Tibor Kalman

1949, Budapest, Hungary
1999, San Juan, Puerto Rico


In the mid-1980s two names changed graphic design: Macintosh and Tibor. The former needs no introduction. Nor, with various books and articles by and about him, does the latter. Tibor Kalman, who died on May 2, 1999, after a long, courageous battle with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, was one of the few graphic designers whose accomplishments were legend within the field and widely known outside as well. Tibor may not be as influential on the daily practice of graphic design as the Mac, but his sway over how designers think—indeed, how they define their roles in culture and society—is indisputable. For a decade he was the design profession's moral compass and its most fervent provocateur.

I first saw Tibor in the 1980s when, as master of ceremonies of the annual AIGA New York “Fresh Dialogues” evening, he transformed the navel-gazing event into a cultural circus. He assembled a cast of a dozen relative unknowns and a few prematurely forgottens to enlighten and entertain, each through five minute offerings about the overall visual culture, rather than their own design work. Though at times it was reminiscent of an elementary school show-and-tell, most of the presentations shed light on generally ignored issues of environmental waste, the virtues of unsophisticated design, and the divisions between Modernism and postmodernism. Some were funny, others serious—together they were truly fresh dialogues.

Tibor was a tough ringmaster. If any speaker went thirty seconds beyond his or her allotted time (or if Tibor felt that the talk was unbearably dull) the amplified sound of barking dogs would pierce the presenter's soliloquy, signaling the end of the segment. In addition, Tibor introduced quirky short films, an unexpected pizza delivery (by a nonplussed delivery boy), and souvenir handouts (designed by a job printer and reproduced at QuickCopy) that showed design at its most rudimentary, yet communicative. As a new twist on the old ventriloquist's dummy, Tibor's onstage straight man was a Mac Classic with a happy face that quipped at programmed intervals. This was the first of many public salvos against the status quo. It was also vintage Tibor.

Not since the height of American Modernism during the late 1940s and 1950s had one designer prodded other designers to take responsibility for their work as designer-citizens. With a keen instinct for public relations, a penchant for Barnum-like antics, and a radical consciousness from his days as an organizer for SDS (Students for a Democratic Society), Tibor had, by the late 1980s, become known as (or maybe he even dubbed himself) the “bad boy” of graphic design.

When the clothing company Esprit, which had prided itself as being socially liberal and environmentally friendly, was awarded the 1986 AlGA Design Leadership award, an irate Tibor anonymously distributed leaflets during the awards ceremony at the AlGA National Design Conference in San Francisco protesting the company's exploitation of Asian laborers. Tibor believed that award-winning design was not separate from the entire corporate ethic and argued that “many bad companies have great design.” In 1989, as co-chair with Milton Glaser of the AlGA's “Dangerous Ideas” conference in San Antonio, he urged designers to question the effects of their work on the environment and refuse to accept any client's product at face value. As an object lesson and act of hubris, he challenged designer Joe Duffy to an impromptu debate about a full-page advertisement that he and his then partner, British corporate designer Michael Peters, had placed in the Wall Street Journal promoting their services to Fortune 500 corporations. While most designers admired this self-promotional effort, Tibor insisted that the ad perpetuated mediocrity and was an example of selling out to corporate capitalism. This outburst was the first, but not the last, in which Tibor criticized another designer in public for perceived misdeeds. By the early 1990s, Tibor also had written (or collaborated with others in writing) numerous finger-wagging manifestos that exposed the pitfalls of what he sarcastically called “professional” design.

Tibor saw himself as a social activist for whom graphic design was a means of achieving two ends: good design and social responsibility. Good design, which he defined as “unexpected and untried,” added more interest, and was thus a benefit, to everyday life. Second, since graphic design is mass communication, Tibor believed it should be used to increase public awareness of a variety of social issues. His own design firm, M&Co (named after his wife and co-creator, Maira), which started in 1979 selling conventional “design by the pound” to banks and department stores, was transformed in the mid-1980s into a soapbox for his social mission.

He urged clients like Restaurant FIorent to use the advertising M&Co created for them to promote political or social messages. He devoted M&Co's seasonal self-promotional gifts to advocate support for the homeless. One Christmas he sent over 300 clients and colleagues a small cardboard box filled with the typical Spartan contents of a homeless-shelter meal (a sandwich, crackers, candy bar, etc.) and offered to match any donations that the recipients made to an agency for the homeless. The following year he sent a book peppered with facts about poverty along with twenty dollars and a stamped envelope addressed to another charity.

Tibor was criticized for using the issue of homelessness as a public relations ploy to garner attention for M&Co. And indeed he was a master at piquing public interest in just this way. But he was also sincere. Perhaps the impulse came from his childhood, when as a seven-year-old Hungarian immigrant fleeing the Communists in 1956, he and his family were displaced—virtually homeless—in a new land. Although he became more American than most natives, he never forgot the time when he was an “alien.”

He savored the nuances of type and had a fetish for vernacular design—the untutored or quotidian signs, marquees, billboards, and packages that compose mass culture—but understood that being a master of good design meant nothing unless it supported a message that led to action. Even most stylistic work must be viewed in the context of Tibor's persistence. Everything had to have meaning and resonance. A real estate brochure, like one for Red Square, an apartment building on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, had to be positioned in terms of how it would benefit the surrounding low-income community. One message was never enough. When Tibor sold a “design” to a client, he did not hype a particular typeface or color, but rather how the end result would simultaneously advance both client and culture.

