Tibor Kalman: Perverse Optimist

Reviews by Andrew Blauvelt
1 743 words9 min read

“I am in search of the simple elegant seductive maybe even obvious IDEA. With this in my pocket I cannot fail.”
Tibor Kalman

On a Christmas Eve broadcast of the Charlie Rose Show in 1998, just a few months before his death, Tibor Kalman readily describes himself as a modernist designer. This admission came as something of a surprise to me. After all, I have always considered Kalman and his colleagues at New York’s M&Co to be among the first postmodern designers. Not postmodern in the sense of the revamped modernist typography emanating from Wolfgang Weingart and his disciples at Basel, but postmodern in a uniquely American sense. Not the postmodernism of historical revisionism — the so-called ‘retro’ detritus of art moderne design. Neither is it the nostalgic, postmodern pastiche of the commercial vernacular, although it sometimes lapsed into that category. Kalman and company’s work, at its strongest, represented another kind of postmodernism — witty, ironic, referential, but never sentimental. It was a practiced cosmopolitan sensibility that informed the work of M&Co — one which defined its quintessential New York-ness.

In the 1980s US graphic design was in the process of decentralizing; importance was shifting away from New York as the sole center for influence and dominance in design and towards a multitude of regional graphic identities in the process. Just as cities such as Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago, Minneapolis, and Dallas offered their own regional challenges to the historical dominance of New York, M&Co and its spin-off studios defined the city’s own regional sensibility with its own brand of urban hipness.

Most studios attain their reputations with a body of work which can be encapsulated in a series of memorable visuals, but M&Co’s work is most memorable for its conceptual conceits. In contrast to other forms of postmodernism which unified themselves in their emphasis on visual appearance, Kalman’s work was radically verbal. If there are any antecedents to M&Co’s work they might be found in the seminal work of the New York firm Doyle, Dane, Bernbach, which defined the ‘big idea’ approach in advertising with its own heavy dose of humor. As Kalman liked to remind people, he was not professionally trained and therefore lacked the visual bias of most graphic designers. In fact, his role was more typical of the adman-cum-creative director, someone painting a bigger picture with words and concepts. This ‘lack’ on the part of Kalman fueled many professional fires, contributing on the one hand to his self-proclaimed ‘outsider’ status within the profession, and on the other, defining his aesthetics of the ordinary, the realm of what he liked to call ‘undesign.’ This makes for a very postmodern circumstance. At what other historical juncture could someone with no formal design education define their professional reputation on their rejection of contemporary design’s professionalism? Many of his best arguments were verbal, not visual. Therefore, his voice still rings true in essays such as ‘fuck committees (I believe in lunatics),’ ‘What’s Happening to Logos?’ and his keynote address to the 1989 AIGA National Design Conference, in which he admonished designers to be bad in order to do good. It is fitting that John Hockenberry, acting as master of ceremonies at this year’s AIGA National Design Conference, would pay homage to Kalman by evoking his name as the conscious of the profession, suggesting he would be reincarnated as a verb: to be ‘Tibored’ — forcing the assembled crowd and speakers to face their obligations for social responsibility.


While the so-called ‘cult of the ugly’ was being developed as a visual antidote to the design profession’s increasing slickness, Kalman developed his own verbal rhetoric of resistance. Resistance to marketing , focus group testing, demographics, or the development of the new global strip mall (as he once referred to the problem). In this way, he pointed a way out in both words and pictures. He led with his own brand of iconoclastic contrariness. The sentiment of these admonishments was not utopian, although they were certainly tinged with optimism. This was not the revolutionary rhetoric of the 1960s he knew well as a member of the SDS — the kind of hope extinguished by the failures of outright social revolution in 1968. Rather this was a form of postmodern resistance, where tactics and strategies might prevail in limited circumstances. It is the position of trying to dismantle the system from within — the position of an insider. By its very nature, it is an impure position — complicated, contradictory, and necessarily compromised. One can trace a trajectory within Kalman’s career, moving inward while focusing his energies outward. He used his outsider position to challenge the very insider tenants of how the profession of graphic design operated in the 1980s, and leveraged his corporate insider status as art director and editor at Colors (a magazine underwritten by Benetton) to promote socially progressive issues in the 1990s.

