or in particular to designers?

MK: The Russian Avant-Garde Book, 1910-1934. And photography books by August Sander and Diane Arbus.

D&B: Type—that’s something you pay a lot of attention to in your work. Your daughter’s middle name is Bodoni (a classic typeface used on the watch faces made by your design company, M&Co). Do you have any other favorite typefaces?

MK: My son has Tibor as an official middle name and Onomatopoeia as an unofficial middle name. My handwriting was used for different M&Co clocks and watches. I like the ubiquitous Mrs. Eaves typeface.

D&B: What do you think of Twitter—you’ve blogged for the New York Times. Would you Tweet?

MK: I have not blogged. I have illustrated and written an online column ("And the Pursuit of Happiness," New York Times online, which became a book). That took weeks to research, write, and paint. That does not feel like a blog. And I get morose just hearing the word “Tweet”!

Note: Maira Kalman’s work was on view in the retrospective exhibition “Maira Kalman: Various Illuminations (of a Crazy World),” accompanied by a catalogue by curator Ingrid Schaffner. The exhibition originated at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia, traveled to Los Angeles, and ended its run at The Jewish Museum in New York in July 2011.

(Questions asked by Stephanie Salomon, October 2011)

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