Isaac Mizrahi and Maira Kalman live in the same Greenwich Village building and have been the best of friends since 1990. They sat down in her apartment for a chat about taste, memory, and Kalman’s mother.
Isaac Mizrahi: I think of you as a kind of arbiter, a touchstone. If you put Maira next to anything in the world, she can say whether it’s good or not.
Maira Kalman: And she’ll regret it.
Who was your biggest influence?
My mother was the influence on me—my father was absent. He was a diamond dealer; he was doing wonderful things in the background, and women were left at home. So my mother really was in charge of everything: the ballet, dance lessons, piano lessons, and latkes.
Do you think you are becoming your mother in some strange way?
You know, it’s funny that you say that, because I find that I am consciously trying to move like she did, and I am also wearing her bracelet. So I see that with my hand I am doing things, like when I cook, which is never …
She was a good cook?
She was a great cook, and she would take her shirt off when she cooked, so she would fry in a bra. She had this gigantic bra [Mizrahi laughs] and a little camisole, and she would tuck the kitchen towel into her bra and fry.
I mean, rather than ruin a shirt. Why ruin a shirt?
She always wore white.
Tell me about the apartment your family still owns in Tel Aviv, and what it was like to be young there.
Tel Aviv was light and the beach, fluttering awnings, the sun. White—there was this whiteness, it was a white city. Our apartment still is.
Is it a Bauhaus building?
The apartment isn’t Bauhaus, but it’s very plain, very pared down. It’s got terrazzo floors and tiles on the walls in the kitchen and bathroom. And we sit on the terrace and watch everybody walk by.
What’s your favorite room in the apartment?
The kitchen, and the cabinets are called Golda, after Golda Meir.
Who named the kitchen cabinets after her? The company that made them? Or you?
Not me and not the company but somebody else—we don’t know who.
After Tel Aviv you moved to Riverdale?
No, then we moved to a hotel on the Upper West Side.
How old were you?
I was 4. So we came from sandy, sunny, family, honey-cake white to crazy city: gray, concrete, pizza, hamburgers.
Did you like it?
I loved it. I was just happy. I was a happy kid. So we moved into the hotel where the furniture was very fragile and spindly, and the TV was brought into the room and it was gigantic. There was unlimited watching, because who knew that it wasn’t a good thing to do? And then we moved to Riverdale: bucolic running around on a bike. And there was Loehmann’s.
Say no more! And did you work a little magic on the Riverdale place?
Well, I didn’t do anything, I was just, you know, wandering around there. I was a kid. I think we probably had hand-me-down furniture from our relatives. We had relatives who were very rich in Great Neck. They sent us stuff, and it was a hodgepodge. But then my mother started to subscribe to Vogue and Realities and Life magazines, and all of a sudden the world opened; all of a sudden we were looking at things that were amazing. And then we did our Europe trip, and we went to the Excelsior hotel in Rome, and that was also a revelation, and we started seeing things and going to museums, so it was an education.
Do you think that Sara Berman, your mother, understood aesthetics and design principles on the same level as you do?
No, no. I think that she just wanted to have nice things around her. But she also never spoke very much. She was a wonderful mother in amazing ways, but we never had conversations about things. You know, I have no idea what she thought of anything. It was more like, Pass the salt.
Where do you think you got such a sensibility about … objects?
Well, my sister is an artist and an interior designer. She went to high school for art. I went to high school for music. But then it was in the air, it was all around us. And then it was meeting [Maira’s late husband the designer] Tibor and graphic design, so that whole world opened up, kind of from nowhere.
And what made you so opinionated, so definite, about things?
The theatre [in an English accent, laughing].