A highly innovative and influential designer, the onetime editor of Colors magazine died May 2.
When designer Tibor Kalman died
of non-Hodgkins lymphoma on May 2 in Puerto Rico, surrounded by his wife, Maira, and family, he died as he had lived and worked: on his own terms and with the generosity
of spirit and optimism that touched everyone who knew him.
Kalman was best known for the groundbreaking work he created with his
New York design firm, M&Co, and his brief yet influential editorship of
Colors magazine. Throughout his 30-year career, Kalman brought his restless
intellectual curiosity and subversive wit to everything he worked on — from
album covers for the Talking Heads to the redevelopment of Times Square. Kalman incorporated visual elements other designers had never associated
with successful design, and used his work to promote his radical politics. The
influence of his experiments in typography and images can be seen
everywhere, from music videos to the design of magazines such as Wired and
Born in Budapest in 1949, Kalman and his parents were forced to flee the Soviet invasion in
1956. They settled in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., when he was 8. Kalman was ostracized in elementary school until he learned to speak English.
“Everybody thought I was a geek,” he once remarked to writer Steven Heller.
Kalman parlayed his childhood isolation into some of his most successful
design innovations. “He was keenly passionate about things of the American vernacular because he wasn’t American,” Chee Pearlman, editor of I.D.
magazine, remarked shortly after Kalman’s funeral. “In that sense, he
taught the whole profession to look at things that they may not have seen as
closely or taken as seriously.” For example, M&Co incorporated images of coffee cups, chairs and delivery trucks culled from the Yellow Pages into a
menu Kalman designed in 1985 for Florent, a Manhattan restaurant.
Kalman combined his desire to break new ground visually with a passionate commitment to social causes. From his days as an undergraduate at New York University, where he was a member of Students for a Democratic Society (he left school to support the Communists in Cuba for a period), Kalman’s radical politics and his radical designs were inextricably linked. “I use contrary-ism in every part of my life. In design … I’m always trying to turn things upside down and see if they look any better,” he told Charlie Rose in a December 1998 interview.
Even in the last stages of his illness, Kalman continued to push his artist-
visiting Kalman in the hospital and being subjected to a heartfelt tirade about how the American Institute of Graphic Artists should require members to do charitable work. “He had a huge sense of purpose with
everything he did: It kept him alive and it’s also what drove people crazy
about him,” Pearlman said.
Among the people Kalman drove most crazy were his own employees at M&Co. During its salad days in the ’80s, M&Co was legendary among New York
designers for its entertaining and loose office environment — but M&Co’s pursuit of perfection and Kalman’s sometimes-prickly
personality rubbed many employees the wrong way. “M&Co was known at one
point as the revolving door of graphic design, and not without reason,” recalls Peter Hall, editor (with Michael Bierut) of “Tibor Kalman: Perverse
Optimist” (1998, Princeton Architectural Press). “Tibor was never happy until you couldn’t change anything further. He was the ultimate perfectionist.”
In 1991, Kalman closed M&Co’s New York offices and accepted an offer to
work for Mario Toscani, the creative director of Benetton. The company had
already created controversy with its iconoclastic, multicultural ad
campaign, which featured, among other images, pictures of a nun and priest
kissing, a black woman nursing a white baby and pictures of an AIDS patient on his deathbed, surrounded by his family. Toscani wanted Kalman to create a magazine that embodied the company’s radical chic ethos. Kalman assembled a team of designers and editors and moved, with his wife and two children, to Rome.
With Colors, Kalman found the perfect platform for his ideas — both
visual and philosophical. With its striking, graphics-heavy layout and its
bilingual articles on themes like race and AIDS, Colors was a unique company periodical. The magazine he created existed to promote a multinational corporation’s brand
identity and an expansive, multi-ethnic philosophy. It pushed
boundaries in terms of its editorial emphasis
on politics, and it pushed design to the point of post-literacy by making words secondary to images. One of Colors’ most famous layouts
was the “What if …?” spread from the magazine’s race issue: Using computer
graphics programs, Colors changed the races of several iconic men and women. Queen Elizabeth was made to look black and Spike Lee white. The
issue propelled Colors to international fame, and landed Kalman a spot on NBC’s “Today,” but the catalysts for Kalman’s departure from the magazine were already in place.
After a number of run-ins with Toscani (“That was two huge egos colliding,” Hall says of the two) and the first symptoms of the cancer that would eventually take his life, Kalman left Colors and returned with his family to New York, where he reopened M&Co and continued to work.
In the last years of his life, despite his illness, Kalman enjoyed
a remarkable period of productivity. In addition to doing smaller projects
with M&Co, he oversaw the creation of two books: “Chairman Rolf,” a tribute book for furniture designer Rolf Fehlbaum (1997, Princeton
Architectural Press), and his own retrospective,
the Hall and Bierut book “Perverse Optimist.”
