Feud Plus Fraud Equals Freud

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 it.

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 entertaining.

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 entirely.

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 harmony.”

“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 Dame. 

About the Author:

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.