Arkitektura Assembly:  Bringing together the world of Design

DESIGN IN MIND: Maira Kalman

If you read the New Yorker, there is a very high probability you have come across Maira Kalman’s work. She has graced its cover many times and created, with illustrator and author Rick Meyerowitz potentially one of the most notorious New Yorker covers, New Yorkistan. Along with her work for The New Yorker, Maira has written and illustrated nearly two dozen children’s books, has had art exhibitions in some of the most well revered art institutions in the US, has collaborated with great thinkers as wide ranging as Michael Pollan and David Byrne, and recently had an exhibition at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, a collaboration with her son Alex, of a piece called Sara Berman’s closet, based on her Mom’s closet. That exhibit is coming to LA in December.

Maira was also married to Tibor Kalman, a graphic designer whose work shook he world and paved the way for a generation of forward thinking, ground breaking designers. Together they worked and created some seminal design pieces through their business M&Co. These include a paperweight made of crumpled up paper, inspired by the discarded thoughts of Tibor, and a watch with very few numbers putting into question our sense of time. Timor saw himself more as a social activist than an artist and he was deeply committed to social causes. While he died far too early, at the age of 49 because of cancer, his impact continues to be felt to this day.

Maira:
I was born in Tel Aviv, my parents both came from Belarus in the ’30s from little villages so they really brought the essence of these small villages to Israel or Palestine at the time. I left Tel Aviv when I was four with my family and moved to Riverdale in the Bronx which was a wonderful place to come to, and then moved into the city. Basically, except for a few joints away in Rome and such, I’ve been here ever since.

Arkitektura:
Yeah, and loving it?

Maira:
Adoring, loving doesn’t even … Loving it, yeah, very much loving it.

Arkitektura:
It’s like in that Woody Allen film, Annie Hall when she says, “Do you love me?” He says, “I don’t just love you, I lurve you.” There’s no word for the feeling.

Maira:
There isn’t enough.

Arkitektura:
Yesterday I was talking to someone about why I love New York so much, and one of the reasons is I thrive on connection and there are so many opportunities in big and small ways to connect here. What is it about the city? I mean, what moves you so much?

Maira:
The unending energy of all of the crazy people who have come here to be themselves and to get away from whatever they’ve gotten away from. But not in a bad way, in just this is the place but that it’s a walking city. Everybody’s walking or running or slogging somewhere, and the trajectories are just so intense and fantastic. When you combine it with the architecture of the city and the presence of stops for coffee and walks in Central Park, it’s just there’s this energy that I can’t get enough of.

Arkitektura:
We’ll get into the walks in Central Park because I’m curious about that, but so you came here you were four, it was you, your sister, your mom, and your dad. What’s the age difference between you and your sister?

Maira:
She’s four years older.

Arkitektura:
So she was eight? Yeah, was she excited about the move too?

Maira:
She was miserable from the beginning.

Arkitektura:
Different characters, huh?

Maira:
It’s different, this was not a good transition for her and it’s an interesting duality to have two kids who are very different in their aspect and still wonderful and all kinds of wonderful things going on. But it was an upheaval for her and for me it was like, “Wow, this place is fabulous. This is great that we left that other place.

Arkitektura:
Has she adjusted now?

Maira:
I’m going to go with no. She’s adjusted but I think that there is really the sense of displacement was very intense for her.

Arkitektura:
Your dad was traveling a lot?

Maira:
Yes, he was a diamond dealer so he had a glamorous job traveling with lots of other diamond dealers around the world. It was the fantastic part of our life really to just have the women on their own.

Arkitektura:
Yeah, and it sounds like your mom was just this extraordinary woman?

Maira:
She was extraordinary and magical and everybody fell in love with her.

Arkitektura:
Really, and what were some of the things about her that were so magical?

Maira:
That’s really part of the essence of the history of Belarus and the family, they were extremely irreverent, not sentimental. So if they didn’t like how you looked, you hear about it, but not in a way that you were devastated, just a funny way. The sense of, I talk about this a lot, that there was never a point of getting it right and that really the point was just to be who you are and to get what you are and to have a sense of humor and she was also extremely beautiful. There was a lot going on in this woman who had a very, very unhappy marriage. A lot of different things going on.

Arkitektura:
She had been in love with someone that wasn’t her husband?

Maira:
Probably a few but she certainly was in love with somebody who she did not marry thinking that it was that he was British and perhaps not Jewish and it was unthinkable in those days not to marry somebody who was Jewish and of your tribe. I think she had a brief fling with one of her cousins and the family put an end to that really quickly. But my father was somebody who pursued her with great ardor and I don’t know if she ever loved him.

Arkitektura:
It informed you of what not to do?

Maira:
That’s what I always said that I had a perfectly incredible model right before me of how not to have a relationship and it’s interesting because you think that if you have a bad relationship your children are going to be completely screwed and they will emulate your bad relationship. But in fact it really worked the opposite way, I was able to understand the kind of person that I wanted to be with, which was a true friend.

Arkitektura:
Which I know I think that’s not always the case, I think in the sense that I think you probably had just the wherewithal to make that distinction and decision which is great.

