Maira Kalman on Walking and Looking as a Way of Life
When describing experiences, New York–based artist and author Maira Kalman almost always goes for the extremes: an instance can be at once stupid and smart, miserable and hopeful, sad and delighted. A bittersweet point of view forms the throughline of her work—which spans more than 30 books for adults and children, as well as performance, opera, film, and industrial and set design—and gives each project its distinct ability to encapsulate the reality of being human. Tragedy and beauty can, and will, she believes, appear out of nowhere. In both instances, it’s what one does with it that determines how the event will impact their life.
Kalman, 71, credits this sensibility to credits this sensibility to people and places of significance in her life, specifically to the early death of her husband, the celebrated graphic designer Tibor Kalman, and to her late mother, Sara Berman, in addition to her Jewish heritage and birthplace of Tel Aviv. In tandem with her practice, Kalman makes time to indulge in seemingly mundane activities, such as taking long walks, cleaning, and reading obituaries, which she sees as activators of life. Each gesture is a means for finding clarity in the midst of chaos.
On this episode, Kalman talks with Andrew about observation as a creative act, the allure of books, the importance of not thinking, and performing daily rituals as a means for staying sane.
Kalman speaks about walking and looking as strategies for getting through the pandemic. She also discusses her penchant for cleaning, collecting objects, and reading obituaries.
Kalman details collaborating with musician David Byrne on the Broadway play and corresponding book American Utopia. She also talks about projects she has presented at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, including “The Museum Workout” and “Sara Berman’s Closet.”
Kalman reflects on how her Jewish heritage informs her approach to work and life, and on the books she read growing up that led to her interest in writing.
Kalman recalls meeting, working, and building a life with her late husband, Tibor Kalman, as well as M&Co, the design agency he founded.
Kalman talks about her wide-ranging work, including the book (Un)fashion and the short films she creates with her son, Alex.
Kalman describes the illustration for the famed New Yorker “New Yorkistan” cover that she created with the cartoonist Rick Meyerwitz in November 2001. She also explains the importance of not thinking, humor, and love.
ANDREW ZUCKERMAN: Welcome, Maira. Thanks so much for joining us today.
MAIRA KALMAN: Thank you very much. Good to be here.
AZ: You describe your job as “to walk around and look.” And, as someone who famously approaches walking as a kind of creative act, what I kept thinking about was, How did you deal with 2020? Did you have to change your job description to “sit around and wait?” What was walking like for you in lockdown?
MK: There’s always more stuff to look at than you can possibly imagine. The world didn’t know that there was lockdown. So, there were seasons, and animals, and people, and nothing. Nothing is an incredible thing to look at. Even more so, I understood how incredible it was to have that be an occupation, that you just are able to observe.
AZ: Yeah, and look as an active act.
MK: Always. But I don’t mean that you try to look, or that you try to be a specific way. You just are. You’re just there, and the work comes from that. I did as much work during 2020 as any other year, but maybe with a sense of a different kind of imperative, or lack of pressure. But the work was produced based on that time, that amazing time.
AZ: So you didn’t feel a sense of like, being inside inhibited you in the way that you’re so out in the world? I mean, you’re constantly receiving in the world.
MK: It was very interesting for me to think about, Well, I can’t travel. I’ve traveled so much—I can’t travel. All right. I can’t travel. Big deal. I can’t go to museums, which are my lifeblood all the time. I thought, Oh, I have a memory bank of museum visits that could last me at least through a year, or two, or three. And so, I have this kind of adaptability that whatever constraint there is, [I think], Okay, that’s the constraint, and that’s the unexplored place and time, found time, and found more time.
AZ: Which relates to how you’ve described yourself, not as an artist, but someone who likes an assignment. You like guardrails. So, this must have been comfortable for you. But I also imagine you doing a huge amount of organizing, reorganizing, cleaning, more organizing. And I wanted to ask you specifically about cleaning, and why you find joy in that.
MK: I was cleaning the land, as I was out of the city, and then I decided that I would cut the walk with a pair of scissors. And there was a certain absurdity to the amount of cleaning that I did outside, and straightening the land, and straightening nature, and trees. But I think that, for me, and I know this so clearly—first of all, it’s a way to procrastinate, and to not do what you’re supposed to do. And I have an aversion to doing what I’m supposed to do, and wish not to. And then, there is a sense of order and beauty that happens, and a sense of editing, and understanding what’s important. So much happens when you’re cleaning besides the actual washing of the dishes. My brain just responds really beautifully to that kind of assignment, and that kind of clarity. So, I’m available if anybody needs me. [Laughs]
AZ: You’re constantly organizing things in your home, straightening things, or regrouping things. Does a certain comfort come from this curatorial effort of putting things together?
MK: I have these rails in my apartment. I don’t have anything on the wall, but you just put things on the rails, these narrow…. and shelves. And that keeps changing, and moving, and leaving. The idea is that everything that I have is part of my work, in the sense that it inspires me to do something.
MK: I don’t like things just lying there and not working. They have to be working also. But sometimes you wait thirty years for something to work.
AZ: Yeah. And you collect many odd things. What are some of the things you collect?
MK: I don’t know if “collecting” is the right word. But I “acquire” moss—I have a big moss collection—and I’ve deaccessioned my egg-slicer collection, and I’ve deaccessioned my international-sponge collection, because of the packaging. I’m endlessly amused and falling in love with packaging, and signage, and graphics, typography, and things that are written on menus. There’s a Chinese menu that we just saw where it said something [like] “We don’t know, as it were, the menu.” It was so beautiful, and perfect. That [kind of] encounter with language is always wonderful for me. So, yeah, I don’t collect really important things.
AZ: Postcards of volcanoes, I read once.
MK: That’s true. Waterfalls, volcanoes. Things that go up, things that go down. And then I paint them. Or I don’t paint them, or I think about them, or they make me feel better.
AZ: You have this massive book collection. Five thousand books or something.
MK: You have to come over and help me dust them. Yeah. I have a massive library, which is a treasure of epic proportions.
AZ: Has that been something you did with [your late husband] Tibor [Kalman]? In your whole life? Were books something that you always valued and wanted to acquire?
