Artist Maira Kalman’s Union Square Cafe Illustrations

Charming, large-scale pieces announce the return of a New York City staple

After 30 years at the corner of 16th Street and Union Square West, Danny Meyer’s celebrated first-ever restaurant, Union Square Cafe, has shifted a few blocks over—the result of his second 15-year-long lease coming to an end and an accompanying price surge. For many New Yorkers, it’s a jarring example of change to our landmark locations. To ease these sensations and demonstrate that the same quality can be expected at the forthcoming 19th Street and Park Avenue South location, Meyer invited artist and author Maira Kalman to create works for the façade of the new restaurant while it’s under construction. Kalman, perhaps best known for her thoughtful pieces for the The New Yorker and her curious, engaging books, does more than ease a transition. She breathes life to the windows, with large-scale narrative imagery. The works reflect her observational depths—all while charming passersby.

“I approach every project with a simple mood,” Kalman explains to CH. “Does it interest me? Do I like it? I love Union Square Cafe. That is where our family has gone for many years,” she begins. When describing her relationship to the project further, her attention to detail manifests: “I always feel smart eating there. Something about the light. Something about the way the wait staff move through space. The tablecloth. The utensils. The atmosphere is kind and unpretentious. You can talk! It is very difficult to find a restaurant that does not shred your mind with misguided belligerent music.”

This the second time the Union Square Cafe team invited Kalman to contribute work. “I had created a postcard for the restaurant of the Union Square market in the wintertime,” she explains. This postcard image, of the chef in a scarf, translates into one of the works visible from the windows now. “The rest of the color paintings are from illustrations that I did for Michael Pollan’s ‘FOOD RULES.’ A good pairing. The black line drawings were created for the windows, evocative of enjoying life (hopefully) and food,” she continues. While most of these works are available elsewhere, there is a power to seeing them in person. Further, all the illustrations speak to Kalman’s signature style.

“I spend a great deal of time walking around and looking at things. And looking at books. And when I have a project, all the feelings I have at the time come into play,” she explains regarding inspiration and process. Another element of inspiration, food, furthers her interest in a project like Union Square Cafe. “One of the most important things on earth is eating. The connections, the families, the celebration, the fun. The heart. The delight. The memories. All very forceful.”

Curiosity and wonder factor heavily into Kalman’s visuals. As do tiny obsessions, something she speaks of regularly. “I just ruminate and start to go where my mind will take me,” she says on beginning a new piece. “The fleeting obsessions are my great delight. And being curious is something that comes naturally to me. Every day brings new things to think about,” she shares. “Now I am thinking about the author Grillparzer, Napoleon, dogs, Krakow, the Gaga system of dance, when babies start to laugh and what it means to be embarrassed. And many more things that I am not remembering right now. Every narrative carries the delight and despair,” she concludes. “Always.” Of all this, delight is most apparent in her Union Square Cafe illustrations, which will be visible for the next few months. And as longtime fans of the restaurant ourselves, we see Kalman’s work as foreshadowing other great things to come.

Images courtesy of Liz Ligon