Maira:
It was crazy luck, crazy, crazy luck.

Arkitektura:
I did read that you said a lot it’s so much has to do with luck.

Maira:
Which I don’t even know what that word means.

Arkitektura:
Yeah, I was going to say what does that mean?

Maira:
What is that? What is that? We don’t know, we just say it all the time.

Arkitektura:
Opportunities that you are aware of I guess?

Maira:
What can you possibly know at the age of 18? I see obviously nothing as I still to say nothing but even more so nothing. More of nothing.

Arkitektura:
More of nothing.

Maira:
Have a look at it.

Arkitektura:
More of nothing. Your mom sounds like she … well, from what I understand she didn’t impose any expectations on you.

Maira:
It’s an interesting duality because piano lessons, ballet lessons, we went to the opera, to museums, to concerts, it was, as I write about it often, very culturally focused, very, that all of that world was important for us to see and to experience. In fact, my sister became an artist and I decided that I would be the writer. But within the context of showing you what’s out there in the world, there was never a conversation about any of it like, “What does it mean? What do you know? What are you going to do?” Never.

Arkitektura:
Why are you going to leave NYU?

Maira:
I don’t even know if they knew I was in NYU let alone out of NYU.

Arkitektura:
Really?

Maira:
They really were, they had moved back to Tel Aviv, at that point my parents had moved back to Tel Aviv, I was in college and it was a free for all, it was the late ’60s and all hell was breaking loose and they were … Hands off doesn’t even begin to describe it.

Arkitektura:
Amazing, that’s so liberating.

Maira:
I took it for granted or something and then I knew that they were there if I needed them.

Arkitektura:
Although, I can imagine some, I was saying this to a friend and my husband was saying that he was spending time with someone that was so successful but is always complaining. I said, “It’s all dependent on your character, you can be not very successful but incredibly joyous or so successful and always complaining.” I can imagine you could have the different attitude, “Well, they abandoned me, they moved to Tel Aviv and I was left alone to my devices in New York.” But your attitude is, “I was given the freedom and I knew they were there for I needed them.”

Maira:
I was left with an apartment, it was a crash pad for everybody in New York City.

Arkitektura:
Was it?

Maira:
We were a tremendous amount of fun.

Arkitektura:
That’s great.

Maira:
Yes, talking about what the nature of a person is, clearly there is an ability and a resilience and a joy.

Arkitektura:
Yeah, there’s a great interview, there’s lots of great interviews but there’s a great one on the great discontent at some website that interviewed you and their last question is what do you hope your legacy to be? You said to find joy in tragedy.

Maira:
That’s sad.

Arkitektura:
What? No, it’s not. It’s beautiful.

Maira:
Oh, that’s great, yeah.

Arkitektura:
I think it’s a great example of allowing for because life … there is a lot of tragedy in life and there’s a tremendous amount of joy.

Maira:
It’s interesting when I think about when I hear myself say that I say, “What an idiot.” But because I don’t want to not feel the sorrow, I don’t want to completely up end the sorrow because then it’s giving it short shrift, if I may say that about sorrow. It’s a big mess.

Arkitektura:
Yeah, exactly.

Maira:
Okay, all right.

Arkitektura:
Not so great. Actually, well, inherent it is both, that’s what’s so great about it. It’s also a good legacy because I think as an artist you could leave as a storyteller, as a writer, that’s one of the things that, that is a legacy. These are in print and they will always be in print beyond you. You could say my legacy will be my books or my legacy will be my reflections or my love for dogs or my children, but it’s an attitude, it’s not an object or a human, it’s an attitude. Which I think is a great legacy to leave behind.

Maira:
Thank you.

Arkitektura:
Let’s talk about those years at the late ’60s, no one was going to school, everyone was out and about and you met Tibor, was there chemistry immediately?

Maira:
Somebody had chemistry, but it wasn’t me. No, we had the chemicals of a cup of coffee and a cigarette to share in our first date, and then we went away together. I’ve also talked a lot about this, we met in summer flunk out class and we were both flunking out of NYU. The fantastic Confederacy of Dunces sat sacked weirdo characters that were in these classes, these economics and math class. So everybody was skulking around like an idiot and when he asked me out for a cup of coffee I thought … I don’t know what I thought, maybe I hadn’t noticed him or sure but of course the minute we started talking to each other that was the beginning of our conversation except for breaking up with each other as one must do in the late ’60s and having other liaisons, we never stopped having that conversation.

Arkitektura:
Ended up collaborating with each other.

Maira:
That’s another thing that I thought, which it was one of my mandates that I had to work with a person that I loved.

Arkitektura:
Really, that you mean when you were thinking about who’s going to be your mate? Why is that?

Maira:
It was a creative collaboration that was as important to me as anything else, maybe even more important.

Arkitektura:
Why do you think that is?

Maira:
The meeting of the minds, the same great romantic. We don’t just go out to dinner, we go out to dinner and we write a book together.

