Maira Kalman Selects at the Cooper Hewitt

After a three-year closure, the design museum celebrates its reopening with a poetic exhibit of the writer and illustrator's favorite things


After a $91 million, three-year renovation, the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum is finally reopening its doors to the public today, 12 December 2014. Inside the former Fifth Avenue mansion of Andrew Carnegie, where the museum is housed, expect to encounter 10 new exhibitions that not only show off the range of the Cooper Hewitt’s collection but its new expanded spaces and technology upgrades. CH toured one of these exhibits, “Maira Kalman Selects,” located at the former first-floor Drawing Room of the Carnegie Mansion—with Kalman herself giving us a personal tour.


Tel Aviv-born, Bronx-raised designer and illustrator Maira Kalman has become a much-loved New York City figure, known for her contributions to the New Yorker and New York Times as well as creating her own books. To curate this opening day exhibition, Kalman took a year to search through the digital and physical archives of the Cooper Hewitt collection—with two pieces “borrowed” from the National Museum of American History in DC: President Abraham Lincoln’s pocket watch and the black silk cover on his funeral pall.


“There are 41 objects from the Cooper Hewitt collection,” Kalman tells CH inside the space, whittled down heavily from the original 750 or so objects she first picked. “That’s how I work—I also write 10 times too much, and it’s horrifying, and I have to edit to something that is less horrifying.” Items include an 1899 edition of “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Alice Through the Looking Glass,” a handkerchief from 1901, an Ingo Maurer lamp, and a quilted and embroidered silk cap from Egypt, from the late 13th or early 14th century. The only criteria for choosing each item, she says, was based on a “gasp of delight.” “What’s going to make me nuts and happy?” she says.

And finally, to add a personal touch, Kalman “sprinkled” some pieces of her own. Even the furniture inside this former music room (now named the Nancy and Edwin Marks Gallery) has been lifted from Kalman’s very living room. A bed serves as a makeshift display (accompanied by her handwritten sentence, “Whoever invented the bed was a genius”); a chair has been cut out to hold a tablet (which is running the earliest footage of dancers, pulled from the Internet Archive and the Library of Congress) inside; her ladder holds a pair of pants worn by Italian orchestra conductor Arturo Toscarini’s pants (which Kalman won at an auction in 2013).


In the background, the recorded ticking of President Lincoln’s watch can be heard. In a beautiful story of its own, this watch was repaired and brought back to life for some minutes by master craftsman George Thomas last year, and Kalman notes: it was like watching “brain surgery performed on a flea.” Its ticking lives on in the recording, accompanied by music composed by contemporary artist Nico Muhly. Kalman’s piano will also be played throughout the run of the show in intermittent performances.


While stories like “The Midas Touch” and even infinite scrolling e-commerce sites today can hint at the dark side of material obsession, Kalman has put together a room filled with centuries of history and hidden memories—finding delight and potential in old, natural things that have been used, loved and saved (or have resolutely survived). “The room is meant to be a respite,” she tells CH. “It should just be a place where people come and relax and sit on the pink velvet bench and listen to music and contemplate… life and death,” she says with a laugh. It becomes a larger metaphor for what museums like the Cooper Hewitt can offer to visitors.


The exhibition is complemented by two new books, both authored and illustrated by Kalman. For adults, Kalman beautifully handwrites personal memories and humorous commentary around the objects in “My Favorite Things,” part-memoir and part-love story. For children, “Ah-Ha to Zig Zag” is a mind-tickling take on a journey through the alphabet that will inspire a new generation of designers to create meaningful objects. Kalman illustrates 31 different objects, from a 16th century print of an imagined rhinoceros to Dutch furniture designer and architect Gerrit Rietveld’s Zig-Zag chair, all of which were culled from The Cooper Hewitt’s collection.


Maira Kalman Selects” is on view today, 12 December 2014 to 14 June 2015 at Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, 2 East 91st Street at Fifth Avenue, NYC.

Keep an eye out as Kalman ceases to rest: she’s writing a book about dogs, doing a mural for the new Russ and Daughters cafe opening at the Jewish Museum next year, and co-creating a ballet with choreographer John Higginbotham, based on walks that they take together.

Book excerpt courtesy of Maira Kalman and HarperCollins, all other images by Cool Hunting