Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Tibor Kalman: (I Believe in the Lunatic!)

“Graphic design is a means, not an end. A language, not content.”
-Tibor Kalman, Perverse Optimist

Tibor Kalman is most renowned as a graphic designer, but is perhaps best defined by many as a champion for activism, both for sociopolitical issues and against corporate authority. His main philosophy of using good design for a good cause remains a consistent thread throughout his most notable endeavors. Most critics agree that the projects he worked on in his lifetime are innovative and radical. In particular, his design firm M&Co, his direction of Colors magazine, and his “Fuck Committees” essay are testaments to his portfolio of achievement. However, after evaluation of his work within its cultural context, one begins to question the legitimacy of his critical acclaim. Thomas Frank, a major critic and writer of cultural politics, argues in his essay “Half Empty” against Tibor Kalman’s supposed “radicalism” in design and society. Was Kalman truly a hero of his philosophies or did he simply stand behind a façade of idealistic visions?

The 1980s, a decade known for big hair, bright colors, and loud music, hardly seems capable of being the breeding ground of good design. However, in New York, this precise era and its rebellious attitude was a perfect setting for Kalman’s experiments. At this time in the United States, race relations were brought to attention. More African Americans were able to join the workforce due to affirmative action initiatives, the number of Asian American immigrants largely increased, and President Reagan signed House Resolution 442 to give reparations for surviving Japanese American internees. A contagious paranoia of AIDS led to a widespread belief of it as a “gay disease”. Social responsibility became prevalent with the U.S. mandated drinking age of 21 brought about by organizations such as M.A.D.D. (mothers against drunk driving). In terms of the economy, the baby boomers from the 50s became the new, young, and educated middle class. These yuppies held an enormous amount of buying power, and did not hesitate to spend it on luxury goods and services, contributing to a rise of large corporations. Technological advances led to not only a revolution in the style and aesthetics of a personal computer (Apple), but allowed for a revolution in information systems in the 1990s with the birth of the world wide web. This online factor characterizes the end of the twentieth century with the introduction of an entirely networked society. The Internet opened up an endless channel of opportunities and possibilities to the new millennium. Globalization was thus able to flourish, although it raised questions of national identity. Within the cultural and economic context of the 80s and 90s, we can find the rationale behind the conception of Kalman’s work.

“ 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

Even from his early years in college, Tibor Kalman chose to participate in events supporting issues he believed in. A frequently mentioned anecdote recalls his membership at NYU in the “Students for a Democratic Society, the radical organization that orchestrated campus shutdowns to protest the Vietnam war” (Heller). The compilation of essays and design work as presented in Kalman’s biographical book Tibor Kalman: Perverse Optimist suggests that he lived his life and worked his career following his mantra of using design as a means for a greater cause. He was against both the practice of design for design’s sake and the tendency of designers to conform to the authority of the corporate client. Kalman criticized the monstrous infiltration by corporations into every aspect of creative culture. In fact, many of his written works carry the anti-corporation theme. However, with every argument concerning the design world and corporate world, there will be the underlying contradiction of culture and commerce. In “Half Empty”, Thomas Frank presents the best argument against Tibor Kalman’s flawless resume. He disputes Kalman’s originality, substance, and adherence to his ideals, all questions worth considering. Tracing Kalman’s philosophy through a selection of his significant projects will best demonstrate the criticism.