Arkitektura:
Yeah, sometimes I work with my husband and sometimes people say, “Gosh, how do you separate your life and your work, and what about don’t you talk about work all the time?” What do you say to that?

Maira:
Yes, so it’s not work in the sense like how many cans of peas did you label today? Even though that would be a nice thing to do. But it’s a deep curiosity about the world and that’s what you’re talking about all the time, and what do we make of it together.

Arkitektura:
How do we translate that into, in your case, into objects?

Maira:
Yeah, into objects, into work, into income-

Arkitektura:
Into income.

Maira:
… very pragmatically, not head in the clouds at all on that level.

Arkitektura:
At that point were you painting?

Maira:
No, well, I wasn’t painting in college, I was writing still and when we left, we had gone to a psychic who had said to me, “You have to put yourself in a prison, but it will be a prison for your own happiness.” I understood that to be, I had started drawing at that time, but I understood it to mean that I really had to focus on what that is and abandon, if I wanted to, I abandoned writing or put it aside and started drawing. I just thought it’s an easier way for me to tell my story cartoony, and that sense of punk. The new wave in punk art was just beginning to, so it all came together in a style that made sense to me. A little bit surreal, a little bit dah, dah. The hairy who, saw Steinberg, just a lot of people who were exploring for a long time the intersection of humor and drawing and narrative and text. So then I really start to take it seriously.

Arkitektura:
The prison was your painting from what the psychic was saying.

Maira:
The psychic was saying that the prison was a schedule, was a framework of the day actually.

Arkitektura:
Interesting. Which you’ve become very committed to?

Maira:
Yeah. So for somebody to just say to you, the best way for you to do this is first you make your bed and then you sit down and you work for four hours and then you can have a sandwich and then you work again for four hours. To give somebody a schedule and whatever that is-

Arkitektura:
A structure.

Maira:
A structure, thank you, a structure for the day and for a life is I think that’s the way that I work now. I think that a structure is something sublime.

Arkitektura:
Well, it’s especially when you’re creative because it’s safety in a way.

Maira:
Yeah, and the discipline of working as opposed to wandering around, “I might do this and I would do that and I could do this,” is tedious to hear. When people talk to me about what they would do or could do, I really I tune out because I think, “Well, then why aren’t you doing it?” It’s idiotic of you to even say these things and it’s intolerant and mean. But basically I think I learned quite early that you have to work.

Arkitektura:
Well, yeah, persevere.

Maira:
And persevere.

Arkitektura:
Persevere and be patient and trust and realize that I think that there’s this notion of if you’re in a creative field, it’s like these ideas come and they manifest and you create them and then it’s fantastic. But it actually takes a tremendous amount of work.

Maira:
That was the wonderful thing also about Tibor was that he was a maniac worker and never tired of let’s make this better. Also, the kind of person who if you had an idea said, you have to make it happen. It was very driven and very focused.

Arkitektura:
Was this like a psychic like a neon sign on 23rd Street or something? One of those things that you just decide to go to?

Maira:
No, this was a famous South American psychic who we all were very excited about and there was a translator who was very famous and we had to fast the day before and not wear jewelry and just … not that people were wearing jewelry but that it was much more of a psychic experience if you were inclined to even go there. Once in a while we were inclined to do that as a lark or as a condensation of the universe speaking to you. Instead of going to 50 shrink sessions, you go to one session with a psychic and your mind is blown and then you go, “This is idiotic, but still …”

Arkitektura:
Oh, I think it’s fantastic. Yeah, why not?

Maira:
A grain of salt, but just to get pragmatic information is actually very useful and clearly this person was perceptive or I thought so anyway.

Arkitektura:
Well, you followed through with it.

Maira:
Yeah.

Arkitektura:
I think that the transition as from writing to that as one of … you’ve been called in lots of different articles and artists but I think visual storyteller potentially resonates the most. Just do you think that’s so?

Maira:
I could say that, does it include writing?

Arkitektura:
Sure, it’s a storyteller.

Maira:
Yeah, visual essay. Yeah, okay.

Arkitektura:
Your early writing was Engstrand?

Maira:
Of course, who’s isn’t?

Arkitektura:
Is it just by virtue of having been a teenager?

Maira:
That’s clearly a big part of it, what are you going to write about if you’re a teenager? About the terrors of life.

Arkitektura:
Yeah, and the chairs of your hormones and do you get joy in writing now?

Maira:
I get a tremendous amount of joy from writing but I’m very, very grateful that that’s not all I do. Because if all I did was write, I would be insane and I would not and then I wouldn’t be doing it. This is really the intersection of the way the brain works to be able to use image and word and to go back and forth as needed is such an incredible gift or luxury or condition that I’m using two different ways of looking at the world and combining them and I think, “Well, that’s pretty good.”

Arkitektura:
Now when you go to your site and there’s the New Yorker covers, there’s books, there’s children’s books, and then there’s products from M&Co, which the one that seems most familiar too if I were to say, “Oh, they all come together,” is the crumpled up paper weight. But the clocks for instance are you say, “Wow, she has this ability to also do this.” Where did the two come together?

