An Illustrated Life: David Macaulay
May 10, 2012 6:46 AM   Subscribe

"I draw to understand things." Artist David Macaulay, illustrator and author of "The Way We Work: Getting to Know the Amazing Human Body," "Mosque," "Cathedral," and "The New Way Things Work," among other books, talks about the creative process behind "Rome Antics," his look at the city that wasn't built in a day. His books may be for children, but they're fascinating for adults as well. Don't yet know Macaulay? Prepare to be amazed.

Interviews and videos:



* PBS's "Building Big"

* "I’ve never written “stories for children.” I’ve only ever made books for myself that I thought others might enjoy. I work hard to tell them as well as I can, but I remain the primary audience throughout the process. I’m the audience I know best, after all."

* Norman Rockwell Museum: Macaulay talks about the genesis of "The Way We Work"

* The National Children's Book and Literacy Alliance: "Like any kind of literacy, visual literacy is a kind of shared vocabulary that links people to each other and to the world around them. Instead of words, visual literacy has to do with two- and three-dimensional images from different places and times, real as well as invented. The greater our visual vocabularies, the easier it is to communicate with precision and passion, to "illustrate" what we are trying to say, and to better understand what someone else is trying to say to us."

* National Building Museum (.pdf): (On "Unbuilding") "I didn't want to build another building from the ground up. So I thought, well, just take it apart."

* On "The Way We Work": Bookstream interview

* 2008 May Hill Arbuthnot Honor Lecture (he comes on at 15:50 or so. True fact: Once illustrated a Chinese menu!)
posted by MonkeyToes (18 comments total) 52 users marked this as a favorite
David Macaulay is a national treasure, and Rome Antics is like a love song to Rome written in ink and pigeon wings. You've just made my day.
posted by jetlagaddict at 6:50 AM on May 10, 2012 [2 favorites]

I came to Macaulay courtesy of my little boy, the builder. We've spent hours poring over "Cathedral," "City," and the "Building Big" website together. Amazing explanations and illustrations; they're a joy to discover. Dear David Macaulay: Thank you!
posted by MonkeyToes at 6:50 AM on May 10, 2012

The Way Things Work may be one of the greatest gifts you can give to a kid. Or yourself, if you want to know how everyday devices work under the covers. Fantastic illustrations. I have a friend (granted, he's an engineer) who uses that book as a jumping off point when he researches something he's about to teardown/repair/rebuild.
posted by jquinby at 6:54 AM on May 10, 2012 [3 favorites]

A shout out for Black and White, too, which is lovely fun.
posted by chavenet at 6:55 AM on May 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

Don't scare me! For a while there I thought this was going to be another obit thread since we'd already seen a bunch. Glad to see it's just a good collection of his work.

Anyway, every once in a while I take down the copy of The Way Things Work that I got from my parents when I was a wee nerdling from my bookshelf for a good perusing. I'm also pretty sure I took out at least one of his building books from the library on a monthly basis from ages 8 to 16. Time to add them to a shopping cart!
posted by zombieflanders at 7:00 AM on May 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

On a bike ride a few years ago, I was fixing the drivetrain on a friend's bicycle, and she asked me how I knew what I was doing, and it perplexed me because I didn't know how I knew, I just sort of knew. It was only later that I remembered poring over The Way Things Work as a kid. My wife, who was present for the whole thing, immediately bought a copy of the book.

Castle and City were also amazing.
posted by gauche at 7:01 AM on May 10, 2012

Oh man, I had no idea there were Macaulay TV shows. Thanks!
posted by DU at 7:01 AM on May 10, 2012

I didn't know how I knew, I just sort of knew. It was only later that I remembered poring over The Way Things Work as a kid.

I think you probably have the causation arrow in the wrong direction. I'd never heard of Macaulay as a kid and I figured out how to fix my bike too. I think people who "just sort of know" how things work like the book, not that the book teaches it to them. (Which isn't to say you can't learn things from the book. Just that it doesn't itself impart a "mechanical sense".)
posted by DU at 7:05 AM on May 10, 2012

Don't scare me! For a while there I thought this was going to be another obit thread since we'd already seen a bunch.

Yeesh, I know. It occurred to me that it's better (for me) to celebrate folks who are still creating, and to help others know their work, than to type only a dot through tears.
posted by MonkeyToes at 7:08 AM on May 10, 2012

"Unbuilding" was one of my favorite books as a kid. Kind of makes me wonder why I haven't exposed my (almost) five-year-old to Macaulay yet. Hmmm. Off to Amazon!
posted by mrbula at 7:12 AM on May 10, 2012

Don't forget Pyramid! Featuring the voices of Derek Jacobi, Brian Blessed, Siân Phillips, John Hurt - it was basically I, Claudius down Egypt way.
posted by Iridic at 7:23 AM on May 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

Who is this Brian Blessed? Is he related to BRIAN BLESSED?
posted by zombieflanders at 7:46 AM on May 10, 2012

One musn't leave out Motel of the Mysteries, one of my favorites - poking fun at archaeological process. When I took a class in archaeology in college, we were given an assignment to look at our living space as if a neutron bomb went off, destroying all organic matter and find ways to date the site. I asked if it was acceptable to misinterpret the meaning of the data. The answer was yes, as long as I could support my misinterpretations. So I copped Macaulays style and produced a short paper called 'Barracks of the Bizarre', wherein I interpreted the site of my down as military barracks. The cleverest (I thought) technique for dating things was to look at date codes on integrated circuits. The most mundane was taking the penny jar on my desk and making a histogram of pennies by year. At any rate, the paper was laced with pen and ink figures illustrating the discoveries. This type of approach was the only way I could cope with writing papers in college: find a way to make the assignment interesting, personal, creative and approachable.
posted by plinth at 7:56 AM on May 10, 2012 [5 favorites]

Actually, BLESSED restrains himself to a modest, lower case performance as an amiable vizier, leaving it up to John Hurt to gnash the scenery as Pharaoh Khufu. ("They will pay for this OUTRAGE - those who offend the majesty of Rrrrrrrrrrrrrrrre!!!";)
posted by Iridic at 8:28 AM on May 10, 2012

I Am Sitting In Rhode Island With A Copy Of "Mill" On The Table Behind Me (which I plan to give to my out-of-state nephews & niece when they visit next month).

All hail Macaulay!
posted by wenestvedt at 8:52 AM on May 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

Mill is actually my favorite, as an adult.
posted by stbalbach at 10:33 AM on May 10, 2012

I spent hours on Macauley books and the PBS videos as a kid. Apparently I still can. Way to kill my afternoon productivity MonkeyToes.
posted by Wretch729 at 12:06 PM on May 10, 2012

Nice collection, thank you for posting all this.
posted by LobsterMitten at 9:20 PM on May 10, 2012

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