MK: Always valued. We didn’t have books when I was a child. We didn’t buy books; we went to the library. When Tibor and I started working at Barnes & Noble, which was the local college bookstore before Len Reggio bought Barnes & Noble, we just started to accumulate books, and more books, and more books. And every once in a while I’d say, “That’s it. I’m done,” in some kind of ridiculous vetoing of buying more books.Then a minute later, I’m running to a bookstore, and buying more books.
MK: Which I’m never sorry about.
AZ: And making more books.
MK: And making more books. I think in books. I’m in a Shakespeare group, and at the end of the year, we all read passages from our favorite play that we had read, and then we said goodbye to each other. I thought, Well, this isn’t enough. These passages from these people should be a book. So, I’m making a book. And somebody said to me, “Is everything a book for you?” And I thought, Kind of.
AZ: What is it? Does the book complete the experience of learning? What is it about the process? Because it’s not the end product, right? When you get the final book….
MK: Well, when I get the final book, I kiss the final book. I kiss all my books. But the love of books, and the love of the page, and…. One of the things that I learned through this last year was that I clearly enjoy having a relationship with books more than most people, which is maybe not a great revelation to have. But the thing that I realized [was] that for me, [when I was] engaged with characters in a book—or characters in a murder mystery, because that was also an obsession, especially at night, to watch as many murder mysteries as I could—I was living a different life, and I didn’t have to engage, and I didn’t have to say either smart things or stupid things. I had to just listen to them, and maybe blurt out a comment once in a while, which I started writing down, thinking that might be a book. But then I thought, These are horrible and stupid comments. But at any rate, the book, for me, is the answer to all questions.
AZ: It’s interesting that you mentioned murder mysteries, because there’s this sort of desire for the memento mori in your life. You said to Ira Glass once, “I’m extremely happy and despondent in the exact same package.” Just something that’s really stuck with me. And I’m curious, in the context of Covid, did you continue the ritual of reading obituaries every morning?
MK: Absolutely. You can’t give up your obits, because they are activators of life, for me, and the wonder of it, and the wonder of what people have done, and how they’ve persevered, and the courage that it takes. So, yeah. Obits in the morning, murder mysteries at night. And, in between, cutting the grass with scissors.
AZ: How were you processing though the absolute devastation? Because it’s not the normal obits, everyday. I mean, for someone who draws some sort of process out of dealing with and facing death, very clearly, this period was just the ultimate expression of that. How did that affect you? How were you feeling about that?
MK: I think that I was able to do what people do, which is to be devastated by what’s going on, and grateful not to have been immediately affected, and wanting to do something to help other people, which is how [my son] Alex [Kalman] and I got started with our booklets of raising funds. And that there’s no simple answer. It’s all very complicated, both miserable and hopeful. I’ll always say the extremes, that you do stupid things and smart things, and sometimes you don’t know which is which.
AZ: The middle area is the problem.
MK: I don’t even know what the middle area is. I don’t live in the middle.
AZ: Yeah. You made this extraordinary work that was presented on a billboard in Times Square during the pandemic called “Love in the Time of Corona,” which is two people separated by this pink blob, with rays coming out, which was the most unique depiction, visually, of the coronavirus that I had seen. It was different than the sort of angry red [version]. There was love in it. How did this piece come about? How were you thinking about the virus itself at the time, and [about the] multitudes?
MK: Well, everybody was terrified, of course, and the lack of knowledge was large. Steve Heller asked me to do the piece. He asked a number of people to do the piece, and I, at first, said, “No, I need to not do anything right now. I can’t handle it, and it’s too much. It’s too sad, and it’s too much.” And then, in the wonderful Steve Heller way, he said, “No, I think you should. I’m not listening to your ‘no.’ How about a ‘yes’?”
So, I sat down and did this. And of course, I speak about wanting to not have relationships with people, and to have the love of a literary relationship, but I realized, of course, as most people do some of the time, but it’s really the love that makes…. If you’re not living in a life of some kind of love, then you really are saying, “What’s the point?” I thought that there was a kind of kindness…“kindness” became a very important word. Even though now, it sounds like, if I say “kindness” one more time, I’ll go crazy.
The feeling of compassion was essential, and especially after the Trumpian years of that kind of ire and anger, and hatred—from every side: “If you don’t think like me, I hate you.” So, that was a moment to say, “How can you adjust that the best you can?”
AZ: Right. And also, it contains something that I think is a through-line in your work, which is a sort of humanistic point of view that contains the simultaneity. It’s like, the bittersweet. It is the sad but delighted, the love but the fear, all of it. Is that something you consciously think about? Or is that just something that you think has always been there for you?
MK: It’s certainly always been there. The only question is how to handle it. That’s it. It’s not that it’s going to not be there. Maybe what you learn as you get older is that, of course it’s going to be there, and of course you’re going to be just heartbroken some of the time, and dealing with tragedy that will descend and appear out of nowhere. You wake up in the morning, and you don’t know what’s going to kick you in the head, and something certainly will. Even if it’s a remark that somebody makes that just crushes you, and you think, Okay, that’s it, I’m going to weep for the rest of the day.
And then, of course, you don’t. There’s work to be done, and walks to take, and people to look at, and the occupation of living, which is incredible. So, I know, as I get older, that I will recover from the down, I hope.
AZ: Just before the pandemic, you were involved with David Byrne on American Utopia. You made this incredible book [and artwork for the curtain of the Broadway play it’s based on]. Full disclosure, it was like the best show I’d ever seen.
MK: You know it’s coming back. Of course, you know.
AZ: I heard it’s coming back.
MK: September 17th, to be exact.
AZ: I will be seeing it several times again. It is an extraordinary piece.
MK: It’s extraordinary. Yeah.
AZ: I think his best work ever, and exactly what we needed at that time, which was, for me, contained in that really simple message in the opening piece, that our minds can change. They are fungible. I wanted to ask broadly how it was to work with him, collaborate on that project, be involved in something of need at that time, and how much you listened to that through the pandemic, and what effect it had on you directly after it was out in the world.