Maira:
Well, that’s also the Tibor factor, you know, that in this curiosity about everything, his attitude in having a design studio and having M&Co was like, “Well, we’ll do whatever we feel like doing. Why would we not? We want to design products, well that’s what we’re going to do.” The crumpled paper weight came from Tibor, Tibor only used yellow legal pads and then going through ideas never on a computer always sketched through the years with all the designers. He would crumple up the paper and throw it on the floor when he was not happy with something and looking at a floor littered with these crumpled paper weights. His attitude was the same, I guess, the same as mine, we found kindred spirits. We were like, “Let’s make this happen.” The same with the watches and the clocks, and of course there were a lot of other people working on it, people in Switzerland, we didn’t make them ourselves.

But the designers of course at M&Co company also were working on the design, but the sense of well what’s fun about this? What’s interesting? To be able to take a watch and to write on the back, “Waste not a moment,” and to scramble the numbers or take away all the numbers. You’re really solving idea problems and you’re not just creating product which we also are, and Tibor called it design pornography. But we were investigating everything around us.

Arkitektura:
Yeah, it’s a philosophical investigation.

Maira:
Everything is.

Arkitektura:
It’s like, “What is time?” Time is a construct I guess you could say or time that we have these structures that give us time and then at the same time, time can be so jumbled, memory can be so jumbled, but don’t waste any of it at the same time. I don’t sleep very much, I sleep very few hours.

Maira:
Really, how do you do that?

Arkitektura:
Well, I don’t know, I think it’s hereditary.

Maira:
How many hours a night do you sleep?

Arkitektura:
Four, five, sometimes six. I can’t-

Maira:
Six you’re really sleeping in?

Arkitektura:
Yeah.

Maira:
Six hours is just like, “Wow, what happened there?”

Arkitektura:
Well, last night I slept 2:00, I slept at 2:00 and then woke up at 7:00, yeah.

Maira:
You went to sleep or 2:00?

Arkitektura:
Yes.

Maira:
Wow.

Arkitektura:
One of the reasons because I don’t want to waste any time. I like being awake and I was thinking about this, although, it’s important to sleep so for any listeners out there who are questioning sleep, don’t heed this. But I did when you said don’t waste time, I thought about how especially when I’m in New York there’s so much to drink up, you just don’t want to waste it. But there are a lot, you know, sleeping is not necessarily wasting time. But how do we not waste time I guess is my-

Maira:
Well, there’s always that’s the grand balance of what does it mean to use your time and what is wasting time because you have to leave time for not knowing and not doing and not thinking and the nots. Just you have to really be able to wander, you have to do a wandering or I have to do wandering.

Arkitektura:
Which you do?

Maira:
Which I do.

Arkitektura:
Which you do like three times a day.

Maira:
I understand, yeah, I just three times a week. Well-

Arkitektura:
In that article it said a day.

Maira:
I know, it’s like-

Arkitektura:
A day.

Maira:
I would be walking all day long which I could do and I have done, I’ve done many walks in many countries and I walked this morning in Central Park with my dear friend Elizabeth. I got sloggy and sweaty in this humidity. But I will walk in the evening, so let’s say twice a day.

Arkitektura:
Yeah, well, I was shocked three times a day, I was like, “My god.”

Maira:
Thank God for typos, that woman is intrepid. When does she work?” This sense of finding yourself and finding out who you are and finding the time to find out how yourself at the same time of working hard and having a lot of assignments and wonderful deadlines, it’s a mix.

Arkitektura:
Of finding yourself. It sounds like, I don’t know this probably presumptive, but did you do that pretty early on?

Maira:
Well, no, I haven’t still. That’s the beauty part that every day is a surprise and every day is like, “Really, you’re still thinking about that? You’re still worrying about that? You’re still confused about that? Really, you haven’t learned anything?” And then I go, “No, I haven’t learned anything.” It’s not what you find out that you haven’t come to a fixed point but the points keep changing. So shitty days and good days changing aspects of a human being, they-

Arkitektura:
They all come together.

Maira:
Yeah, they all come together and fight and then fall apart and then come together again and it doesn’t end.

Arkitektura:
Yeah, it reminds me of that meditation project that you did, which-

Maira:
That was funny.

Arkitektura:
It was wonderful.

Maira:
I don’t mean just funny, it was wonderful.

Arkitektura:
I did a silent retreat for five days.

Maira:
That’s more than I did.

Arkitektura:
I know, you did three but it was an eye opener and we did the raisin thing when you said where you put in raisins-

Maira:
Yeah, I forgot, what’s the raisin?

Arkitektura:
I think that was-

Maira:
Yeah, [crosstalk 00:23:36] members.

Arkitektura:
Part of mindful eating where they say, “Okay, take this raisin, at least they did that in California and really taste the raisin.” It was very mind opening for me, the whole process. I imagine probably for you as well?

Maira:
Very much so, I still use, I was on the bus today and I was doing my breathing mindful meditation because somebody was screaming and I thought, “Oh God, either I killed them which is not so mindful.”

Arkitektura:
One option.

