David Macaulay is a warm, friendly man with a shock of hair that always seems to need cutting, a thick brown moustache and – not surprising to anyone who has read his books – a wry sense of humour. He was born in 1936 in Burton on Trent, and spent the first ten years of his life in Bolton. When he was almost eleven, his father’s work took the family to the United States. For a while they lived in suburban New Jersey.
Here drawing. which had always been an interest, suddenly took on a new importance for Macaulay. Coming from an English childhood to a faster paced American life, he found himself, at age ten, feeling much younger than his classmates. ‘One of the ways I dealt with that was to show oft with my drawing. I used drawing to gain some attention and I guess maybe to deflect attention away from the different side of me. I was always one of the top drawing students. I made pictures all along to focus attention on myself in a way I wanted it focused, not just because I seemed odd.’
Macaulay hastens to add that his early days in the United States were not unpleasant. ‘I was looking forward to coming, I was excited. And feeling that way it was just a matter of making it work, of fitting in, of creating a mix that was somehow accepted.’
Macaulay’s knack for turning challenges into triumphs, and for creating a mix that works for him, has paid dividends in his career. He came to book illustration by an indirect route. When he was in high school, his family moved to Rhode Island. Macaulay studied architecture at Rhode Island School of Design, then spent a couple of years working for an interior design firm. But he had decided, even before he left school, that he did not want to practise architecture. He began looking around for other work.
Friends suggested he try illustration. ‘I thought this was a possibility because I had always drawn. I started by going to textbook people and from that I got a year’s worth of work, enough to quit the design business and just do freelance illustration. That’s where my education in illustration began. I was drawing rabbits with clothes, turtles driving, dragons and elephants and whatever. Very little architecture. It was children’s textbook stuff, reading books for little kids.’
Anxious for more interesting material, he began encouraging friends to write stories for him to illustrate. He also began writing stories of his own. Houghton Mifflin and other Boston publishers to whom he showed his early attempts were interested, but it wasn’t until he came up with an idea for a book about a gargoyle ‘beauty contest’, in which a drawing of a cathedral figured prominently, that things began to click.
‘At Houghton Mifflin they said, “We love the drawing of the cathedral, the gargoyles you can forget. Tell us about the cathedral.” That’s why I do books about architecture. It had never occurred to me to go back to what I’d been studying and work from that. But once the suggestion was made, I found myself rereading the books I’d used in architecture school and drawing on that experience and that enthusiasm in developing that first story.’
The story, Cathedral, was published when Macaulay was twenty-six. It was a smashing success. Since then he has published fourteen more books, including Pyramid, City, Castle, Underground, and Mill. When asked how the attention he received from the first book affected his career, he notes the flexibility, the confidence and the resources that early success gave him. He also speaks of having had from the beginning a sense of responsibility to his audience to come up with good, interesting subjects.
And who does he see that audience as being? ‘Everybody. I’ve given up even trying to define who they are. They seem to be anybody who’s got any sort of curiosity, who likes the idea of picking up and reading a book, who enjoys looking at pictures, who enjoys learning about the world around him. I think they’re all intelligent, curious people. Age has nothing to do with that. The material, because it’s mostly non-fiction, and because it comprises things that people of all ages are interested in, whether it’s machines or buildings or whatever, crosses age lines. If you talk about things and illustrate them in a direct, straightforward way, then there is no reason why a nine-year-old and a fifty-year-old aren’t both going to get something out of the book, on their own levels.’
So how did he move from buildings to the machines of his latest book The Way Things Work? ‘At the suggestion of an English publisher, Christopher David of Dorling Kindersley. About five years ago he said, “We’ve been asked to do a book about machines for a German book club. Would you be interested in working on it?”’ A year later the project was under way. A technical writer, a researcher, and an editor worked with Macaulay on the book.
The result was a ‘100% team effort,’ Macaulay says. ‘What I bring to the book, I think, is primarily the visual side of it, and the playfulness that softens the material. I didn’t have to go to the library and spend lots of time researching because Neil Ardley and David Burnie did all that for me. They fed me the information, taught me about the machines so that I could do what I do best which is the visual translation.’
Reviewers have commented on how few technical errors the book contains. Macaulay attributes this to the fact that ‘everybody on the team had a strength and everybody was encouraged to work with those strengths.’ And because there were four people working on the book it was possible to complete it in a remarkably short period of time.