Two final publications from Kalman offer two different insights into his work, one microcosmic, one macrocosmic. Chairman, is a 500-plus-page tribute to Vitra chairman, Rolf Fehlbaum, published to commemorate Fehlbaum’s 1997 award for Design Leadership from the German government. An intimate, red cloth covered book, sized to fit nicely in the palm of your hand, it was authored, edited, and designed by Kalman. Chairman is a synthesis of Kalman’s working methods over the years. From its punny title (Vitra manufactures chairs and office furniture, hence Fehlbaum as both a chair man and chairman of the board), to the physical pun on Chairman Mao’s little red book, Chairman’s simple straightforward foil-stamped cover also recalls M&Co’s 1986 Christmas gift, A Book of Words , a repackaged dictionary. Designed in the style he art directed Colors with — terse, centered sans-serif text pages with a multitude of full-bleed photographs from diverse global and historical perspectives — Kalman opens the book with a light-hearted social history of sitting before tackling the specific contributions and influences of Fehlbaum’s Vitra. For Kalman this publication represents not only a summary of accumulated strategies and styles, but also the culmination of the kind of work he sought so eagerly to pursue as a content provider. Just as he was able to craft the form and the content of projects at Colors, Kalman applied the same process, collaborating with the like-minded Fehlbaum, who believed, as he did, that ‘good design is good business and that good business can fund culture (which is its ultimate purpose)."

The embodiment of Kalman’s entire career is formally compiled in the 400-plus pages of Tibor Kalman: Perverse Optimist. This hefty coffee-table tome highlights Kalman’s short but extremely prolific career, from his early days of producing rather mediocre graphics for the predecessor of the Barnes and Noble book chain to the heyday of M&Co’s innovative work through his own professional maturation at Colors. Kalman understood the value of effective packaging and through the design of this book Michael Beirut effectively encapsulates the designer-as-brand. Kalman is presented in wholly iconic terms. from the smirk on his face that graces the cover and sets the emotional tone (painted by a portrait studio in Bombay), to the bold spine of the book with the letters ‘T-I-B-O-R’ stacked vertically — evoking other one-word celebrities like Cher. I wanted the experience of cracking the cover to be akin to penetrating the facade of this iconoclastic figure. My hopes were raised as I encountered an image of a chair engulfed in flames on the first page — the proverbial hot seat? Unfortunately, the seat has only been warmed.


Tibor Kalman: Perverse Optimist offers numerous insights into the various transformations of this designer from a variety of commentators: critics, colleagues, employees, friends, and clients. Besides providing a comprehensive photographic documentation of his major design projects, the book also contains the requisite celebratory texts, such as Steven Heller’s chronicle of Kalman’s many achievements, which typically justifies the publication of this kind of lavish monograph. There are also tinges of critical insights, the best provided by Rick Poynor in his essay ‘Thirteen Provocations.’ However, throughout the book, we are provided several defenses of, for example, his appropriation of the vernacular, the cultural politics of Benetton’s publicity machine, and the ‘Disnification’ surrounding the Times Square redevelopment project, without laying any real groundwork of the original criticisms lodged against Kalman. Among the more surprising inclusions are several client testimonials from a who’s-who list of the glitterati: David Byrne, Jenny Holzer, Issac Mizrahi, Ingrid Sischy, among others. It’s not so much that they provide profound insights (some do), but rather the fact that you might actually hear from a former client — any client — in a designer’s monograph these days seems like anathema. It becomes clear through the running commentary of former M&Co employees, reflecting on specific projects, that Kalman had a knack for spotting young design talent. While at M&Co he surrounded himself with some of today’s most innovative and influential designers. In the end, and perhaps not surprisingly, the strongest words come from the man himself (with a little help from numerous co-authors). Collected in this book are Kalman’s short, pithy texts, most of which were published in various graphic design magazines in the 1980s, but which still remain relevant today, including a gem of an interview conducted on the Today Show with a slightly puzzled Katie Couric.

In the end Tibor Kalman is his own best spokesperson. It is fitting therefore that Kalman was able to organize this publication before he passed. But it also raises important questions about graphic design publishing today. Since the designer-controlled monograph has now become de rigueur, I wonder what effect this will have on historical interpretation and publishing. Will the subject of Tibor Kalman demand another, perhaps more historically distant analysis in the future? If so, will publishers and readers support such a venture? Or are these self-published monographs foreclosing or at least delaying independent critical and historical analysis? Is there not a broader set of issues and cultural phenomena against which to read Kalman’s work? Of course, these questions and problems are not specific to this publication. While this book certainly ranks above the typical fare being offered to the design community these days, it raises these issues only because it allows us to see just a glimpse of the cracks in its own strategies more clearly. And that sounds like a very postmodern idea to me.