Maira:
Not the kindest thing I could do or I just breathe through this.

Arkitektura:
One thing I’m curious about is having children, so you were in your 20s when you had your kids?

Maira:
30s.

Arkitektura:
You were in your 30s, so you had been with Tibor for?

Maira:
We had been together for 14 years before we got married and then so in 1982 when I was 32, something like that. We had Lulu and then when I was 35 we had Alex.

Arkitektura:
Wow, it’s such a huge question but here you are creating all these other things and now you had created two humans, what was that like?

Maira:
It was clear with immediate force that that was the reason I was living, that everything up till then was like, “Oh that was nice.” And then when I had Lulu I thought, “Uh-huh, now I know why I’m alive.” Without any question at all, and I wasn’t a person who wanted to have kids and we never spoke of it and even when I was pregnant I was a little bit like, “Oh, I don’t know, this is going to end badly?” Then with the certainty of the universe flashing before me, certainly the same for Alex too, so there’s no question that they’re the most important things in my life, things.

Arkitektura:
Objects.

Maira:
I wish I can call them people. But they’re the most important aspects of my life with that. Of course, feminism and working and all of those things where in the end in conclusion you have to have your work and you have to have your love and that’s all there is. But if I had to choose, of course, I would choose them.

Arkitektura:
Oh, of course.

Maira:
Of course. I can say that. No, no, it’s true. Is it true for you?

Arkitektura:
Absolutely true for me.

Maira:
Of course, right?

Arkitektura:
Yeah, absolutely, true for me and I do really love my work but there’s something … It’s inexplicable.

Maira:
It’s inexplicable.

Arkitektura:
It’s totally inexplicable but now you work with your son which is so exciting.

Maira:
Yes, it’s really incredible and I really hope to work with Lulu but we are still going to find the project but with Alex it’s it flew in a very natural way.

Arkitektura:
Let’s go, so you had these wonderful kids, Lulu And Alex, I’m assuming they’re wonderful.

Maira:
I think so.

Arkitektura:
That was what started the writing children’s books.

Maira:
That’s right.

Arkitektura:
Yeah. I read something interesting that said that children’s books have to be 32 pages.

Maira:
I said that or it’s true?

Arkitektura:
No, you said that.

Maira:
Oh, because it is true.

Arkitektura:
Why?

Maira:
They don’t have to be but they often are.

Arkitektura:
32?

Maira:
Mm-hmm (affirmative), 32 pages is the-

Arkitektura:
Standard?

Maira:
… standard construct probably for money versus printing pages verses … I think it’s an economic decision and not an attention span decision.

Arkitektura:
It’s fascinating.

Maira:
I may be wrong.

Arkitektura:
You start off with large ideas and then you distill, is that … You do many different images from what I understand? Well, you tell me the process? You tell me.

Maira:
It’s like I don’t know what the process is. The process is also one that goes back and forth, a story is formed, not really some writing, some sketching, mulling, wandering around, overhearing, looking, discovering something new trying to do journals of my life for sure. So because they’re journals of my life, I don’t know what’s going to happen to me today or tomorrow or the day after so I need those days to collect material, and then to let it gestate. It’s a process that requires a manuscript to be written for an editor to look at.

Arkitektura:
Of course.

Maira:
But so that’s how they’ve grown. The Max books are me of course, they’re my life but it happens to be a dog.

Arkitektura:
Yes, totally.

Maira:
But so am I in that sense of just slinking around into the city. Children’s books are fantastic because of 32 pages construct, the editing process is very rigorous. You can’t just write willy-nilly, you really have to make every word tell if you can if that’s … That need is very, very present which gives it a conciseness and a vividness that I couldn’t do that with just writing, with just with a book, with an adult book.

Arkitektura:
It reminded me of poetry, that distilling of and you really have to be very conscious of the words you choose because you’re telling a much larger story in a select amount of words. Also, you also have to get into the head of the child and how they would see the world.

Maira:
Well, fortunately, I have that head. I’m not five years old, but I kind of am and that ability to see the world with wonder and to not know what something is or to be surprised or incredulous. I don’t try to think about how a kid thinks at all, I just write the story that I feel.

Arkitektura:
It happens to be resonating?

Maira:
Happens to be child friendly.

Arkitektura:
Yeah, your first one was with David Byrne?

Maira:
Right.

Arkitektura:
What was that collaboration like? Not specifically with David but the process of collaborating?

Maira:
The best collaboration is when you leave each other alone and you never see each other and never talk, that’s a perfect collaboration and we had that. That everybody has their mandate and then you go off and you do what you want to do. I’m jumping, so that was a wonderful way to enter into the children’s book world but really I had complete freedom to do what I wanted and to just draw the pictures that I wanted. Jumping ahead to collaborating with John Hogan [inaudible 00:30:26] on ballets now and what that means to 40 years later to look at the stage, to look at language, costume, set, 40 people are working on something, “I don’t understand what they’re saying. Oh my God, I can’t say my idea, I’m too embarrassed.” A tremendous amount of insecurity and hoping.

