Michael Kalil: An introduction

by Jen Larson

Michael Kalil: An introduction

by Jen Larson

“We dream faster than we can build and we build faster than we accept. We therefore invent the notion of the future until we accept what we have built.” -MK

Michael Kalil (1943-1991) was an educator, interior residential and commercial architect, philosopher and artist.  As the Principal of Kalil Studio (1981-1991), he was known for his innovative work with technology and materials, most notably for developing an award winning automated office space for Armstrong World Industries, and for creating a Space Station habitation module prototype for NASA (1983-1986). Among his clientele were Tiffany & Company, Museum of Modern Art, Strata Oil & Gas, Armstrong World Industries, Dunbar Furniture Company and numerous residential commissions. Kalil’s work has been exhibited at MoMa, Museum of Contemporary Crafts, the Fort Worth Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, and the San Paulo Biennial, and articles about his work have appeared in the New York Times, Interiors, Progressive Architecture, Architecture Cree, Omni, Craft Horizon, House and GardenLook and Esquire.

Michael Thomas Kalil was born on December 12, 1943, in the working class, textile-manufacturing city of Lowell, Massachusetts. His family relocated to Rochester, New York, where Kalil attended Benjamin Franklin High School (class of ’62). During his senior year, he was accepted to the Eastman School of Music to study classical voice, but  Kalil chose instead to pursue his interests in philosophy and religion. Between 1962-1965 he studied theology at St. Basil’s Seminary (Eastern Orthodox) in Methuen, Massachusetts. It is around this time that the first evidence appears in Kalil’s personal papers that he had developed passionate interests in writing and the visual arts, in particular drawing and architecture. Simultaneous to his theological studies,  he began to take sculpture and painting courses at the nearby St. Anselm College.

1965 must have been a watershed year for Kalil, as his records indicate that he left the Seminary, moved to New York City, and enrolled in Pratt Institute. From 1965-1968, Kalil attended Pratt, and notably during this time, he garnered press attention for his striking solution to a design project for a collapsible Halloween face mask, comprised of Mylar-laminated cardboard cubes connected via brass chain. However, Kalil apparently grew restless and left Pratt without obtaining a degree. During a 1979 New York Times interview, Kalil had this somewhat terse reflection about his Pratt experience, “I went there to learn how to question, and they gave me a lot of answers.”

Between the years 1966-1971, Kalil was a journeyman, and found design-related employment opportunities in New York City with several of America’s leading designers and firms, including Walter Dorwin Teague, Ward Bennett, and Skidmore, Owings and Merrill.  This allowed him not only to gain crucial, “hands-on” professional experience, but also undoubtedly shaped his rapidly developing, “global” aesthetic sense that ranged from interests in pre-Columbian and non-Western architecture, classically derived principles of form, as well as the clean, authoritative lines of modernist design. Kalil’s personal journals from the late 1960s attest to the fact that he also found time to indulge his wanderlust- he provides some lively and vivid accounts of travels (solo and with friends) throughout the United States, Mexico and Europe.

In 1971, Kalil was accepted to Skowhegan, a prestigious, 9-week artists residency program in Maine. He enthusiastically immersed himself in the crafts stone carving and metalwork, and created several sculptures that reflected his fascination with natural materials and compositional elements of balance and proportion. Around this time, in his ever-expanding quest regarding the design possibilities of various materials, Kalil also explored the art of textile weaving. Among his personal belongings from his studio are colorful spools of embroidery thread, a small hand loom and wooden shuttle, and also several delicate woven paper compositions that display his abilities as a weaver.

Upon returning to New York City, Kalil resided in an apartment building on East 307 76th Street in an unassuming, one bedroom, floor-through rental that was to be both his home and professional laboratory for  the rest of his life.

In addition to building a successful professional practice in New York City, Kalil was an inspired design educator. In 1979, along with Giuseppe Zambonini, he founded the Open Atelier of Architecture, taught at Parson’s School of Design, New York School of Interior Design and the University of North Carolina. Kalil also lectured at Columbia University, Carnegie Mellon, Cranbrook Academy of Art and Texas A & M.

Posthumously, in 1994 Kalil was honored by Pratt Institute for outstanding alumni achievement in design.  In 2001, the Michael Kalil Endowment for Smart Design was established with the dual mission to foster the understanding of the design intersections between nature and technology and to support a heightened sense of awareness for increasing the sustainability of built environments. Each year the Endowment awards three Memorial Fellowship Project Grants and sponsors a visit/lecture by an annual Kalil Fellow. The Kalil Fellow is selected from an international community of scholars and practitioners working in the spirit of Michael Kalil.