Monday, November 10, 2014

MY FAVORITE THINGS, Maira Kalman's delightful curated life, inspired by The Cooper Hewitt National Design Museum


Maira Kalman is a phenomenonal author/illustrator, painter, whose work is loved by both adults and children, with the categories often overlapping. Whether her story's about a fireboat or the Alphabet, she narrates the fantastic in the everyday world. In MY FAVORITE THINGS (Harper Design) she paints scenes that tickle our imagination with an ironic wit and affection for the secret lives of objects.

What a brilliant idea for The Cooper Hewitt National Design Museum to invite her to choose objects from the Museum's more than 200,000 pieces for its inaugural exhibit. Kalman chose more than 40 objects which can be viewed in the Music Room of The Carnegie Museum. Her book weaves these objects into a story of Kalman's life made vivid with more than 50 paintings.

Maira Kalman begins with her family's fairy tale story. Her painting shows her mother drowning in a river in a Russian village  She's saved by her father's very long beard. That same wonder and fear is present in a painting of Kalman's father, in an impeccable suit, falling several stories from an apartment balcony. Miraculously, he's unhurt--right before they move to New York. He becomes a diamond merchant and she shows the serious black case he took to work. She segues from his collection to the story of Nellie and Sally Hewiit, vivacious and eccentric sisters, who began collecting when it was  the rage.

This sets up Kalman's purpose of telling stories with objects, beginning with her childhood, as she makes sense of life through smells, tastes, and sights--nature, rooms, people and their objects. Her selected objects are worked into the story with segues that are great fun. Kalman's method is lateral or associative thinking over linear. An object is associated with something that looks or feels similar. She quotes Pablo Neruda's 1959 :Ode to things." "I adore cups, rings, soupspoons, not to mention, of course, the hat.".

The hat Kalman paints is from Egypt's 13th or 14th centuries, quilted and embroidered, made of gilt parchment. It leads you to incredible stiff white hats, soaring above heads from postcards of ancient Normandy. The shape of these hats leads you the Kylix, painted earthenware from Greece, 800 BC,  And the pattern is is akin to the geometric pattern on fabric from Knoll in 1947, which relates to the design of "Loopy" Kantharos, an Italian vase from 6th century BC, There's a visual logic that associates this with the famous angular zigzag chair of 1934.

A favorite segue of mine is her  link between a sensationally ornate scribble from Holland in 1529 to a square modernist bracelet  and Fred Sandacher's square room divided with string. A similar logic occurs, when the reader goes from a scallop shape to a girl in a pink scallop dress on a lawn, that could be Kalman. She asks "What happens when you stand a long time? You get tired." This leads to the bed, "Whoever invented the bed was a genius.
When you get up from bed, get dressed in pants and socks and shoes.

This ends to a vintage wall pattern, showing a room with a bed and clothes to patterns of shoes. The Shoes are long and thin, curvy and ornate, royal and common, fanciful and elegant. You get the idea of different ways shoes,"give the ability to walk from one point to another, the glory of life. And after the walk you probably will be hungry, you will want to eat something," and of course we see a perfectly lovely inscribed silver spoon--with Wimpy's eternal plea from a Popeye cartoon,"If you buy me a hamburger today, I will gladly repay you Tuesday."

Kalman also looks at more serious objects, such as the Pall that covered Abraham Lincoln's coffin, wondering at how someone made the decision to add fringes. Feelings, somber or flights of fancy, can be guessed at, beneath the surface of what we collect. Kalman's book offers an artist's meditation on the part of our objects in our lives. Profound or silly, practical or luxurious, functional or decorative, Kalman's FAVORITE THINGS fit her criteria that the pieces be based on one thing only--a gasp of delight.

S.W.