That’s another kind of collaboration, it’s interesting and probably because I’ve been able to do all my work these years, I’m allowing myself into a realm where I am insecure and go, “Well, I can only try.”

Arkitektura:
Is there something appealing about being insecure?

Maira:
Only when you’re in a good mood about it. Because if you’re insecure and you’re in a bad mood and paranoid and miserable, it’s not fun.

Arkitektura:
Yeah, absolutely.

Maira:
But there are different aspects to insecurity.

Arkitektura:
I guess the flip side of insecurity is stretching beyond your boundaries and I mean stretching beyond your abilities or exploring or if you were to change the wording.

Maira:
And then you wonder whether you’re doing horrible work, you’ve gone beyond your boundaries and you suck. You’re embarrassed, you’re humiliated, I thought I knew something, you thought I was good at something. Well, look at this, it’s horrible. What do you do with that? What do you do with the notion of failure?

Arkitektura:
What do you do with a notion of failure?

Maira:
A friend of mine says pills and alcohol. You worry about it a lot at 3:00 AM when I’d rather be sleeping. Then say that for the most part I’m not insane, so let’s just try this, and if it’s not good it isn’t the end of the world.

Arkitektura:
Yeah, absolutely.

Maira:
Yeah, so you finally come to that rationalization.

Arkitektura:
I learned about this term imposter syndrome last year, have you heard of this imposter syndrome? A lot of people know it but I didn’t know it, and it is this feeling that you’ve embarked on something because someone has believed that you’re able to do it and you believe that potentially you are able to do it. But then you get into it and you get really nervous and you’re like, “I’m an imposter on this and I’m not supposed to be here.”

Maira:
But now you think about everything for your whole life. That’s for sure. This is just one more job where you’re an impostor.

Arkitektura:
Yeah, but so just wild to think from painting to movement, and I guess it’s from these roots of having been into ballet and seeing performance when you were a child.

Maira:
Probably part of that and probably the sense that the paintings are very kinetic. For me, they’re moving, they should be animated, and because I’m listening, because I studied music and I listen to music all day long and I’m singing and sometimes moving around when I just have to get off, go stand up. That sense that everybody’s dancing.

Arkitektura:
That we’re all dancing and just as we’re running down the street?

Maira:
Just look at people walking down the street, it is the best ballet on earth.

Arkitektura:
And it also says so much about them. I know my father’s walk very well. I would always know when he was approaching, I know Philip’s walk very well, my husband’s walk very well. Do you remember Tibor’s walk?

Maira:
Very much, it’s interesting because the walks are so distinctive and Tibor would lope quickly lose, lope, looping.

Arkitektura:
Lose, lope, looping.

Maira:
Lose, lope, looping towards me and a sense of ease.

Arkitektura:
Oh, that’s such a great-

Maira:
A sense of ease with purpose.

Arkitektura:
Which is a lovely thing to be around I’m sure. It’s a perfect, it’s exactly, it actually very much resonates with you I imagine? A sense of ease, you have this freedom, you grew up with this freedom but with purpose. We all should do that, that’s a sense we all need.

Maira:
It sounds good.

Arkitektura:
I’m going back now to your parents moving to Tel Aviv, particularly, your mom moving. I moved back to California to be near my family even though I loved New York so much and it was hard for me to leave. How was that disjuncture? I know that you haven’t said that it was difficult or was it at all that you didn’t see her regularly anymore?

Maira:
I don’t know what the forces are that protect you but somehow I was and of course I had a life and Tibor and I were together. Those years where you’re exploring and you don’t expect to be with your parents every minute, so there wasn’t an expectation of like, “Oh my God, my mother is not with me.” Even though I adored her, because that was fine, that’s what we were doing and we’d be in touch of course and speaking, see each other through the year. But a certain independence is wonderful.

Arkitektura:
Yeah and now your daughter’s in Vermont, which isn’t that far.

Maira:
No, we see each other a lot too.

Arkitektura:
Yeah, why did she move to Vermont?

Maira:
The man she met.

Arkitektura:
Yeah, she moved for love.

Maira:
She moved for loved, very much moved for love.

Arkitektura:
Yeah, so how did the collaboration start with Alex? What was the first … Do you think you were collaborating even when he was a little kid without knowing it?

Maira:
Well, I used to say to them, “If you’re bored, write a book.” I didn’t want to hear complaints about that. Yeah, go write a book, and so there were a lot of collaborations in that way in the house turning all the furniture upside down, building wonderful forts. Completely having a sense of play together, that was a big part of our life and it was natural. It wasn’t like, “Oh, am I going to try to …”

Arkitektura:
Have play with them.

Maira:
They play, creative time with the kids, and so that developed over the years. Then now I’m trying to remember, he went to Bard to film school.

Arkitektura:
I went to Bard too.

Maira:
You did?

Arkitektura:
I loved there.

Maira:
That’s where he met his beloved Alex, Alexandra, so Alex and Alex.

Arkitektura:
What’s her last name?

Maira:
Eaton.

Arkitektura:
Alex Eaton.

