Tibor Kalman

Remembering a Renaissance human

TWO YEARS AGO, the historian Daniel Boorstin, who was then eightytwo, delivered
a lecture to an audience of young computer experts, entertainment experts,
and design experts. The talk celebrated what Boorstin called “the amateur

According to Boorstin, “The rewards and
refreshments of thought and the arts come from the courage to try something,
all sorts of things, for the first time. An enamored amateur need not be
a genius to stay out of ruts he has never been trained in. . . . In the
long run, the ruts wear away, and adventuring amateurs reward us by a wonderful
vagrancy into the unexpected.”

Today, Boorstin’s words read like an epitaph
for a man who happened to have attended that 1997 lecture. Tibor Kalman,
who perfectly embodied that brave, ferocious, bighearted amateur spirit,
died last week of cancer.

Tibor, whom everyone called Tibor (partly, I think,
because it’s a
fun word to say—his son’s middle name, after all, is Onomatopoeia),
was not yet fifty. Nevertheless, he managed to distinguish himself in more
careers in twenty-five years than any dozen other people do in fifty. The
Tibor Kalman aesthetic DNA lives and flourishes all over the place, in the
work of his former protégés and of people he influenced but
never met.

His nominal job description was graphic designer,
and his legendary design firm, M&Co, was a truly communistic entity— a collective filled
with subversive spirit and run by a charismatic, sometimes infuriating dictator.
(This isn’t just metaphorical: although his parents escaped Communist
Hungary in 1956, when Tibor was seven, more than a decade later he joined
S.D.S., and until he died he remained a kind of Yippie-ish, Euro-style socialist.)
Although he had no formal design training, he was the art director of Artforum
and of Interview—yet it was the M&Co ideas that became so influential,
the most important of those ideas being a kind of impudent, life-affirming
irony. In the eighties, he and M&Co helped transform the palette of sophisticated
design by incorporating charmingly unsophisticated images and typefaces—sometimes
faux-naïf ones, as with the retro menus and matchbooks they designed
for the Manhattan diner Florent, and sometimes the real thing, as with the
primitive Howard Finster painting they put on the cover of “Little
Creatures,” by the Talking Heads.

Tibor also became an influential product designer.
His brand of humor and outrageousness (combined, winningly, with an almost
neoclassical Jack Benny restraint) were even rarer in industrial design
than in graphics, and the famous M&Co wristwatches and clock faces with randomly ordered numbers
still sell all over the world. “A little fucked up” was to him
a prime aesthetic virtue.

Then he became an influential filmmaker, creating
a music video and a film-credit sequence and a TV ad that pioneered the
use of animated type. After that, he became an influential conjurer of
three-dimensional places as well: as part of the official Times Square
redevelopment effort, it was his vision of the neighborhood—an energetic jumble of hyperbolic signs and shops,
an authentic renaissance of the raucous spirit of the place—that, a
decade ago, finally won out over the prettier, well-behaved corporate visions.
And, finally, in the nineties, he became an editor, creating the quixotic,
smart, photo-driven magazine Colors, for Benetton.

Tibor turned his professional life into an obstacle
course, a risky, highspirited game of perpetual amateurism in the best
Boorstinian sense. Last spring, I spent hours talking with him for the
afterword of a book about his work (“Tibor Kalman: Perverse Optimist”; Princeton Architectural Press,
1998). “The smartest way to work is to not quite know what you’re
doing,” he told me. “I’ve done two commercials in my life;
I don’t want to do three. I did two of a number of things. The first
one, you fuck it up in an interesting way; the second one, you get it right;
and then you’re out of there. If you keep changing occupations, keep
changing projects, you can attain a kind of incredible ecstasy of learning.”

He wasn’t finished. “I’d like to make Channel 13 documentaries,
one about bike messengers. I’ve always wanted to make products carry
messages that were beyond a logo. A museum of contemporary anthropology—that’s
an example of something I’d love to do. I don’t understand why
there couldn’t be a three-dimensional kind of literary museum.”

In his last months, as he resigned himself to the
fact that he wouldn’t
make it to the next millennium, he remained stalwartly amused and amusing,
charmed and charming, liberated and liberating. He died at forty-nine, yet
he really did believe in leaving the party while it was still hopping, as
he demonstrated in his impulsive decision to close M&Co, in 1993, at
the height of its prosperity. As Tibor put it, “My philosophy is ‘Let’s
leave at midnight.’ ”©