In 1979, Kalman founded his New York based design firm M&Co with Carol Bokuniewicz and Liz Trovato. Named after Kalman’s wife Maira, M&Co started by doing standard design studio work such as print advertisements and CD covers. The humble beginnings of M&Co necessitated its willingness to take on whatever projects the studio could acquire. Yet, even with the creative limitations, the products were still clever, witty, and groundbreaking in its “undesign” method of design. The advertising campaign done in 1986 for Restaurant Florent, mainly designed by employee Alexander Isley but with Kalman’s input, greatly attributed to the company’s notoriety. For example, yellow page icons were used to represent each point of information. The truck is chosen to symbolize Florent’s location in the meatpacking district, a simple chair stands for the comfort of the restaurant, and a gun for the crime rate of New York City. There is a clear sense of humor in this piece, but none of the social advocacy that will become prevalent later. Only after years of client-based work was it possible for Kalman to have the financial backing to take the company in a direction more parallel to his design philosophy. In 1989, for the annual Christmas present to their clients, Kalman chose to insert a series of messages and $26 in a secondhand book. The messages reflected the presumed indignant thoughts of the client upon receiving an old book as a present; however, the true message of the gift was revealed at the end, where a message proposed the idea of donating the included $26 to a charity, complete with a stamped and addressed envelope. The majority of work done by M&Co cannot only be attributed to Kalman, but rather to his employees. He never claimed to draw well, nor did he have any formal training in design; he was known for his ideas. It might seem that M&Co is not an accurate account of Kalman’s design talent, but rather a documentation of the range of talented designers he employed. Anecdotes from interviews with his former employees reveal their boss to be an avid perfectionist that almost drove them mad. However, the legacy of his influence shows in designers such as Alexander Isley, Steven Doyle, and Stefan Sagmeister, all of whom produced great work at M&Co and left to eventually start their own successful firms. Kalman’s design principles still make a lasting impact in the world, if only through the work produced by those he influenced.

In 1993, Olivier Toscani, a photographer known for his shocking imagery for the United Colors of Benetton’s advertising campaigns, approached Kalman with an offer to work as editor in chief for Colors magazine. As an experimental side project for Benetton, Colors was promoted as “a magazine about the rest of the world”. Steven Heller makes the point best in his essay “The Man Behind the M” when he notes that “[Kalman] had zipped through his entire career to arrive at a point in his life where he could now hone in on how design could be used as a tool for communication and propagation of his ideas”. Upon accepting the job, Tibor Kalman was handed a blank canvas to execute his creative liberty. It was almost entirely devoid of any advertisements, and each issue concentrated on a single topic of cultural taboo. Among hefty issues such as race, religion, and AIDS, the issue for which Kalman is arguably best remembered is Colors issue 4 on racism. He sought to confront the audience of the existing racism in everyone. Using photography by Olivier Toscani, he formed provocative text-image relationships to communicate his ideas. In one section, various celebrity icons are retouched as a different race. Queen Elizabeth is black, and Pope John Paul II is Asian. Each of the 13 issues produced by Kalman was equally as visually compelling as the issue on Race. Regarding Kalman’s direction of Colors, Thomas Frank finds the magazines containing “powerful images and strong language skillfully combined in the service of fatuous corporate sentiment”, or simply a transparent extension of the Benetton advertising campaign on multiculturalism. The discussions brought up by Kalman in Colors are matters that have been debated before, and yet he provides no solution to the issues besides a Benetton-like “simplistic, ultra-virtuous multiculturalism” (Frank). This connection is undeniable, and one can argue that Kalman, is in fact, not “radical”, and was not the first to use design for a greater cause. George Lois and Howard Gossage, two advertising icons and influences of Kalman’s, particularly come to mind. George Lois’s Esquire magazine covers portrayed a jolting image with critical commentary on current events. Howard Gossage’s agency worked on campaigns against the damming of the Grand Canyon and the destruction of redwood forest sites. His belief of advertising's future of lending itself to public service causes closely parallels Kalman’s beliefs (Gossage). Hence, Colors magazines might not be a revolutionary manipulation of corporate sponsorship, but it could ironically perpetuate Benetton’s financial goals.