MK: We met, I think, in 1985, something like that, when Tibor was doing the Talking Heads graphics [via our graphic and product design studio, M&Co], My fondness for him has grown and grown over the years, and my respect for him, because clearly, he’s maintained an incredible trajectory of work, and also, his humanism, where he had more difficulties when he was younger expressing himself, or expressing his happy self, if you’re going to use such a stupid word. Now, the joyous part of him is really present, and that’s palpable in the work. It’s palpable in the way that he looks at the world. And working with him, it’s a joy. So we had a fabulous time. Everybody lets everybody do what they do. It’s one of those, “Of course, I trust you. Now, go ahead and do what you do.”
His viewpoint, which is intelligent optimism—it’s not clueless, and it’s not sappy or saccharin—it’s really a sense of, there’s a lot of incredible stuff going on, along with all of the stuff that is unbearable. So, we have a wonderful time. We’re expanding the curtain now. It’s moving to a different theater, to the St. James. The proscenium is a different size. We’re adding panels in a kind of visible, mending way, in the new world of making do with less, and not being frivolous with how you spend money. Anyway, I’m going to hand-paint them, which is a wonderful way to actually scaffold—
AZ: So the actual set changes. It’s not the [backdrop of] chains anymore.
MK: It’s not the chains. The chains will be there. But the curtain drop is just going to—the size of it is going to change, that’s all. And it’s going to expand [to include] more imagery.
So, we’re continuing to work together, and working on American Utopia, the book. The criteria that I have now for working with people is that I like them, and that it makes you feel good to work with them as opposed to, Why did I say yes? What happened here? I have the luxury of being able to say no to situations that don’t seem wonderful. At any rate, we continue to work, and I can’t wait to be there for opening night, and see this phenomenal show. And, he probably will write new text to address the pause that we’ve been in.
AZ: Did you listen to the music itself during the pandemic?
MK: Always. Well, we listened to him all the time. To that music, to the Talking Heads. I mean, that was what my children were brought up on. It’s really part of our beings.
AZ: You’ve been taking walks with your friend Elizabeth [Beautyman], for many years. For twenty years, three times a week, or something, right? Aside from having this great ritual with a friend, to socialize, what do these regular walks do for you? What does the routine of these regular walks provide you? And are you back to it? That’s why I’m asking now. Is this something that’s come back?
MK: We walked this morning, in Central Park. And without question, it keeps me sane. Without these walks, I wouldn’t be here. I would be in some place, locked away. I think that my dependence on these walks is extreme, might be a little bit too much, but they provide me with a ritual that I adore. Once I do something once, it’s already a ritual for me, so, this twenty years–plus—I think it’s twenty-three years now, something like that—this ritual of consistency, and how much things change within the consistency of the ritual…. I can’t imagine. I’m surprised when the entire city isn’t walking in the park. I can’t imagine what other people are doing. What could you possibly be doing other than walking?
AZ: And you don’t even live near the park. You travel to the park, to take a walk.
MK: Of course, yes. We meet early in the morning. We are never bored, because everything changes, from the light to the people that we run into. And even if, over the years, we’ve run into the same people, then it’s delightful to see, well, what are they wearing? And what are they talking about? Do we say hello? For me, the tiniest moments are the best or the biggest moments, and that is another affirmation of: There can’t be anything better than just passing somebody, and noticing their shoes, or walking, and noticing how a tree looks, and then remembering a tree that I saw in Paris, or in England, and then going onto something else. It’s always about being in the moment—except for imagining other places—and it’s always about not thinking, of course, which I’ve spoken about a lot, and maybe you’ve read that. But that’s the most valuable part of it.
AZ: How did it get started? And why this particular person?
MK: Elizabeth? Dr. Elizabeth Beautyman. I should say her entire name, because it’s a beautiful name, and she’s a beautiful person. When Tibor became ill, we were told we should go see her. And we did. And the minute I walked into the room, I knew. I said, “This person is amazing.” Not only as a doctor, but as a human. So, we started walking together.
AZ: You met her through her treating Tibor, and remain friends. That’s incredible.
AZ: And The Met[ropolitan Museum of Art], which we talked about for a moment, is a place you love in New York, and [where] you’ve done many things. I just wanted to go through a few of them to get at some of what they’re about. One is, my favorite, “The Museum Workout.”
MK: Did you do it?
AZ: I didn’t do it. I wasn’t in New York at the time. But I really wanted to. This idea of engaging, through time and space, with your body in a place that you wouldn’t normally do that. In a way, there was this great generosity of providing an opportunity. I want you to tell me about how that project came about. It’s such a wacky idea, also, it’s like—
MK: Yeah. Well, it became—
AZ: Describe it, actually, for the people.
MK: The choreographer and dancer, Monica Bill Barnes—she’s a terrific choreographer and a great person—she and I were trying to figure out how we could work together. We had wanted
to do a project, and she knew how much I love museums, and she knew about the walking, and The Met asked her to do something. So, she came up with this idea that it would be a kind of exercise [of] seeing in the museum. As we talked about it and worked on it, and walked through the museum, the conversation was: You’re walking through a museum. You have all these things to look at. You have to decide what to look at. How oppressed are you by those decisions? How inspired are you? How happy are you? Or how bored are you?
She created the workout where I would choose the path, and her associate, Robbie, carried the music [on a speaker that hung from his neck]. So [it’s] this raucous, wonderfully high-energy walk, a fast walk, an exercise, through the museum, stopping at different points, where you heard me talking about different things about life, and what art means to me, and how the guardian angels of the museum—because you’re looking for some kind of truth. And then at the end, we were lying down, and then at the end end, I said, “Well, we have to have something very tangible.” So we had coffee, bread and butter, and fruit. I said, “To me, everything ends with some kind of repast.” Otherwise, I’ll say, “What happened here?”
It was incredible that people were able to gather, and go through the museum before it opened in the morning. You had the museum to yourself, and you were doing jumping jacks in front of a [John Singer] Sargent painting with no obligation, no anything other than just, Here we are, doing this crazy thing, that became so popular that they kept it going for a year.
