Road to somewhere

Tibor Kalman changed the way we see and read a lot of things. And he did it without the benefit of a formal design education. He was the classic baby boomer. Born in 1949, he emigrated from Budapest to the US in the Fifties, and while studying journalism and history reported on the 1968 riots for Columbia University’s student newspaper.

Politicised and radical, he cut sugar cane in Cuba, but came home to work in the right place at the right time, a newly-opened book shop called Barnes & Noble. Kalman preferred creating window displays to stacking books, so he set up an in-house design department and spent 11 years building a brand which is so familiar to book-buying Americans that the stores are now de facto, “the library on main street”.

Leaving his successful, but cosily-bookish family was risky, but Kalman was bored and in need of fun. In 1979, with partners Carol Bokuniewicz and Liz Trorato, he set up M&Co (named after his wife Maira). A mix of perfectionist, hands-on designer and tyrant art director, Kalman was also a canny talent-scout, employing the cream of US design, including Stephen Doyle, Marlene McCarty, Emily Oberman, Alex Isley and Stefan Sagmeister. With his gang of hipsters he fostered a non-style approach that so totally matched the post-punk, wacky-cool attitude of the Eighties that M&Co’s output became one of the visual touch-stones of that decade (along with Neville Brody’s The Face and April Greiman’s Mac flourishes). M&Co’s work was intelligent, ironic, inventive, in-your -face, witty, raw and beautiful.

Kalman was also a first-class schmoozer. Hanging out in New York’s art-and-pop-fuelled scene furnished contacts which upped his company’s profile (record sleeves for Talking Heads, collaborations with Jenny Holzer, art direction for Artforum and Interview). For me, the best M&Co projects were those self-published anomalies. Designing kids toys, “cool shit” products, low-budget film titles and conscience-prodding Christmas mailers focusing on the plight of the poor, Kalman demonstrated how to generate content, be inventive, mix media and trash the barriers between design disciplines, no problem.

In 1990, Oliviero Toscani, creative director of Benetton, came knocking. Kalman was ready for another big adventure and found it as editor-in-chief of Colors in Rome, a global magazine available in a range of languages, which focused on the human/ planetary situation. Kalman developed a format that was direct yet sensitive. Colors may be the most original magazine of the 20th century, it’s certainly been one of the most discussed.

Returning to New York in 1995, Kalman explored new media, designed exhibitions (including the Whitney’s seminal Keith Haring show), provided guidelines for the regeneration of Time Square and produced books for furniture giant Vitra and Booth-Clibborn Editions, re: his definitive visual biography, Tibor. And all while fighting a fatal illness. What a great person.

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