Monday, May 31, 2010
For a decade he was the design profession’s moral compass and its most fervent provocateur.
The few graphic designers whose accomplishments were legend within the field and widely known outside as well.
Tibor had, by the late 1980s, become known as (or maybe he even dubbed himself) the “bad boy” of graphic design.
Tibor Kalman’s impact could not have been foreseen when he opened M&Co out of his Greenwich Village apartment on the proverbial kitchen table in 1979. Kalman entered the profession through happenstance, bringing with him none of the prejudices of design school training, and little of the expertise. He had a belief that graphic design could provide a stage for his broader concerns. Fusing modernist social responsibility and post-modernist introspection, M&Co developed not only a style but also an ethic that raised the bar of graphic design thinking and practice.
His wife Maira had the nickname “M,” and he called his concern M&Co. Bolstered by an influx of work, Kalman’s sense of the funky and absurd began to kick in. He built “a goofy-looking office, with a goofy, triangular-shaped table that fit into a goofy-shaped conference room.” In the post-modern manner, the office was “very dressed up,” yet the reception window was a hole smashed out of the wall with a sledgehammer. “You could bring a bank client or a rock group there for a meeting,” Kalman explained. “It sort of cut both ways.”
By 1989, Kalman had transformed M&Co’s promotions into a soapbox for arguing the efficacy of social responsibility. “We went along a piece at a time, each time trying to figure out how to make a political children’s toy or how to introduce politics into our products, identity work, corporate work, and music work.”
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.
In 1979 Kalman, Carol Bokuniewicz, and Liz Trovato started the design firm M&Co, which did corporate work for such diverse clients as the Limited Corporation, the New Wave music group Talking Heads, and Restaurant Florent in New York City's Meatpacking District. Kalman also worked as creative director of Interview magazine in the early 1990s.
Tibor saw himself as a social activist for whom graphic design was a means of achieving two ends: good design and social responsibility.
“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.”
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.
"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.
“ We’re not here to help clients 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. We’re here to be bad”
-Tibor Kalman and Karrie Jacobs, from Print magazine, Jan/Feb 1990