AZ: Wow. And you’ve taken many jobs at the Met. You were a security guard.
MK: [Gasps] Yes.
AZ: What is that about for you? Why have you wanted to engage in so many different ways with this building?
MK: Well, I do. Central Park and the Met are, really, this glorious combination for me. And the Met, which I think is the greatest museum in the world—I also like to work in the places that I love. I wanted to dust the statues. But they said, “No, no. You cannot dust the statues. You don’t have a degree in dusting statues.” But a friend of mine who worked there, Chris[tine] Coulson, said, “But what else do you want to do?” We discussed things, and she said, “Okay. You can clean the floors and the bathrooms. And you can be a guard and wear the uniform. And you can work on the hot line of the cafeteria, the employee cafeteria.” I thought, This is fantastic. In the same way that I love to read books and not talk to people, I prefer to have a job and not have to converse, which is—I mean, it’s funny because I’m conversing with you now and I don’t seem to be having any trouble. [Laughs] I have trouble shutting up.
AZ: We’re reflecting.
MK: We’re reflecting. Right. I’m not conversing, we’re reflecting. But the sense of occupation and having a purpose…. I don’t want to go to any more dinner parties in my entire life. All I want to do is like, if you have a job for me to do at a dinner party? Happy to. Washing the dishes perhaps, or serving. I just like being occupied. It relaxes me in a tremendous way. It gives my life meaning. Otherwise, I’m a little bit lost.
AZ: Yeah, the anxiety of sitting there like, “Do I have to say something? Is there an expectation of me?”
MK: And you always have to say something. So, what are you saying?
AZ: And it’s New York. [Laughs] Before we move off the Met, the other thing, perhaps your most personal project, was “Sara Berman’s Closet.” I think a lot of people drew different meaning from that, depending upon their own family histories, who they are, their own relationships with their mother. What was it about for you?
MK: Well, “Sara Berman’s Closet” was a recreation of my mother, Sara Berman’s, closet. It came about because she only wore white, and she had a pristine, kind of Russian’s peasant style, starched and ironed, phenomenal linen and clothes closet, as did all the women in my family. So, when she died and I stood in her closet, I said, “This is going to be a museum. I don’t know how, or when, or why.”
So, we saved everything, and then ten years later, my son had a museum in [Manhattan’s] Cortlandt Alley called Mmuseumm, in an elevator shaft. And then he had another little niche in this grubby, garbage-strewn alley, which I swept, by the way. That was my job. And we installed her closet there as a twenty-four-seven vitrine, kind of [like] something that you would stumble across as you’re coming [home] from a club at three in the morning. And a curator from the Met, Amelia Peck, came and said, “This might be something really great for The Met.” So, we were, needless to say, deranged with pleasure that Sara Berman’s underwear was going to the Met. It was juxtaposed with [clothing worn by some] of the richest women in America in [the 1880s], and my mother came, a hundred years later, back to New York.
It was an understanding of, What’s important? What do you need? Feminism, independence, because my mother left my father after thirty-eight years of marriage. There were so many questions of like, How are we living this life? And it was through the context of a simple closet. A very very humble, beautiful, all-white closet.
AZ: I think it’s important to note what your son has done with that space, which is what they call “object journalism.” And from objects made in prisons, which is my favorite project he did, to “Sara Berman’s Closet.” It seems like he must have gotten this reverence for object, and the power of object, from his parents. Was it a part of your parenting? I know that’s hard to answer, but was it a part of your parenting, where you would be honoring something humble and simple for him?
MK: It must’ve been the onion rings that we had on the wall. Clearly, that was the first. I mean, we had an onion-ring collection that we had on the wall. The first one we collected was from something like 1968, and nothing happened to it. We sold it to a curator from MoMA. But he says, and this is a conversation that we’ve had with other people, that that’s what it was like. It wasn’t as if it was taught, it just was. And there was a great joy in discovering things, and playing with things. So, that was the vocabulary at home. And we didn’t know what would come of it.
AZ: We were talking to our friend Stefan Sagmeister the other day—we did an episode [of our At a Distance podcast] with him—who worked for Tibor. He had just gotten a new place in Miami that he was setting up, this new apartment, and he was stressing about the toilet-paper collection that he was installing in the bathroom wall, of twenty-four brands of toilet paper, each on individual pegs, so you could choose which brand to use at any time. And I thought, I don’t know if that was specifically connected, but this idea must have come out of the work you guys were doing at the time, of this sort of high-low, this reverence for objects and the power of their meaning, when displayed properly, which I thought “Sara Berman’s Closet” was probably the most explicit, perfect version of. What was your mother like? How would you describe your mother?
MK: She was very beautiful and irreverent. She was an original, and didn’t have any expectations of us other than watching us live our lives. She didn’t tell us what to do. She never told us what to do—except she did tell me when Tibor and I should get married, because we were living together for fourteen years, and one day, she said, “I think you can get married.” And so, I said to Tibor, “I think we’re getting married.” That’s how that very romantic episode came about. We both listened to her, because somebody who doesn’t tell you what to do, and says it once every fifteen years, you pay attention.
I think I learned from her the fantastic value of not really caring what other people think of you. And I don’t mean that in the [sense of] disregarding pleasantries, and being nice and kind as I went on about before, but just your ideas. Your ideas have to come from yourself, and not from what other people might think, or what you’re supposed to do. There’s a wonderful map of the United States that she made where I was asking people to draw maps of the United States from memory. Which was, for me, extraordinary.
AZ: What did she do?
MK: It was a revelation. Well, it was an egg-shaped thing, first of all, that had California and Alaska right on the North, underneath Canada. I think Hawaii was on the East Coast. Because she came from Russia and from Israel and she really didn’t know, she threw in a few cities that she’d heard of. North Dakota was below South Dakota, and various other, quite mad things. And a lot of blank spaces. And she said, “Sorry, the rest unknown. Thank you.” I thought, That’s all I need. I need somebody to say, “Just do what your brain does, and don’t worry about being right.”
AZ: You also once said [something to the effect of], “You don’t need to be an expert in something in order to find pleasure in it.”