“This is the sort of project he’d been talking about for years,
and people kind of viewed it with trepidation, knowing his reputation,”
Bierut, partner at the design firm Pentagram
and president of AIGA, said of the latter volume. “I think the reason the book actually got
done and the reason I think we were able to do it without killing each other, partly had to do with the fact that he was sick: [With] him at half strength, with that handicap, we were well matched. He was formidable.”
Throughout the book’s creation, it was tacitly understood that “Perverse Optimist”
would be Kalman’s legacy. Indeed, it is a handsomely designed, eclectic
420-page testament to a visionary at work and play: two modes that were never far apart for Kalman.
“He remained charming and prickly and funny literally until the end,” author Kurt Andersen, a close friend, said the day of
Kalman’s funeral. “Since people our age have not yet died in great numbers,
it’s a great model for us all as a way to die, not just with dignity, but
More Related Stories
- How Dan Savage lost it
- Nancy Jo Sales on L.A. celeb robbers: "The Bling Ring kids were depressed"
- “Arrested Development,” hurry up and get here so you can stop being so annoying
- Must-do's: What we like this week
- Josh Ritter makes his "Blood on the Tracks"
- I don't hate millennials anymore!
- What's 2013's "Gone Girl"? Here are this summer's best reads
- Fox executive behind "Does Someone Have to Go?" leaving the network
- Hillary Clinton memoir shows up on Amazon
- A brief history of Jennifer Weiner's literary fights
- First look: Joaquin Phoenix, Marion Cotillard shine in "The Immigrant”
- No women allowed: Summer music festivals are dudefests, again
- Vivica A. Fox tapes anti-gun PSA in front of poster for her movie
- This is what Guy Fieri looks like as a balloon
- Mariah Carey's rambling, cursing, dress-popping "Good Morning America" concert
- Fox's new reality TV show threatens regular people with unemployment
- Amanda Bynes arrested after hurling bong from window
- Steamy lesbian-sex movie has Cannes abuzz
- Stop what you're doing and go watch "Borgen"
- Teenage girl claims she was beaten up for looking like Taylor Swift
- Mike Judge: "Bowling for Columbine" made me pro-gun
Featured Slide Shows
The week in 10 picsclose X
- 1 of 11
Lisa Montgomery embraces her nephew Thursday after a tornado tore apart her home in Cleburne, Texas. The twister killed six people and destroyed entire swaths of the North Texas town.
Credit: AP/LM Otero
Jack McMahon, the defense attorney for abortion doctor Kermit Gosnell, speaks outside the Criminal Justice Center in Philadelphia Tuesday. His client was convicted of killing three babies in his clinic, and will serve multiple life sentences.
Credit: AP/Matt Rourke
A photo taken Monday captures Vice President Joe Biden's response to a Milwaukee second-grader's innovative proposal to end America's epidemic of gun violence. This guy!
Credit: AP/Jenny Aicher
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., flanked by a grouper-eyed Michele Bachmann, addresses the IRS' admission that it targeted Tea Party groups in advance of the 2012 election. In an op-ed for CNN Thursday, the Kentucky senator slammed the president for his faux outrage.
Credit: AP/Molly Riley
Ousted IRS chief Steven Miller is sworn in on Capitol Hill Friday. Miller testified before the House Ways and Means Committee on the extra scrutiny the agency gave conservative groups applying for tax-exempt status.
Credit: AP/J. Scott Applewhite
Attorney General Eric Holder pauses as he testifies on Capitol Hill before the House Judiciary Committee Wednesday. Holder is under fire, among other things, for the Justice Department's gathering of phone records at the Associated Press.
Credit: AP/Carolyn Kaster
O.J. Simpson sits during an evidentiary hearing at Clark County District Court in Las Vegas, Nev., Thursday. Simpson, who is currently serving a nine-to-33-year sentence in state prison for armed robbery and kidnapping, is using a writ of habeas corpus to seek a new trial.
Credit: AP/Las Vegas Review-Journal/Jeff Scheid
Major Tom to ground control: On Sunday astronaut Chris Hadfield recorded the first music video from space, a cover of David Bowie's "Space Oddity."
Credit: AP/NASA/Chris Hadfield
When it rains it pours. President Barack Obama speaks during a news conference Thursday with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, inexplicably inspiring an #umbrellagate Twitter meme.
Credit: AP/Jacquelyn Martin
A smoke plume rises high above a road block at the intersection of County A and Ross Road east of Solon Springs, Wis., Tuesday. No injuries were reported, but the the wildfire caused evacuations across northwestern Wisconsin.
Credit: AP/The Duluth News-Tribune/Clint Austin
Recent Slide Shows
- 1 of 11