I was introduced to Maira Kalman’s work on a dreary winter’s day in 2013, while browsing at New York’s Strand Bookstore. A whimsical cover illustration — of a black-suited man balancing on one foot — caught my eye and I opened the book, The Principles of Uncertainty, to land on a page featuring a blue rabbit wearing Oxford brogues, and childlike handwriting pondering the meaning of life. Who was this person writing children’s books for adults with the familiarity of a friend?
Kalman, I soon discovered, is one of America’s most beloved artists — a philosopher who juxtaposes her curiosity with vibrant illustrations. Her wide repertoire includes iconic covers for The New Yorker magazine, including a famous 2001 redrawing of New York city entitled New Yorkistan, where, along with illustrator Rick Meyerowitz, she renamed the city’s neighbourhoods. The Upper West Side became Botoxia and its eastern counterpart became Blahniks (because everyone can afford Manolo Blahnik shoes). “A gentle, slightly philosophical irreverence is the through-line of Ms Kalman’s sensibility,” The New York Times recently remarked about her work.
In the moment
Interestingly, in her most recent release, she has set aside sarcasm for nostalgia. Cake, co-authored with food writer Barbara Scott-Goodman, is an homage to the world’s most beloved baked confection. A chance encounter with Scott-Goodman at a party (and a conversation about their mutual love of cake) led to the book, which is replete with recipes and bright illustrations. It is at once a memoir and recipe book, whimsical and hunger-inducing. Memories of a childhood chocolate cake eaten on her aunt’s terrace in Tel Aviv and a lemon pound cake baked every Sunday afternoon are interspersed with Scott-Goodman’s recipes. “I have always been eating and painting and baking cakes my whole life, and I see [Cake] as a celebratory moment that exists in contrast to all the troubles and worries,” she says.
Kalman’s illustrations provide a welcome antidote to the “Instantification” of contemporary food culture, which she herself has largely remained impervious to. Her Instagram account is sporadically updated, and consists mostly of poorly lit, crooked pictures of dogs. , and is free of any glamorous food photos. “I am a child of the ’60s,” she explains with a laugh. “I’m from a generation that imbibed the value of really being in the moment. That greatly helps me temper the extreme speed of our culture, and painting food helps me treasure the moments of gathering that come about through the act of eating.”
Looking to Proust
Born in 1949 in Tel Aviv, Israel, Kalman moved to New York with her family at the age of four, where she has lived since, taking inspiration from the everyday contours of her life. “When I started my career, both in writing and painting, it was important to do what felt the most true to me,” she says. “The question was always, how do you tell a humanistic story with a sense of humour and purpose? I didn’t study design, so I look to other influences, like museums, architecture, street fashion, and even [writer] Proust for inspiration,” she says.
Kalman has a long list of artists she respects and reveres — from Lucian Freud and Rachel Whiteread to children’s authors William Steig and Ludwig Bemelman — even though she calls herself “woefully out of touch with so much that it’s almost amazing”.
Now that Cake is out, she is finishing a book with her son Alex, on a “dear and wonderful project” — based on an installation they had put up at the Metropolitan Museum about her mother Sara Berman’s closet (a period room representing Berman’s life from 1982 to 2004, when she lived by herself in a small apartment in Greenwich Village). The book will be out later this year. Kalman will also start work on illustrations for Gertrude Stein’s critically-acclaimed non-fiction, The Autobiography of Alice B Toklas, which was initially published in 1933, and on a feature length film with Adobe about her late husband and eminent designer, Tibor Kalman’s life and work. “Lots of fantastic projects,” she says, “and hopefully time to just wander around and dream in between.”
Published by Penguin Random House, Cake is priced at ₹1,725. Details: amazon.in
Instagram and dining
Two social influencers help navigate the digital foodscape
Aysha Tanya: After years of well-lit, rustic photos on Instagram, we are moving towards more colour blocking, and abstract depictions in food photography and illustration. These are becoming more playful, and require more technique than just shooting in good light. Photographers like Nikoli Herriott (@nikoleherriott) and Esteban Castillo (@chicanoeats) are two Instagrammers playing with this style, while illustrators like Shawn D’Souza (dsouza_ee) continue to use illustration to communicate important ideas about food.
Tanya is the co-founder of The Goya Journal. Follow her on Instagram @malabartearoom.
Pavithra Dikshit: Though my background is in design, my inspiration comes from food. We are beginning to see more elaborate food illustrations in cookbooks like Yotam Ottolenghi’s Plenty More and Julia Sherman’s Salad for President. Indie magazines like Gather and Lucky Peach have also encouraged this trend. Food and design are blending and we see people representing their experiences in increasingly creative ways.
Dikshit is the designer-author of illustrated recipe book, Discipline . Follow her on Instagram @pavithradikshit.