Tibor did not, however, rebel against being a professional—M&Co was in business to be successful and he enjoyed the rewards of prosperity. But he questioned the conventions of success. “Everyone can hire a good photographer, choose a tasteful typeface and produce a perfect mechanical,” Tibor once railed. “So what? That means ninety-five percent of the work exists on the same professional level, which for me is the same as being mediocre.” Tibor ardently avoided any solution, or any client, that would perpetuate this bete noir. About clients, Tibor said: “We're not here to give them what's safe and expedient. We're not here to help eradicate everything of visual interest from the face of the earth. We're here to make them think about design that's dangerous and unpredictable. We're here to inject art into commerce.”

With little patience for mundane and insipid thinking, whether it came from clients, other designers, or M&Co, Tibor was intolerant of mindless consistency and was not reluctant to make people angry—including associates, friends, and allies. For example, in a speech before the Modernism and Eclecticism design history symposium, he accused two friends, Charles Spencer Anderson and Paula Scher, who revived historical styles at that time, of being graverobbers who abrogated their responsibility as creators. Curiously, M&Co had developed a house style of its own based on vernacularism, the “undesign” that Tibor celebrated for its unfettered expression, which also fed into the postmodern penchant for referring to the past. While Tibor's ire sometimes seemed inconsistent with his own practice, he rationalized M&Co's use of vernacular as a symbol of protest—a means of undermining the cold conformity of the corporate International Style.

M&Co left scores of design artifacts behind, but Tibor will be remembered more for his critiques on the nature of consumption and production than for his formal studio achievements, which were contributed to by many talented design associates. Despite numerous entries in design annuals, and the catalogue of objects in his own book, Tibor Kalman: Perverse Optimist (Princeton Architectural Press, 1998), the heart of Tibor's accomplishment was enlarging the parameters of design from service to cultural force. And this was no more apparent than in his later work. For when Tibor realized that stylish record albums, witty advertisements, and humorous watches and clocks had a limited cultural value, he turned to editing. First, he signed on as creative director of the magazines Artforum and Interview. But he mostly guided the look, not the content, of these publications. In fact, without total control he was frustrated by his inability to experiment with a new pictorial narrative theory that he was developing. As a teenager he was an avid fan of Life magazine, and believed that in the age of electronic media, photojournalism was still a more effective way to convey significant stories. While editing pictures for the photographer Oliviero Toscani, who had created the pictorial advertising identity for Benetton, the Italian clothing manufacturer, Tibor helped produce a series of controversial advertisements focusing on AIDS, racism, refugees, violence, and warfare that carried the Benetton logo but eschewed the fashions it sold. For him, this was sublimely subversive.

Productless commercial advertisements were not altogether new. In the 1980s Kenneth Cole and Ben and Jerry's Ice Cream companies devoted advertising and packaging space to promote social and environmental causes. But in the 1990s Benetton went a step further with what began as The United Colors of Benetton, a product-based series of multicultural kids promoting ethnic and racial harmony, which evolved into captionless double truck journalistic photographs. Ultimately the ads led to the creation of Benetton's own magazine, Colors, for which Tibor became editor-in-chief and where he continued to reject fashion magazine cliches in favor of sociopolitical issues. Colors quickly became the primary outlet for Tibor's most progressive ideas. And shortly after launching the magazine, he closed M&Co's doors and moved to Rome.

Colors was “the first magazine for the global village,” Tibor announced, “aimed at an audience of flexible minds, young people between fourteen and twenty, or curious people of any age.” It was also the outlet for Tibor's political activism. In his most audacious issue devoted to racism, a feature titled “How to Change Your Race” examined cosmetic means of altering hair, lips, noses, eyes, and, of course, skin color to achieve some kind of platonic ideal. Another feature in the same issue, “What If...” was a collection of full-page manipulated photographs showing famous people racially transformed: Queen Elizabeth and Arnold Schwarzenegger as black; Pope John Paul II as Asian; Spike Lee as white; and Michael Jackson given a Nordic cast. “Race is not the real issue here,” Kalman noted. “Power and sex are the dominant forces in the world.”

Through its vivid coverage of such themes as deadly weapons, street violence, and hate groups, Colors was a vivid contrast to Benetton's fashion products. Even the way it was printed, on pulp paper, which soaked up ink and muted the color reproductions, went counter to the brightly lighted Benetton shops with happy clothes in vibrant color. Yet Colors served to “contextualize,” as Tibor defined it, Toscani's advertising imagery. Indeed, the basis for criticism leveled at Benetton's advertising campaign had been the absence of context. Without a caption or explanatory text the images appeared gratuitous—shocking, yes, but uninformative. The campaign signaled that Benetton had some kind of a social conscience, but the ads themselves failed to explain what it was. With Colors the advertisements appeared as teasers for a magazine that critically addressed war and peace, love and hate, power and sex.

In 1997, cancer forced Tibor to return to New York, where despite grueling chemo and radiation therapy, he re-established M&Co with a mission to take a pro-active approach to design and art direction. Foreseeing his last chance to do meaningful work, Tibor accepted only projects that would have lasting impact. He began writing OpArt critiques for the OpEd Page of the New York Times, attacking smoking and noise pollution, among other issues. He designed an outdoor installation of photographs of real people commenting on their relationship to Times Square, which hung on the scaffold around the Conde Nast tower in Times Square. He taught a weekly class in pictorial narrative in the MFA/Design program at the School of Visual Arts until a week before he died. And he continued to contribute articles on popular and vernacular culture to various magazines. As his last testament he designed “Tiborocity,” a retrospective exhibition at SFMoMA, constructed as thematic “neighborhoods” that integrated Tibor's work with his graphic influences from the '60s and '70s.

Of the two names that changed design in the '80s and '90s—Mac and Tibor—one changed the way we work, the other the way we think. The former is a tool, the latter was our conscience.

Copyright 1999 by AIGA.


New York Times obituary by Steven Heller, May 5, 1999.

The Independent obituary by Rick Poynor, May 17, 1999.