Maira:
Eaton, and they are 33, so I don’t know what year they graduated, whatever. I think that what happened was that we started having a dialogue of film and then he did a few films with me to promote the elements of style, to promote other books. So we saw that, “Oh, well, this is fun, this is nice.” But we didn’t really talk about it, it wasn’t as if, “Now, let’s figure out a way to do this thing.” But there was a dialogue there and a vocabulary and also a kindness and a sense of humor that’s lovely to be around. So then probably the biggest leap was, and if I’m forgetting something monumental I’m sure he’ll remind me, but my mother’s closet which was the project that really launched so many different feelings of the world. When my mother died, I was standing in her closet on Horatio street, my mother only wore white and was impeccably neat in a way that was just the precision of it was insane in the closet.

But insane in a great way and we all love that. We all iron, starch and iron and had a lot of fun. So we were standing in the closet and I said, “You know what, this closet on Horatio street, this closet should be a museum and people should come to visit it and my sister can be the docent and sit there and wait for people to come.” Which my sister now is still reminds me, is like, “Where did that come from? That I was going to sit there and be the docent?” I said, “Well, it was clear obvious.” Just she didn’t take the job. 10 years later, my son has this museum on Cortlandt Alley in New York called Museum, which is in a defunct elevator shaft and it’s a museum of anthropological, sociological design objects that tell us who we are in this world. They’re collections of poignant and funny things that he gets from all over the world and assembles in this teeny little museum.

Arkitektura:
That’s great.

Maira:
This is the fifth year and so he opened in Niche down the block and said, “The Niche is the time is now right to have the closet.” We had kept everything, so for 10 years we kept all of her things in suitcases knowing that one day something would happen. It opened there, he met a curator from the Met who came to see it and he said, “If you have any thoughts about where it could go?” She said, “Well, I happen to have a thought.” So she brought it to the Met and it was there for nine months. We collaborated on that installation.

Arkitektura:
Amazing.

Maira:
So amazing.

Arkitektura:
Truly.

Maira:
Truly crazy amazing.

Arkitektura:
Just like wow, the closet.

Maira:
Sara Berman’s closet.

Arkitektura:
Incredible.

Maira:
From the really grubby alleyway, a wonderful alleyway, divine alleyway, but still a grubby New York alleyway which is great, to the Met, to the Metropolitan Museum of Art for nine months.

Arkitektura:
Would your mom have ever imagined that her closet would be at the Met?

Maira:
It’s incomprehensible, and it was in the American Wing, and the wonderful curator, Amelia Peck, understood that the context of the American Wing right next door to the richest woman in America in 1882 is next to Sara Berman who in 1982 moves into her own studio after leaving her husband. One marries for money and one leaves money, and so it was a wonderful-

Arkitektura:
Juxtaposition.

Maira:
… and just smart juxtaposition and it’s fascinating. We had a great time. So then we did a book, now the show is going to travel and it’s going to go to L.A. to the scribal and then to the Philadelphia, the Jewish Museum in Philadelphia which is a Smithsonian Institution and it’s on Independence Mall so it’s going to be outside. We’re going to have an installation of a kiosk of my mother’s closet outside as a monument to freedom and independence.

Arkitektura:
Absolutely, absolutely.

Maira:
Next to George Washington’s.

Arkitektura:
Incredible.

Maira:
Women need to be free, so it’s they have this amazing trajectory and he and I are working on another … We did a book as I said of Sara Berman, Sara Berman’s Closet, and we’re working on a screenplay for a documentary about Tibor.

Arkitektura:
Beloved Tibor.

Maira:
Beloved Tibor, and so a lot of different things.

Arkitektura:
I just want to recap this, so your son goes to Bard and by the way just I loved Bard, amazing, the film department’s incredible. He goes to Bard and he gets into filmmaking, make some films about your work and that those were initial collaborations. Not talking necessarily about childhood. And then you go down, after your mom passed away, you go to her closet on Horatio Street and in the closet she only wore white?

Maira:
Correct.

Arkitektura:
Never wore anything else but white? Mostly?

Maira:
Press me, she wore a tie that was plaid.

Arkitektura:
But mostly did she only wear white?

Maira:
She only wore white.

Arkitektura:
It’s just like perfectly everything is pressed and starch, and you said this spot should be a museum and you tell your sister that she should be the docent and your sister is like, “Why are you making me the docent?”

Maira:
Haven’t I suffered enough and now you’re giving me another assignment of suffering, yeah.

Arkitektura:
Haven’t I suffered enough, I love it. Well lo and behold, it doesn’t become a museum but you pack everything up in luggages. In the meantime, your son turns an elevator shaft into a museum called Museum of Objects that have cultural, that are representations of art, of our cultural conundrums let’s just say. And then something opens down the street from him and this is the perfect opportunity to create this museum of to your mom’s clothes. Then someone from the Met comes and sees and they’re like, “I love this.” Amazing story.

