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-as-agent-of-change agenda. Pearlman recalled
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