MK: You don’t need to know anything in order to find pleasure. The less you know, the better, probably.
AZ: Yeah. I often wonder, does this have anything to do with a kind of Israeli approach to life? Which I know very well: I’ve lived there, and my wife’s family was from there, and it’s something that, especially in this day and age, I don’t think people understand about a sort of spirit that Israelis have, or had at that time, specifically, when she was there. I mean, you were born the year after the state [was established], and it was a sort of D.I.Y., live in the moment, you don’t know what’s going to happen [thing]. How much of Israel, and the experience of being born there, living there for a little while, spending time there with your mother, and your own life, has informed your worldview?
MK: Well, I’m a very split person. But I want to say that my mother, who was quite quiet in her New York life, became a general, a military general, when she landed in Israel, and started giving orders to everybody in this fantastic way of self-confidence. And I think that one of the things, even though I can’t say that every single person in Israel has this, but [many have] a tremendous life force and self-confidence, which sometimes people think is obnoxious.
MK: I’ve heard that mentioned here and there. But that sense of vitality and indestructible energy is something that’s still true of the people that I know in Israel. And as complex and daunting as the politics is in Israel, the spirit of the people is really explosive in good ways.
AZ: Yeah, which is something that’s sometimes eclipsed by the political conversation that happens outside of Israel. But all that aside, because that’s not even something that I could imagine being productive in unpacking, I’d like to focus a bit on the spirit of it, which is something that I think has been missing in the conversation. So, your memory as a child there, what’s drawn you back there? Why are you keeping an apartment there? All of that. What is it about Israel?
MK: That’s a big question. [Pauses] My family came from Belarus, and escaped Belarus, in the waves of the pogroms and the sense of persecution and danger, and they left before the Holocaust—most of them did, except for my father’s family, [who] did not. And so, it’s inescapable that—if you’re in Israel, the sense of being a pioneer, even if we’re in the modern world, the sense of triumphing over adversity, the phenomenal sense of humor, the voracious intelligence and curiosity. There’s a bookstore every five feet, and then there’s a café in between those bookstores. So, you are just living life at a very intense—and I don’t mean it’s idyllic, and it’s certainly not wonderful for many people—but there is a kind of irrepressible spirit that comes from what? From being persecuted since the beginning of time? Maybe. And having the beach. The beach gives you a nice lift. I don’t know.
AZ: You’re from Tel Aviv, which, of course, has the amazing Bauhaus community; there’s also the sense of design. We don’t often think of Israeli design as something that’s modern, or in the way New York looks at design, but there’s so much there. Do you think that you were seeing that as a child, too, and [were] attracted to it?
MK: We were definitely seeing it as children. We didn’t know what we were looking at, but when we looked at a Bauhaus building with round windows, that impression stayed very vividly. And it was like, the world of Jacques Tati. But it was even more than that, because the sense of modernism, the sense of building a new city, a White City, where there would be equality for people and beauty—that was very intense. Just to walk around Tel Aviv now is so extraordinary. The mixing of the Turkish and the Bauhaus and the British and the Brutalist is extraordinary. It is the biggest population of Bauhaus buildings in the world, as you probably know. So, there’s a tremendous amount to look at that’s inspiring. And that Modernism also informs the way people think.
AZ: Right. And it’s about dialogue. I mean, in Israel, certainly in the way that Judaism is organized now, there’s no really right answer, right? Everyone is … not arguing, but in intense conversation.
MK: No, you could say “arguing.” Every conversation will be an argument. Everybody’s got an opinion about everything. That’s why it’s good to escape to New York, where you can not hear the opinions for a while.
AZ: Yeah. And you originally thought you’d be a writer when you were a kid. What were you reading growing up?
AZ: But ahead of the smart stuff—the Astrid Lindgren writing, what is it that really grabbed you about that character and that style of writing?
MK: Well, Pippi was a child without parents—hurrah!—number one. So all of a sudden, you’re thrust into this fantastic world, where the children are making the decisions, and they’re strong, and true, and brave. And I thought, Yeah, that’s me. I want to be that, and I want to live in that world. I don’t know how I made the connection between her and writing, but I just felt that I was a writer, and that sense of how you feel—when you’re seven or eight or nine, whatever those ages are—where somehow, something lands in you. I don’t know if it’s even possible to explain it, because I don’t know what the forces are that make you who you are.
AZ: But at a certain point, you decided, Maybe I don’t want to write.
MK: Well, in college, I was writing really wretched, heartbreaking, miserable, morbid, gloomy stuff. And I thought, Your choosing words is making me really sad. How about choosing some colors, and some shapes?
AZ: That’s how you got to picking up a brush.
MK: Yeah. And my sister was an artist, and I was looking at that, and I said—I’ve said this so often—I said, “This looks really easy. I’m going to do that.”
AZ: Because easy is always better. [Laughs]
MK: So it seemed. Why should I be suffering so, when I can be doing something easy, like painting?
AZ: And you met Tibor at college, [at New York University].
MK: We met at summer flunk-out class. They said that if we didn’t take these summer courses, we would be thrown out of school. As soon as I think about if that happened to my children—I’d be so completely freaked out. But I don’t think my parents even knew, which is like the benign-neglect genius of parenting. And so, we met there. Immediately, we knew that we were meant for each other. Of course, we had to break up a bunch of times, too.
AZ: What year was this?
MK: This was ’68.
AZ: Wow. At N.Y.U.
AZ: Amazing time.
MK: Amazing time.
AZ: Describe what was happening.
MK: Well, revolution was in the air, in many ways, obviously social and political. And Tibor was very political and joined S.D.S. [Students for a Democratic Society], and went to Cuba on the Venceremos Brigade. Big-time revolutionary. I was a poet in the corner, knitting him sweaters, and couldn’t imagine how the revolutionary and the poet would ever get together. But we did, we persevered. He became less revolutionary; I became less of a poet. And we really started working together very early on, and had a conversation that started then. And though, as I say, even though we broke up here and there, because it was of the time and what one must do, or one felt had to do then—
AZ: For a sense of agency, or what was the breaking up about?