Macaulay admits that during the last four months of the project he ‘worked like a dog’. He is a disciplined worker who gets to his studio by 8.00 and works until 5.30 every weekday. ‘I have never had a problem forcing myself to sit down and do work on a book. I do put things off, I’m a procrastinator in the early stages because I really do need to see that final deadline. But once it becomes real then I just bear down and crank out the stuff and really stay with it.’
He enjoys the freedom that working on his own brings. He has a stereo system in his studio and can play the music he likes – Mozart in the morning when he is developing ideas, Benny Goodman and the Rolling Stones in the afternoon – without worrying about anyone else’s preferences. But his gregariousness does require an outlet. ‘Working alone in the studio is terrific but it has its drawbacks. You do start talking to yourself after a while.’
For many years now, to balance the solitary nature of his work, he has taught illustration. ‘The sharing and interaction that goes on (in the classroom) is really wonderful – as wonderful for me as I hope it is good and useful for the students.’ This spring Macaulay is teaching at his own college. He has also taught at other universities, and with younger students in high school and junior high school.
Another way he avoids talking to himself is to ‘go to lunch fairly frequently – not fairly frequently during the same day, although that’s not a bad idea,’ and occasionally brainstorms with one or another friend from the School of Design. ‘One of my best friends is a painter and I will sometimes show him a drawing I’m working on and get comments.’ Through another friend he found his present studio.
The studio is as elegantly whimsical as a Macaulay drawing. It is in a small clapboard box of a building with an elaborate Italianate facade painted bubblegum pink and mint green. It is an anomaly in Warren, Rhode Island, a Yankee mill town full of classical eighteenth- and nineteenth-century houses, located about twenty minutes south of Providence where Macaulay lives.
He chose this as his studio for several reasons. ‘I liked the building. I liked the street, I liked the scale of this town. This is one of those towns that still has a very human scale to it. It’s a working-class town for the most part, there are some wonderful old pieces of architecture here, some little lanes and alleys in addition to the main streets. Walking to the Post Office is something of an adventure.’
The building’s history also appealed to Macaulay. At different times it had housed a soda fountain, a hat shop, a shop for refinishing furniture and apartments. For a while it was a Sons of Italy hall and boasted a pool table on the second floor.
Although the building was basically sound when Macaulay bought it, it needed extensive renovation. The second storey was divided into three rooms and the floor was covered with cement. Now the floors are painted a deep blue, the woodwork a soft shade of maroon. Over the drafting table, which dominates the first floor, is suspended a rack of pencils a yard long. There are shelves full of art books and an Encyclopedia Britannica. Drawings by students and friends cover the walls. There is also a cluster of sketches by Piranesi, whose series on prisons, Macaulay says, influenced his work.
The second floor is arranged less like a studio than a large sitting room. There are comfortable armchairs and a sofa. Macaulay goes up there to write. On the shelves, there is a toy collection which includes an impressive number of lead soldiers.
These are not his own toys from childhood. Many of those were necessarily left behind when he and his family moved to the United States. Others disappeared over the years as toys are wont to do. ‘It’s the memories of soldiers from childhood and the memories of steam engines that I grew up with in Lancashire that accounts for some of the stuff that’s up there. The fact that I like soldiers is because of that. The reason that I have toys up here at all, the little cars and all that, is because I did have them as a kid. And they vanished.’
Although Macaulay has spent most of his life in the United States he still considers himself an Englishman. His wife Ruth, a former children’s book editor at Collins, is English. He retains his English citizenship, and visits England frequently. ‘When I’m in England I still feel remarkably at home. It has to do with the scale. It’s the same reason I like being in Warren. Or Providence, for that matter. They are bay cities that still cling to a human scale. The architecture, the streets and so on, distances between things that you can still do on foot. I feel very much at home in England because of the scale, more than anything else.’
Photographs by Jan Bindas, courtesy of Houghton Mifflin.
Castle, 0 00 195128 9, £5.95; 0 00 192158 4, £3.95 pbk
Cathedral, 0 00 192150 9, £5.95; 0 00 192160 6, £3.95 pbk
City, 0 00 192151 7, £5.95; 0 00 192157 6, £3.95 pbk
Mill, 0 00 195545 4, £5.95
Pyramid, 0 00 195660 4, £5.95; 0 00 192159 2, £3.95 pbk
Underground, 0 00 195850 X, £5.95
All published by Collins
The Way Things Work, Dorling Kindersley, 0 86318 323 9, £15.00