Obituary: Tibor Kalman

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The Independent Culture
MANY DESIGNERS dream of seizing editorial control of the projects they are asked to design. The American graphic designer Tibor Kalman succeeded in leaping the gap. Under his inspired editorship, the Benetton magazine, Colors, launched in 1991, took on some of the qualities of the picture- led American news magazine Life, which had fascinated him as a teenager in the 1960s. Fired by an unfashionable sense of idealism, and always ready to pin his own political colours to the mast, Kalman used Benetton's backing to talk to his young readers about racism, recycling, pollution, the media and Aids - subjects he tackled with great visual humour.

His 13th and final issue dispensed with words almost entirely to offer a spell-binding and sometimes searing God's-eye view of the wonder and chaos of human life that moved from the charred Amazonian rain forest to the hospitals of Sarajevo.

For Kalman, Colors was the project of a lifetime, and a second career. In the 1980s, he had steered his Manhattan design firm, M&Co, to the top. In an image-conscious profession, he was a master, whether posing for a picture with a pencil clenched in his teeth, or showing off his 10-one- 4 watch (all the other numbers are missing) snapped up by the Museum of Modern Art for its permanent collection.

In projects for leading 1980s art-rockers Talking Heads, for the furniture company Knoll, and in a brilliant series of promotions for Restaurant Florent - "a diner for the debonair and dispossessed" - M&Co proved itself the wittiest design team in New York, unerringly attuned to an increasingly style- obsessed city. Kalman had a huge influence on fellow designers and many rising stars graduated from his perfectionist atelier on 17th Street to start studios of their own.

Not bad for a boy who had come to Poughkeepsie, New York from Hungary at the age of seven and had to speed-learn English to stop himself being bullied. In the late 1960s, Kalman attended New York University, where he took classes in journalism and history. He worked on the student newspaper, covering the occupation of Columbia University, and joined the left-wing political group Students for a Democratic Society. He was briefly in Cuba, cutting sugar-cane. After his early foray into radical politics, he spent most of the 1970s working quietly as a self-trained designer, creating window displays and advertising for a bookstore that grew into the Barnes & Noble chain. There was little sign during these years of his later drive and ambition.

M&Co's success, and Kalman's command of the spotlight, seemed to trigger a change of heart. At conferences, in interviews and in a series of co- authored diatribes (one ended: "We're here to be bad") he spoke out against what he saw as the vacuous slickness and social irresponsibility of so much contemporary design. He called for designers to become more involved, on a personal level, in their projects and to exert a corrective influence on thoughtless clients.

He was unsparingly critical of some of his own earlier output, particularly for property developers. In 1993, finding M&Co a growing distraction, he closed the New York studio and moved to Rome with his wife and children to edit Colors full-time from a palazzo near the Pantheon. Two years later, learning he had cancer, he took the decision to resign and returned to Manhattan.

Kalman's unusual example, as designer turned content-maker, poses some fundamental questions for design. His own ambivalence is captured in the title of his book, Tibor Kalman: perverse optimist, published last year as his illness closed in. He describes the dominance of the corporation in American cultural life, then proposes as a "modest solution" that it is still possible to find "cracks in the wall" - clients who see wealth as a means rather than an end and will let their money be used in the service of agendas such as his own. Kalman himself was perhaps too modest (despite constant self-promotion, even in extremis) to see the degree to which such a strategy might be dependent on a personality as strong as his own.

Back in New York, he reactivated M&Co, keeping it smaller and more mobile than before. He completed projects for Vitra, Barnes & Noble and the New York Times. He worked until the end, teaching his postgraduate students from the School of Visual Arts in New York, at home, as his strength allowed. His final communication will be an exhibition at the San Francisco Museum of Art to be called "Tiborocity". It's a sign of his large impact that to those in design the coinage will not seem strange.

Rick Poynor

Tibor Kalman, designer and editor: born Budapest 6 July 1949; married 1981 Maira Berman (one son, one daughter); died San Juan, Puerto Rico 2 May 1999.