MK: Yes. I said, “I can’t stand you. I’m going to see other people.”
MK: I don’t know if that’s a sense of agency or not, it was just, “I’m out of here.” [Laughs] Not too much kindness there, I’ll tell you that much. But at any rate, then, we would always come back together, and then, the rest became our lives.
AZ: I mean, you didn’t want to achieve academically, at the time. That wasn’t clearly something you cared about.
AZ: Were you thinking about the future? You talk to people so often about that time, and the future was something that you couldn’t seem to depend on. So, when you say, “working together,” were you working toward something? Were you working in the present? When you think about working, what was that about?
MK: We didn’t know what we were working towards. We knew that we wanted to do interesting work, and that we loved working together. He fell into graphic design; I fell into illustrating. We saw that the worlds overlapped and that we could work together at M&Co, at the studio.
AZ: Which you both started.
MK: He started it. I was there, but he started it, yes. With two other people. We never planned anything, or thought about anything, or thought about making money. We just kind of made do, and then things kept developing. I took it for granted that everything always worked out, which may not be the case.… It turned out not to be the case, in some ways. But we were happy-go-lucky in many ways. And of course, he was completely brilliant, and always interesting. I was never bored. And he was fearless and very strong. So, he was able to get things done.
AZ: Right, and especially in a very radical design firm. And it continued. I mean, you did Colors magazine. I mean, when you look at the work that M&Co did over time, the fact that it’s still important work, and it’s still delightful, is so impressive. Obviously, you collaborated as an illustrator, but you were collaborating conceptually. Your ideas were finding their way into things, but you were much more behind the scenes.
AZ: How did you feel about that at the time?
MK: Fabulous. [Laughs]
AZ: You liked being there.
MK: Who wouldn’t like having ideas and then somebody having them…. I don’t have to deal with the nitty-gritty of getting them done. Getting them done is a big headache, I have to tell you, and it’s very easy. I say, “It’s very easy to have an idea, but go get it done.” But we talked about ideas, and my ideas, and his ideas, all the time. It was a constant life. And of course, my ideas seeped into the work, and both literally and also conceptually, as his did for me. We couldn’t have survived without each other. Neither of us would have done anything close to what we accomplished without each other. That’s clear to me, if anything is clear.
AZ: So fortunate. You said once, “We could always be completely honest. And [we] would not get hurt.” Which—
MK: Most of the time.
AZ: If you’re going to look for advice on a relationship, especially creative partnership, that’s got to be it.
MK: You have to be honest. If you’re being polite, then that’s nothing.
AZ: And then you had children. You had two children. How did that shift your priorities? Was there a major shift, or was it just in the continuum?
MK: Having children, for both of us, was the most important thing that we’d ever done, and out-shadowed everything. The importance of their well-being, and the fantastic life that we had with them, was…. First of all, I never expected it. It’s like, you don’t know what it’s going to be like. But then when they’re born, you go, “Uh-huh., Now I know why I’m here on this planet: to worry, apparently, twenty-four seven.” [Laughs] There was never any dissonance in the way that we saw our lives. It was very much about work, and it was very much about family. And that they didn’t have to exclude each other, and you didn’t have to be a miserable parent to be a successful artist, or a successful designer or editor. That you could do it all, and that it really does feed you. So, that was how it was for us.
AZ: They were brought up in the studio.
MK: Yeah. They caused havoc. They ran amok, in the studio and at home. But no, I mean, there was a wonderful mixing of people and places, and it was really…. We’ll have to call them in here and ask them, but I think they had a—I’ll say, they had a good life.
AZ: The way you tell stories to children in your books is so matter-of-fact. You make visible the good and the bad. Everything is direct and honest. Were you that way as a parent? Were you very direct? Or was there a sort of, Am I doing this right? Was it a similar approach?
MK: This is the split-personality part of being alive. Sometimes I think I’m spot-on, and sometimes I think I’m clueless, and have done a terrible job. So, ask me tomorrow.
AZ: But you were always honest with them.
MK: I was honest with them? No, not at all. [Laughs]
AZ: Right. [Laughs] Well, that’s what I was wondering.
MK: No, no, no. I know I was as honest as I could be under the circumstances, because a lot of the time, being a parent is [about] what you don’t say. And really, to not make a comment, and to let them just live it. And hoping for the best, that’s what we say. Because they know I’m around, but I’m going to let you make mistakes, be obnoxious, find your own way. That’s very hard to do, but that’s what we tried.
AZ: When you got into making children’s books, they were different. They didn’t look, feel, read the same way the books at the time were. They were very different. Did you know that? Or were you doing something authentic to yourself, and if it works, it works, whatever?
MK: The motivator is to do something that I love. That’s it. It’s not about, Let me try to do something different, or, Let me try to do something that appeals to this group or that group. It’s, What do I need to do as an artist, as a writer, and as a painter? Which brings me back to my mother, or life with Tibor—we just never thought about that. We only thought about, What is the idea that makes you so happy, that you want to work on it? So, that was my approach to children’s books.
And also, there’s a vast world of typography and imagery, inspirations, from Saul Steinberg to Ludwig Bemelmans. I mean, just the people that were around us— we weren’t in a vacuum. We were looking at a lot of work.
MK: When you see things that inspire you, you go, “Uh-huh. That’s what I want to achieve in my work.”
AZ: But Bemelmans, and those characters, were not like, the thing when you were making the books. They were before.
MK: I was looking at the work that I admired through the decades of design and literature.
AZ: Is Max [the dog] based on you?
AZ: In which ways?
MK: A hapless, heartfelt poet wandering around waiting for funny things to happen, which they always do.
AZ: Were you aware that it was based on you?
MK: Oh yeah.
AZ: Or did you think you were writing a character?
MK: Oh, no. I can’t write characters. Everything I write is about myself, whether it’s a dog or not. And the people that are in the books are people that I knew: [Max’s friend] Bruno painted invisible paintings; Bruno Jakob is a wonderful artist who paints invisible paintings—and yet I can say he’s a wonderful artist. So, once again, it was all about my life.