Maira:
No, of course I say that of course if nothing had happened with it or before everybody came by and said, “What the hell is this?” But you know how you just know when you have an idea that is meant to be and it is, it may take 10 years longer than you think it is. But then you go, “Well, this of course, this is so clear.”But when we were standing at the Met talking to the curator’s before it went there, we said, “That was enough.” We said Diane, “You know, that if we didn’t have any more than this conversation at the Met with the wonderful Amelia Peck and all the other curators of the American Wing, this is enough because this is so surreal, we can’t even believe it.

Arkitektura:
I love also the juxtaposition of that closet represented and there was many things that represented one of it, which was that here was an independent woman who had left her husband later in her life. Right by she had left wealth whereas, just as you said, which you have all these juxtapositions. Krista Tippett spoke a lot about this, that there’s this colorfulness and this beauty and this playfulness in the work visually speaking, but dig a little deeper and you’re actually talking about a lot of-

Maira:
You’re talking about death.

Arkitektura:
Yeah.

Maira:
You’re talking about death.

Arkitektura:
Let’s get right to it, that’s all we’re talking about.

Maira:
Well, because it’s in your roots. Isn’t everybody going to die or I am the only one?

Arkitektura:
You’re not the only one.

Maira:
Yeah.

Arkitektura:
You’re not the only one. Yeah, you’re fascinated by death?

Maira:
Fascinated is a nice word, it’s so much more horrible than that.

Arkitektura:
You think so?

Maira:
Yeah, I’m terrified.

Arkitektura:
I’m really surprised to hear you say that. You just don’t strike me as someone that’s scared.

Maira:
Oh my God, I’m scared all the time. You know what’s interesting is like you don’t want to lose time and you don’t sleep much which is exactly I don’t want to die, simply said. The thought that the world, of course, all of the things, well then why are we here and what’s this amount of time and then what happens if we’re not here? We’re literally not here, we’re literally not here.

Arkitektura:
And you’ve had such a, by witnessing Tibor’s passing, you’ve had such close proximity to that.

Maira:
I think that’s you’re looking at damaged goods but for resale. Damaged goods. Well, you can not have that in the day. It’s just impossible.

Arkitektura:
Did you talk a lot about that with Tibor as he-

Maira:
We didn’t talk at all about it, we couldn’t.

Arkitektura:
Just to-

Maira:
We could not talk about the possibility of him not being there, it just was incomprehensible. So we didn’t.

Arkitektura:
Do you talk about it now?

Maira:
I think about it a lot now, I don’t really talk about it that much now. I, actually, I have a wonderful boyfriend, Rick Meyerowitz.

Arkitektura:
I heard.

Maira:
Rick is the kindest person on earth and accepts my unending sorrow that Tibor died, it’s really crazy.

Arkitektura:
Which bit is crazy? That it’s unending or that it’s he accepts it?

Maira:
That he accepts it. Well, maybe unending too, maybe that’s but just that’s the way it is. His tolerance of this presence of Tibor looming, excuse me, looming so large in our lives is something quite, quite large for his kindness and his generosity. Yeah, so Rick is the recipient of my deep worries.

Arkitektura:
Yeah and your deep choice.

Maira:
And my deep choice.

Arkitektura:
You have to remember there’s that bit too, that’s why he’s there.

Maira:
No, he’s going to remind me.

Arkitektura:
Yeah, that’s the reason, yeah, and I think that well thankfully Tibor is such a wonderful human that to have his presence there is truly pleasant.

Maira:
For Rick, Rick doesn’t hate it. It was like, “How nice that Tibor’s with us all the time.” But also Rick and I have worked together a lot and so I’ve continued the mandate.

Arkitektura:
Yeah, you’ve continued the mandate.

Maira:
Of meeting of the minds.

Arkitektura:
Absolutely, it was a key part of what you wanted in a partner and it’s continued. Since we’re talking about death, I’m going to end with the obits because I think that there’s something really beautiful about that why you do it. Because it’s actually to observe the extraordinary nature of life.

Maira:
The daily, the extraordinary and the daily and the mundane and how they intersect, and so I start the day by reading the obits and with a nice cup of coffee. That sends me off on a very optimistic trajectory with a little bit of maybe a tad of melancholy but not so much melancholy. Because they are celebrations of people’s lives as we say, and so you go, “Oh, that’s pretty extraordinary. He invented the Bundt pan, he knew that Tad steaks should be in the window, like sell the sizzle.” Those things I’m thrilled by and just of course deeper, deeper events and bigger lives. I should get a grip and say it’s okay.

Arkitektura:
You’ve still got a grip.

Maira:
That’s very nice.

Arkitektura:
You have an extraordinary … Yes, and done even nice, it’s true. Do you think now that you’ve gotten into this performance aspect, will painting ever fade away?

Maira:
Painting is going full force and I have more books and more wonderful projects coming at me and towards me and through me. I don’t know, I wanted to be combined with walking through many gardens through the world and some days I say, “Oh, that’s it, I’m not going to paint anymore,” and then the next day I’m delirious with joy that I have a painting to do. We don’t know.

Arkitektura:
We can end right on that, we don’t know. Yeah, I guess it’s allowing for the unexpected. Thank you so much.

Maira:
Thank you.