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Maira Kalman spent a year, starting in March 2006, posting her innermost thoughts, casual poetic observations and philosophical musings on The New York Times Web site. But whatever you do, don’t let the 57-year-old author, illustrator and designer hear you refer to her illustrated Web journal as a blog. “No, no, no,” she says on a sunny afternoon in her Greenwich Village apartment, practically covering her ears when the term is mentioned. “I’m allergic to that word. It sounds like barf and blurt!”
Instead, Kalman refers to her online missives — which dealt with everything from the impermanence of life to the importance of chocolate cake — as “a column.” The painstakingly produced paintings, writings and photographs that made up the column have now been compiled into a book, “The Principles of Uncertainty,” out now from Penguin and exhibited at the Julie Saul Gallery through Nov. 24.
Kalman has long been something of a New York design world idol. She’s illustrated countless New Yorker covers and a slew of sophisticated children’s books (her first, “Stay Up Late,” was a 1985 collaboration with David Byrne). She’s also collaborated on accessories with Kate Spade, designed fabrics for Isaac Mizrahi, created sets for the Mark Morris Dance Group and, with her late husband, the influential graphic designer Tibor Kalman, dreamed up quirky clocks and umbrellas for the Museum of Modern Art.
But two years ago, with the publication of “The Elements of Style Illustrated” — her update of the classic Strunk and White writing guide — Kalman’s cachet expanded way beyond the borders of “Newyorkistan” (as her famous 2001 New Yorker cover dubbed the five boroughs). The book is now in its seventh printing and was recently issued in paperback.
“The Principles of Uncertainty” is Kalman’s most personal work to date, full of existential musings inspired largely by the death of her mother, Sara Berman, in 2004. One spread, for instance, features a wildly inaccurate map of the world that Berman once drew, with New York bordering Jerusalem and Hawaii just below North Carolina. “For me she was the world, the essence of the world,” Kalman says of her mother, who was born in Eastern Europe and later moved to Israel, where Maira was born. “She was very unusual in that she couldn’t care less what the right answer was for anything. It gave me the ability to believe in daydreaming. For her, daydreaming was quite real.”
At this point in her career, Kalman seems able to follow those daydreams wherever they might lead her. Her latest fantasy? “I’m thinking now I want to be a maid for the Duchess of Devonshire and write all about it and paint it.” She’d also like to work for Junya Watanabe “for a week or a minute or whatever possible” and make films with her son, Alexander, 22, who recently graduated from college and moved back into her apartment. (Her daughter, Lulu, 25, has also returned to the nest after living for a time in Israel.)
“It’s nice, it’s good,” says Kalman, before interjecting a bit of neurotic New Yorker humor. “There’s a lot of really good stuff happening, you know, in between the weeping.”