AZ: Because that old adage, the [most] personal becomes the most universal, couldn’t be more true.
MK: You hope. Yeah.
AZ: Another project that comes to mind is (Un)fashion, which you did with Tibor. What was the intention of the book? And what was the experience in making it? I often fantasize that it was like, Well, it was an excuse to go see things. How much of it was an excuse to have the process of doing it, and how much was about the output?
MK: It’s all a mix. The curiosity about places and people—we didn’t take all those photos. Yeah, (Un)fashion was, again, a celebration of the way people dress all around the world for ritual, for daily life, for sport, for war, and we just love all of that. The fashion of humanity is a big subject for us. It was Tibor’s idea: “Let’s do (Un)fashion.” And I thought, What a great idea. That’s all that it took. And then we just started collecting
imagery, working with researchers. Actually, Kevin Kwan, who wrote Crazy Rich Asians, was the researcher for us. He was a photographer at the time and a writer, and just this all-around really wonderful, smart guy.
And so I was working with him, and then in the middle, Tibor died in the middle of working on this. And so, Kevin and I continued together. And it was a very sweet time to work with him.
AZ: When Tibor passed, you were confronted with sort of, What do I do professionally? Right? Do I carry on M&Co?
MK: Oh, I had no doubts in my mind. I was not going to carry on M&Co. You know, the decisions that you make in a split second, without any thinking, or without anything—you’re just going with your gut instinct…. And Tibor had said to me, “You have to promise to continue M&Co.” And so, I did, and then I thought, Well, that’s a promise broken. Because I didn’t want to be bound by what he had done. I wanted to do what I was doing. And it didn’t mean that I was now saying, “Ah-ha! Now I’m out of the shadows.” It wasn’t like that at all. It was an evolution of a person. And the work that we did together, and the life that we created, was incomparable.
And now, I said, “Okay, and now what?” So, even though M&Co products continues, and I was creating products for MoMA and for the product line, I didn’t feel I needed to continue a graphic design company and have clients. No. And I didn’t, for a minute, hesitate about that.
AZ: He was 49.
AZ: I mean, incredibly young. Did you still have kids in the house?
MK: Yeah. The kids were 13 and 17 when he died. So, there was the desire to comfort and take care of them, and to take care of myself.
MK: People probably talk about this, but somehow, I always said that I ingested his courage when he died, that I wasn’t left bereft and hopeless. I was left with a great desire to live, and to fulfill my sense of being a person and working. So, that’s what happened.
AZ: And you became incredibly productive. You moved into the most productive period of your life, probably. This forward motion and momentum that happened—did it take a while, or did you dive right in? Did the productivity ramp up? How did this occur at a very low moment, you would imagine?
MK: I dove in. I dove in head first. There was the “Tiborocity” show, which had to be designed. A retrospective of his work, it was a huge show, that was traveling, and other projects. So, I had work to do that had to be attended to. And I just never stopped.
AZ: And the work must’ve kept you away from the sadness of doing nothing, and thinking.
MK: Work is a great solace. And the engagement with work is a great antidote to sorrow.
AZ: Yeah. I wanted to talk a little bit about walking, before we move on too much. The rhythm of walking, moving through time; your books are kind of drawings through time as you experience them. How much do you think about the rhythms of books, and the rhythms in your life? Are you conscious of the tempo that the narratives you create make? And do you draw that from the tempos you see in life? Or do they just occur differently in the books? Why do they feel so much like life, the divergent mind?
MK: Because it’s messy and unpredictable. And the books follow my messy and unpredictable life. I have book obligations for the next few years, but then things shift, and something moves around, and then I say, “Oh, but I’m really interested in this and not in that.” I’m working on a multivolume compendium of knowledge, or the lack thereof—which, that’s the title—and I think, Oh, well, maybe that’s what will happen. And then something appears, or somebody calls and says, “Do you want to do this thing?” So there’s room for exploring, and there’s room for messiness, and there’s room for not knowing.
AZ: Right. And you and your son collaborate on these incredibly beautiful short films that are sort of connected to the books. I wanted to take a second and talk about one of these. First of all, how rare it is to see that collaboration, to see a family collaborate in all these different ways, and how beautiful that is. I’m sure you see that. But what do you love most about working together? What do you think you can do with him you can’t do with others?
MK: It’s really so extraordinary. I have to say that I’m fortunate, beyond…. I mean, both my children are amazing, but to be able to work, and have the kind of dialogue where the aesthetics—it’s really shorthand. We understand what we’re trying to get to. We understand the emotional component of things. He’s very kind, and he’s also a humanist, and believes in the eccentricity of the human voice. So, we haven’t had any big fights yet. [Laughs] Well, the night is young.
It’s extraordinary to be able to create work together that’s beautiful and smart and funny. He has a great sense of humor, which we have to say, was a big part of Tibor’s and my way of looking at work. And so, it’s fun. It’s just tremendous, beautiful fun. And we understand each other—what we’re trying to achieve.
AZ: [In] the one where you go out and interview dogs, you have this one moment where you say, “What do you think is better, thinking or feeling? I can’t decide. [Maybe] they’re [both] the same thing.” And I just wanted you to answer that question. Do you have an answer?
MK: Does anybody have an answer?
AZ: It’s a hard one.
MK: Well, first of all, you’re going to have to accept the fact that it’s a thinking-and-feeling kind of roller-coaster that your life is. But we always say, “Don’t think too much.” That’s a given. But my favorite [film] is, I have to say, the Alice B. Toklas [one], with me with a prosthetic nose and a little mustache and her wig, because I just feel like I completely inhabit Alice and her persona. I just loved her relationship. And of course, I’ve spoken about how her relationship with Gertrude Stein mirrors, in a way, my relationship with Tibor. Because, to say, “Somebody’s in the background,” is maybe the obvious statement, but it has nothing to do with the real dynamic of what’s going on between a couple, and between the importance of the voice of each person. So, I embraced them as I embraced Tibor and Maira.
AZ: Yeah, and it comes through in that specific film that you made, because, you know: “I answered the door and made people go away.” “I made the food, and she needed the food.” The balance required in two characters that are extremely high-performing in different areas.
