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Have you heard about the time Paul Rand and Josef
Müller-Brockmann fought 10 bloody rounds over the most appropriate
typeface for the IBM logo? Neither have I. It never happened. The
fantasy is provoked by Rachel Donadio's
essay in the New York Times Book Review, called “Art
of the Feud,” about the proclivity of writers for registering their
animus towards other writers. Topics discussed include Norman
Mailer's world-renowned jabs at his contemporaries William Styron,
J. D. Salinger and Gore Vidal; what Salman Rushdie and John Updike
said about each other; and what Mailer, Updike and John Irving said
about Tom Wolfe, who retaliated in kind, unkindly.
Historically, writers have not limited their attacks on each
other to print. Mailer was famously credited with socking Vidal at
a cocktail party, although he now denies it, saying that he merely
threw a drink at him. Ernest Hemingway, who, like Mailer, claimed
some boxing skills and was given to using pugilistic metaphors to
describe literature, once burst into his editor's office and
attacked Max Eastman, who was there for a meeting. The chosen
weapon was a book in which Eastman had written a parody of
Hemingway, demanding, “Take the false hair off your chest, Ernest.”
Seeing the book on a desk in the Scribner offices, Hemingway
unbuttoned his shirt to establish the authenticity of his chest
hair, then picked up the book and hit Eastman in the face with
A stunningly unscientific study (I asked several designers)
suggests a paucity of comparable feuds in the design community. Are
designers more civil than writers? Oh, there are grudges in the
design community. And there is backbiting aplenty. I know designers
who hate the work—and in some cases, the persons—of certain other
designers. There are moderate falling-outs: Charles Eames and the
critic Edgar Kauffman Jr., who had been close friends and
colleagues, quarreled over a ridiculously minor matter and went for
years without speaking to each other. But each continued to speak
of the other with respect and admiration.
There is no shortage of critical opinion to inform design
controversy—more of it than ever now, with the proliferation of
websites and blogs. The emergence of post-modernist architecture
engendered resentment on the part of the modernist architects whose
work it repudiated, and there were angry exchanges in magazines and
panel discussions, but no barroom brawls, rumbles, duels at dawn,
or even jostling in the offices of the AIA. Design feuds seem never
to become as personal as, say, the bitter enmity between Lillian
Hellman and Mary McCarthy, who said of Hellman: “Every word she
says is a lie, including 'and' and 'the.'”
But for all the clashes of opinion and style, I can't think of
any long-running displays of open hostility, and neither could
anyone else I asked. The closest thing to a knockdown, drag-out
encounter I know of is a staged episode in which I served as both
perp and victim. Tibor
Kalman was the other, and chief, perp. The setting was Aspen,
Colorado, a venue not wholly free of violence (celebrity murders
there were once a staple of sensation-driven media) although the
design conference was generally peaceful enough. The conference
theme that year was “The Cutting Edge.”
Tibor gave a brilliant talk, as was his wont. And, as was his
wont, he enriched it with delightful, theatrical touches, such as
the addition of a 10-year-old boy as onstage collaborator. Tibor
was introduced by program chairman Henry Wolf, who, at Tibor's
insistence, did the entire introduction in German. Tibor began his
own talk in exquisitely broken English, segueing into
intelligibility and eloquence as his presentation blossomed into a
serious argument. His point—that the concept of “cutting edge,”
useful enough in technology, had no applicability to the arts or to
design—was punctuated from time to time by maxims delivered soberly
by the child at the other end of the stage. It was a
characteristically Tiboric triumph. Elated by the reception, Tibor
was convinced that whatever he did next had to be similarly
Not easily achieved. And not necessary. For his next scheduled
appearance was in the form of an afternoon conversation with me. In
the conference's inventory of formats, a “conversation” was a
special category distinguished from other small-audience sessions
such as a panel, an interview, a workshop and a discussion. A
conversation did not have to be “about” anything. It was simply a
vehicle for bringing speakers and conferees together informally.
For speakers it had the advantage of requiring no preparation.
That prospect did not satisfy Tibor, who asked me the day
before, “What do you think we should do?”
“Do? Just talk,” I said. “You're the guest star. I'll ask you
questions until questions start coming from the audience.”
“We've got to think of something better than that,” he said.
“Because no one else around here seems able to,” he said. “We
need an idea.”
“We really don't,” I said. “But I have one that might be fun.” I
proposed that we begin the conversation conventionally, talking
about design issues, and that early on we begin to disagree mildly.
As the conversation goes on we disagree more seriously, then
angrily until we get to the stage where we're arguing loudly and
calling each other names. At that point I would call a halt to the
affair, tell the audience that it had all been an experimental
hoax, and open the floor to questions for Tibor.
Tibor took to the idea so enthusiastically that I did not tell
him it wasn't really mine. It was borrowed (stolen? plagiarized?)
from a nightclub routine I had seen Mike Nichols and Elaine May
perform in their early days as a comedy team. As I remembered it,
May screwed up a line, and Nichols impatiently whispered a
correction. She did it again and he became more impatient. Then he
messed up and she clearly was angered. Gradually they began
bickering sotto voce, then audibly, then loudly. Soon they
were shouting accusations at each other and ignoring the audience
That's pretty much what we did, and for a while I was proud of
the way we did it. (Betty Friedan, who was there, told me later, “I
thought you were going to kill each other.”) When I sensed that the
audience was thoroughly uncomfortable, I signaled for a halt as
planned. “Ladies and gentlemen,” I began. “This has up to now been
an experiment, and it is over. Tibor and I are actually in complete
“The hell we are!” Tibor said.
That shocked me. I recovered enough to remind him, “We're
through with all that now, Tibor.” But to my further shock, he
growled, “Through with what?” and continued the abuse. Once again I
told the audience that from this point on we were going straight,
and once again Tibor renewed the mock attack. Tibor was
double-crossing me! He wouldn't stop and I couldn't stop him. The
more I protested that the game was over, the more he goaded me.
Finally, I walked off the stage in frustration, as genuinely pissed
as we had planned to pretend to be.
Maybe Tibor, ahead of his time in this as in so much else,
simply discovered—years before the Dixie Chicks were around to turn
the sentiment into song—that he just wasn't ready to make nice.
photo credit: Bert Colima (left) and Everett Strong (right),
from the Harry
E. Winkler collection, University Libraries of Notre
Ralph Caplan is the author of Cracking the Whip: Essays on Design
and Its Side Effects and By Design. Caplan is the former editor of
I.D. magazine, and has been a columnist for both I.D. and Print. He lectures widely, teaches in the graduate Design Criticism program at the School of Visual Arts, was awarded the 2010 “Design Mind” National Design Award by the Cooper-Hewitt
and is the recipient of the
2011 AIGA Medal.
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