Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Tibor Kalman

Tibor Kalman was born on July 6, 1949 in Budapest, Hungary and died on May 2, 1999 from non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. He “use[d] contrary-ism in every part of my life. In design…always trying to turn things upside down and see if they look any better.” (Kalman). Whether it was recreating a lunch box given to the homeless on Christmas Day and distributing it as a seasonal gift for his M&Co clients, or creating a magazine about “30 different countries, published in five bilingual editions, and distributed global,” Tibor Kalman is known for using design as a means of mass communication to expand the general public’s knowledge on social issues. (Colors) Although his philosophy was to “shock people out of their complacency,” questions of whether Kalman’s methods were appropriate in their presentational approach in regard to audiences, and the originality of his designs are ever present when discussing his work. (Colors)

In 1956 a riot against communism, “Bloody Revolt,” broke out at the Polish Embassy in favor of a socialist Hungary. This episode initiated the invasion of Hungary by the Soviet Union. Kalman, age eight at the time, fled with his family to the United States and settled in Poughkeepsie, New York. Kalman attended NYU and studied journalism for a year. He found his passion for design when he became supervisor of Barnes & Nobel’s in-house design department. Kalman opened the M&Co design firm along with two partners: Liz Trovato and Carol Bokuniewicz, in 1979. In 1990, Oliviero Toscani approached Tibor Kalman about producing a multicultural and multilingual magazine for Benetton, a clothing brand. Kalman agreed, so long as he would have control over “creating, editing and designing.” (Kalman, Colors) The first issue was released in 1991, and the publication would be known as Colors, “a magazine about the rest of the world.”

Most of Tibor Kalman’s work was produced during the 1980s and 1990s. Aside from fluorescent clothing and big hair dos, the 1980s was categorized by a rise of conglomerate corporations, an increase in tolerance of racial minorities amongst White Americans, and the concept of diversity in the advertising emerged. According to the American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA), “In the mid-1980s two names changed graphic design: Macintosh and Tibor… 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.” The 1990s experienced an increase in individualistic expression through fashion and tattoos, more tolerance towards gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and transgender members of society, and MTV’s launch of the reality show: the “Real World.” Kalman was well aware of the changing tide of attitudes and America in the 80s and 90s, and played off them brilliantly, constantly defining and redefining standards.

The M&Co design firm produced commercial work ranging from advertisements, to CD covers. The firm’s client list included New Wave Music Group, Talking Heads, Chiat Day, MTV, Restaurant Flourent, Limited Corporation, and many other important entertainment and pop culture influences. As M&Co became more established, their work became more selective; the firm began as a “compliant consultancy devoted to assuaging client desires,” to having more control of the work they took upon and what was produced. (Perverse Optimist)





M&Co participated in giving its clients seasonal self-promotional gifts. These presents ranged from a ruler with a printed image of a naval flag according to the recipients last initial, to a box filled with paperweights resembling crumpled, yellow-lined paper. According to Micahel Bierut in his essay “The Joy of Getting,” “in the 1980s, everyone in the New York design community knew about M&Co’s Christmas gifts...Never did they once resemble the tragically pointless, self-indulgent things that most design studios send out for the holidays under the delusion they’ll get business that way.” For instance, Kalman’s 1990s “Bon Appetit” gift included giving away identical lunch boxes resembling the meal given to the homeless on Christmas Day by the Coalition for the Homeless in New York City. The guerilla strategy included distributing cardboard boxes filled with a sandwich, a can of apple juice, a piece of cake, a packet of mustard, and a $20 bill. The items were wrapped in a sheet of newspaper taken from the “Real Estate” section of the New York Times. Thus, as an M&Co client opened the box, he or she was greeted by a message: “Pretend for a minute that you just stood in line for two hours in the freezing cold and at the head of the line they gave you this. Bon appetit. Happy Holidays from M&Co.” The person receiving the gift was also presented with facts about the number of homeless people in the United States⎯something close to 70,000. The thought provoking aspect of the gift came down to how the client should reallocate the twenty dollar bill: taking a value/moral led approach to provide further food to those less fortunate or a greedy approach, spending the money on unnecessary items and services. This specific project emphasizes Kalman’s abilities as designer but also challenges them. Are Kalman’s strengths at designing, or rather redesigning? Kalman reinvents and re-contextualizes; his method of “designing” is based on the experience of receiving a lunchbox ⎯being placed in the shoes of the homeless⎯ and giving the receiver a choice of lending a helping hand. There is no use of forceful action in Kalman’s method, but his technique questions moral values.