MK: But, I want to say that it’s not—she did answer the door, and she did make the food, and she did embroider and type all of the manuscripts. But for me, reading their books, reading her books and her cookbooks, and Gertrude’s books, Gertrude is channeling her voice completely. So it’s not as if Alice didn’t have an interesting voice—by voice, I mean expression of the way she looked at things—it was a gift to Gertrude to be able to use that. Anyway. So, I hope I have a bigger career as Alice B. Toklas.
AZ: Yeah, she’s just known for the weed [brownies] now.
MK: Right, exactly.
AZ: You ask most people, like, Alice B. Toklas.
MK: Of course. Even if they know that, yeah. The hash brownies.
AZ: Right. And you placed it in New York. So you’re getting, like, a hot dog, and doing these simple joys of New York as Alice B. Toklas.
MK: Yeah. That was really fun.
AZ: Very intimate. Looking and responding is so [crucial], obviously. I mean, I know it’s very simple, but you’ve had these incredible assignments of going someplace as a kind of a journalist almost, to process and experience: [Le] Corbusier’s home. The White House. What are these assignments like? And how do you seem to get at something that’s so unexpected every time, the thing that is eye to eye, the human scale of it?
MK: I just follow what’s interesting to me. I don’t care about the assignment so much, in that I don’t think I have to fulfill some kind of obligation of what you might expect. I don’t know what you expect, so it doesn’t matter anyway. What I have to tell you is the story that happens to me, as I see it. So, that’s why I love, as we said in the beginning, I love an assignment, because I love the relationship to the real world, and I have a project that I have to respond to, as a writer and as an artist. But after that, then all hell can break loose in a beautiful, creative way.
AZ: So you get a call to go to the White House, and you’re like, “Great, I’ll go to the White House. This seems fun.” And you have no [thoughts of], Maybe I’ll cover that, maybe I’ll…. You just go.
AZ: So it’s important to you, in this idea of not thinking, to just show up and respond. What was it about Corbusier’s sink?
MK: I have a special love of sinks. If I could collect sinks, they would be lined up in my room. It’s not that his is my favorite sink—let me make that clear—but Corbusier’s sink…. When you come upon an object, an inanimate object, that speaks to you very loudly, you have to listen, you have to pay attention, and not
ignore it. So I walked into the room, and I just looked at that sink and I thought, Whoa, that’s a beautiful proportion, a beautiful color, beautiful light coming through the window nearby. And the architecture of a room is probably the most important thing that affects you during the day, and maybe in your life. You’re just subject to these incredible structures that you’re walking through. And so, I respond very much to the utilitarian rooms. I mean, I love grand rooms, and I’ve photographed and painted many great rooms in many palaces, and wouldn’t mind going again. But the utilitarian rooms appeal to me, because I know I would be happy working there. I choose a sink that I would be happy washing the dishes in. [Laughs]
AZ: [Laughs] New York City, and it’s something I spoke to your good friend Rosanne [Cash] about, has played such a major role in your life and in how you see things. The city itself; you are a New Yorker. What was it like to do that cover, “New Yorkistan” (2001), for The New Yorker, at that time? Which seems, to me, to be very much reflective of this moment, where humor and comedy is in crisis.
MK: Right. Now, it’s best not to say a word about anything. Don’t say anything about anything. Well, the “New Yorkistan” cover was done in collaboration with Rick Meyerowitz, and he was also a cartoonist, a writer for National Lampoon.
AZ: He did the Animal House poster.
MK: Yes, Animal House. So, he had a long history of irreverence and sarcasm and satire; a long history of being nasty. No. When we worked on things together, there was also a natural dialogue of love of play of words and language, love of the subject—we both love New York—and a kind of awe at what was unraveling, or developing, before us. So, we just started talking about this tribal city, and that grew into the map, which The New Yorker, thankfully, put on the cover. And we probably insulted a lot of different people. I don’t even know if we can make that map now.
AZ: Yeah, you wonder, Could that be—
MK: I don’t know. We’d have to go through it. I don’t remember most of the names, except for “Fattushis.” And you say, “Well, you can’t say that.” “I didn’t say that.”
AZ: Do you worry now, in this time of cancel culture, or whatever we could call it, that humor is in crisis? Do you see yourself holding back now, in certain ways?
MK: I don’t even know what to call it anymore. But there definitely is a second-guessing of everything that you say that might be thought of askance. However, there’s also something good about rethinking how you think about things, and there’s also something good about changing. It’s inevitable that language changes, and your perceptions of what’s cruel change, also. That’s not a bad thing. That’s a very good thing to reassess. And if you have constraints that make you stop for a minute, fine. Then you stop for a minute. It doesn’t take away the sense of whimsy, or wit, or humor that lives through the day of your life anyway. It’s not as if humor has to be mean, or even controversial.
So, I think that I’m perfectly happy to consider how language is changing, with some annoyances sometimes, and say, “Oh, really?” And that. But things will change, and then people will find their way to be funny.
AZ: We can hope.
MK: We must hope.
AZ: Before I let you go, the final question. I read a quote once where you said, “Not trying to be anything other than who you are—that’s an absurdly difficult thing to do, and it takes many years.” I know it’s a tough answer, but from your own experience, what got you there? Or what is getting you there?
MK: If I had to give you the short answer, it would be that I felt I was loved as a child. And that sense of being loved is so extraordinarily strong, that I think it carries you through tragedy, and torment, and all of the other things that happen to a person. Whatever persona you’re born with, whatever things that make up your being, that I don’t know; that’s impossible to know, obviously—but I do think that it’s the obligation of the adults around children to make them feel incredibly loved. And if you’ve done that, you’ve done the most important thing you could possibly do.
AZ: We’ll end there. Thank you, Maira.
MK: Thank you.
This interview was recorded in The Slowdown’s New York City studio on June 21, 2021. The transcript has been slightly condensed and edited for clarity by our executive editor, Tiffany Jow. The episode was produced by our assistant editor, Emily Jiang; managing director, Mike Lala; and sound engineer, Pat McCusker.