Artist Spotlight: David Macaulay

Combining architecture, engineering, and down-right awesome illustrations, David Macaulay is perhaps best known as a children’s book illustrator. You may recognize some of his most popular works  – The Way Things Work, Cathedral, or, and this is easily my favorite, Motel of the Mysteries.

Cover of Cathedral (1973)

Cover of Cathedral (1973)

Born in Lancashire, England in 1946, Macaulay was raised in New Jersey and attended the Rhode Island School of Design. At the RISD, Macaulay focused his studies on Rome and Pompeii. Combining his academic interests, attention to detail, and some witty humor, much of Macaulay’s work is grounded in intricate designs and architectural renderings of buildings throughout time.

An illustration from Pyramid (1975)

An illustration from Pyramid (1975)

The illustrator focused on children’s nonfiction for the early portion of this career, producing some of his most well-known works. Additional titles include Pyramid (1975), Castle (1977), and Unbuilding (1980).

An illustration from Underground (1976)

An illustration from Underground (1976)

As I mentioned, my favorite of Macaulay’s work is Motel of the Mysteries (1979). This book focuses on future archeologists encountering a highway motel dating from the 1980s. The archeologists are led by Howard Carson, a young professional, designed with a nod to Howard Carter, of Tutankhamen fame. With limited data, the motel is soon interpreted as a religious burial site, with each room seen as a sacred tomb. Misguided conclusions are made, many of them terribly wrong. (A motel room’s TV is seen as a sacred alter, the toilet seat a decorative necklace…) Here, and in many of his other works, Macaulay presents some scientific lessons in observation and data gathering while producing a creative story with layers of history, archeology, and architecutre. I first encountered this book in the sixth grade, when a reading/social studies teacher read it aloud to our class. I still remember that day, and thinking “This is cool.” It was around this time that I became interested in how the past is interpreted and material culture.

An illustration from Motel of the Mysteries (1979)

An illustration from Motel of the Mysteries (1979)

In the 1990s and early 2000s Macaulay began producing some children’s fiction and picture books, such as Angelo (2002). Angelo follows the friendship of an Italian preservationist who, while working on a rooftop in Rome, encounters an injured pigeon. Overcoming a lifelong disdain for the animal (and its effect on historic buildings), the two form a friendship while the craftsman works to preserve the building. You can see why this illustrator appeals to me and others in the field.

Cover of Angelo (2002)

Cover of Angelo (2002)

In 2007 the National Building Museum featured an exhibition focused on the author, David Macaulay, The Art of Drawing Architecture. I’m sorry to have missed the exhibit, but I thoroughly enjoyed examining the exhibition designer’s renderings and photos – I even spotted some familiar gallery seating. The chairs utilized in the exhibition appear to be the same the Illinois State Museum features in its hands-on children’s gallery, The Play Museum! (For those interested: The chairs are Ikea Benjamin stools, here creatively utilized outside a museum gallery.)

I recently signed up to be a reader for National Reading Day through our local Volunteer in Public Schools Program (VIPS) in Little Rock. I look forward to selecting one of Macaulay’s works and sharing it with new audiences!

Have you read any of David Macaulay’s works? Do you have a favorite? I’d love to hear some recommendations!

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