Although it is unknown if Barbra Kruger directly influenced Tibor Kalman, her work too speaks with juxtaposed images and text. While the combination of text and image can be viewed as a language of its own, Kruger chose her words carefully for the use in her works. Kruger was fascinated by the written word and its place and influence on culture, specifically its constructive use in myths, history, and jokes.







Barbra Kruger’s work above, were created in 1981 and are untitled. There is a direct formal connection between the pieces: the juxtaposition of black and white imagery with text written in a modern typeface. The contemporary typeface, Futura, seems to modernize the photographs while simultaneously making the typography appear old-fashioned, reminiscent of 1950s science-fiction typeface.







Barbra Kruger’s potential influence on Tibor Kalman is apparent in the various Colors Magazine issues. The combination of typography and Kalman’s provocative use of confrontational imagery is what made the publication “ a magazine about the rest of the world.” For example, on the very first issue of Colors Magazine, to represent the “birth” of the publication, Kalman included an image of a doctor holding newborn baby with its umbilical cord still attached; he emphasized the baby crying by placing text in a radial pattern around the infant. Moreover, in the famous 1993 spring issue “RACE,” “about how race affects our lives and how racism can take many forms,” Kalman includes two nudes on the cover, where just enough text is used to cover up their genitals. The text reads: “Race, attitude, lies, truth, power, first dates, and sex.” While the subtitles function as censors on the cover, the photographs inside the magazine, however, are fully exposed and uncensored. Kalman is stripping people down to strictly race, and gender; according to Kalman, the images are a “way of showing the problem quickly and bluntly.” In fact, Kalman said that, “the idea that seems obvious to [him] is that everyone would become so intermarried that the whole notion of race would evolve to the point where there would be no races.” In the article titled “So, what’s the difference?,” Kalman juxtaposes images of various colored ears. He furthers this comparison by questioning the difference, “Brown skin? Black skin? White skin? ...Or Asian skin?” In the article, “What if…?,” Kalman included digitally altered images where he changed the race of celebrities and other well known public figures⎯ for example, he made Queen Elizabeth black. In both of these examples, Kalman brings the notion of confusing color with race to imply how society subconsciously classifies people by the color of their skin. Is there really confusion between color and race? Or is it ignorance and the need to classify people?





Tibor Kalman’s work is not solely based on enlightening the public on current social issues. Kalman’s double sided-umbrella presents a different, somewhat playful side of Kalman. His design mimics a typical umbrella in form and color, but what differentiates it is an image of a cloudy sky located in its interior. The umbrella is often directly used as a symbol of Kalman’s perverse optimism; if it is raining, your perception is changed when a glimpse up reveals a cloudy, blue sky. Kalman, with this umbrella, further illustrates his undying optimism and sense of humor.





Using Tibor Kalman’s methodology, I chose to redesign McDonald’s value meal menu. I found a connection between a fast food restaurant and Kalman’s philosophy on vernacularism: serving food to the ordinary people. The difference lays in McDonald’s, as any other fast food chain, serving Americans unhealthy food. As a result, obesity—especially child obesity—has been a recent problem in America. Taking Kalman’s technique of educating society on current social issues, I redesigned a menu that revealed possible health risks that may be attained from the consumption of too much fast food. I also took unappetizing images of the value meals. Using another of Kalman’s methods, I secretly revealed the meals’ individual calorie, fat, and cholesterol content. Images of the value meal fries and drink combos were altered to read: large, extra-large, or an extra, extra large. The subtitle, “Choose your size,” causes the customer to question how large he or she will become after consuming an unhealthy meal. I also renamed all of the food. Instead of ordering a “Big Mac” a consumer would order a “Big H-Attack;” if a consumer wanted a “Quarter Pounder” he or she would order a “Quadruple Bi-pass.” The names all were either certain types of heart conditions, diseases, or procedures and were arranged in a circular pattern to highlight the images of the food. The value meals correlated to the new name of fast food restaurant, “Hearty Hut.” The dominant image in the menu composition is french-fries protruding form a bloody heart. If possible becoming obese was not enough to enlighten the consumer; I thought maybe the possibility of early death would.


“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.” (AIGA) Kalman’ s work acts as historical documentation of society and culture during the two decades of the 1980s and 1990s. He used his work as a method of inspiring change in the minds of Americans, and helped redefine the way people think.



Works Cited:
Hall, Peter. Bierut, Michael. Perverse Optimis.Tibor Kalman.1998.

Kalman, Maria. Peltason, Ruth. COLORS “Tibor Kalman: Issues 1-13.” Harry N. Abrams, Inc. 2002

Kalman, Tibor. Medalists. "Tibor Kalman:Provocateur. The American Institute of Graphic Arts.1999.http://www.aiga.org/content.cfm/medalist-tiborkalman

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