“Consumerism is a treatable disease”

-Tibor Kalman, Perverse Optimism

Building on this debate, Kalman’s 1998 manifesto “Fuck Committees” is his final zealous didactic on anti-corporation. He writes fervently on his disapproval for the corporate takeover of culture, stating that “the creative people are now working for the bottom line” only to satisfy “the lowest common denominator”. The majority of the essay vents on the self-destructing state of American culture into a corporate culture. Only in the final paragraphs does his “perverse optimism” appear, where he concedes that despite the grotesque progression of society, the subject of his tirade is “only 99 percent true”. Unlike the issues he presents in Colors, Kalman suggests a solution. To treat this consumer disease, he calls for designers to find “the cracks in the wall, [lunatic entrepreneurs] who understand that wealth is a means, not an end”. His resolution presents more cause for scrutiny than satisfaction. To use and follow the force that is the enemy is an oxymoron. This contradiction has also been debated in his use of Benetton sponsorship for his supposedly anti-corporate Colors project. Strangely, Kalman has also equated wealth and graphic design with the same definition. Moreover, to refer back to “Half Empty”, Kalman’s rant is based on “an oddly dated view of the world of business”. According to Frank, the battle of the corporation versus creatives was prevalent in the ‘60s, but not in the modern day. From my experience in college so far, today’s Big Idea driven marketing and advertising is not only a strategy employed by all the major companies, but also taught to lecture halls of students as the most sought after talent in the creatives. Thus, Kalman might have been entirely shortsighted or dated in his view of this corporate problem and his “radical” solution for redefining culture.

Tibor Kalman: radical activist or unsubstantiated actor? There is no denying his wide scope of creative products throughout his lifetime; at times it is intentionally ugly, and other times brilliantly witty. Studying his career proves not only to be an interesting investigation into the cultural context surrounding his work, but also reveals the layers of questions and contradictions in the age-old debate on the relationship between art and commerce. In fact, in our new millennium, Adbusters, a social activist movement both in print and online, is strongly fueled by Kalman’s voice, and receives much of the same criticism. For me, there remains no clear answer to the art and commerce debate or to the true identity of Kalman. However, from evaluating his philosophy, methodology, and execution, I would define Tibor Kalman best as a teacher. The consistent tie throughout his work and throughout his life is an unwavering dedication to communicating and sharing his basic principle of using design as a force for the betterment of society.

“Eventually you’ll forget all this but there will be plenty of new ideas to choose from. And I believe that they’ll be better.”

-Tibor Kalman, Perverse Optimist

Kalman had the personality and talent of being able to inspire others, whether through awe or anger. None of Kalman’s employees at M&Co who left ever went back to work there, but most became successful in their own design careers; most of them also cannot deny Kalman’s influence. Kalman’s Colors magazines might not have proposed solutions, but it provoked thought and reaction from a generally passive society. The role of a teacher is not to dictate a set of answers, but to ask a set of questions. “Fuck Committees”, while unresolved in historical accuracy, still exhibits Kalman’s strong voice and ideology that clearly influenced members of our modern society, as noted with Adbusters, or Undesign.org, a group devoted to using Tiborism to guide the future of web based design to support a greater cause.

For my menu redesign, in the spirit of Tibor Kalman, I chose Veggie Heaven, an Asian vegetarian restaurant that advocates human rights with regards to the Falun Gong practice in China. To lessen the frightening tone of the message, I addressed the injustices to the Falun Gong more subtly by making a take out menu/exercise guide that shows the five daily exercises of the Falun. Rather than taking direct influence from the bluntness of Kalman, I recontextualized his ideas to apply better to my project. Rather than being remembered as a revolutionary graphic designer, Tibor Kalman’s philosophy outlives him in the work of the people he has influenced.

Works Cited:

Frank, Thomas. "Half Empty." Artforum 1999:

Gautam, Meenakshi . "Advocacy Advertising." Howard Luck Gossage. 2 Apr 2008 .

Heller, Steven. "The Man Behind the M." Tibor Kalman: Perverse Optimist. Ed. Peter Hall, Michael Bierut. London: Booth-Clibborn Editions, 1998.

Tibor Kalman: Perverse Optimist. Ed. Peter Hall, Michael Bierut. London: Booth-Clibborn Editions, 1998.


Anonymous said...

This was very helpful for me.... Thanks for the info.

Beril said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
b said...

I was just about to write an essay about Tibor Kalman for a graphic design history class and came across this. Very insightful, thank you.

Anonymous said...

What an incredibly well thought through article, this was extremely helpful for me; and I love the description of Kalman as a teacher.