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    Design's Hip Iconoclast
by Stanley Abercrombie
 
     
 
Tibor Kalman
with Carol Bokuniewicz
Talking Heads "Remain in Light" album cover, 1980
 
Tibor Kalman
with Alexander Isley
M&Co "Askew" watch
 
Tibor Kalman
Colors 4 (Race)
1993
 
On May 5 of this year, a New York Times obituary carried the headline, "Tibor Kalman, 'Bad Boy' of Graphic Design, 49, Dies." Like many other bad boys, Kalman was much admired, for his antics as well as for his design. He was "bad" in the most innovative and instructive ways.

One of Kalman's earliest designs -- still in use -- was a shopping bag for Barnes & Noble that carries an image based on an antique woodcut of a scribe at work. His first widely noticed success -- the one that signaled his transformation to hip iconoclast from corporate designer who, in his own words, "sold design by the pound" -- was a 1980 album jacket for the band Talking Heads. He digitally manipulated the rock stars' faces (not then the common practice it is today) and turned some letters of the title upside down.

Better known today are Kalman's watches -- some with only three numbers on their faces, some with none, some with a full dozen (but out of sequence). Most characteristic, however, may have been an article in the Benetton-sponsored magazine Colors, for which Kalman was both the founding editor-in-chief and the art director. Wordless images showed portraits of Queen Elizabeth as African, Spike Lee as Caucasian and Pope John Paul II as Asian. Ronald Reagan was pictured with the facial lesions of Kaposi's sarcoma.

These works and many more are on view from now until Oct. 26 at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in an exhibition organized and designed by Kalman himself in the last stages of his illness (in collaboration with Aaron Betsky, SFMOMA's curator of architecture, design and digital projects). It is called "Tiborocity: Design and Undesign by Tibor Kalman, 1979-1999." "Undesign" is a key word, referring to Kalman's love of the vernacular and his distaste for the slick, the respectable and the expected.

The installation itself is unusual. Kalman has crafted a mythical village in a non-industrialized country whose nine vignettes -- a classroom, a coffee shop, a jail cell, a post office -- thematically reflect various aspects of his oeuvre. Clustered within this setting are more than 200 works from Kalman's collection and from the archives of his New York-based design firm, M&Co.

The show includes Kalman's films, videos and products as well as his graphic designs. Some of the items are simply "found objects" that Kalman considered either interesting or funny -- hairpins, buttons, horseshoes. And some, having been found, have then been given a little Kalman twist -- an eraser is wrapped with a piece of paper bearing Alexander Pope's famous quotation, "To err is human, " for instance, and a box of paper clips comes with instructions for bending them into the shapes of fish, crabs, bats and the like.

There is fine design in some of this, and humor in much of it. But overriding it all is Kalman's sense of the designer's responsibility to political and social causes and the related responsibility to the environment and to the disturbance of the status quo. As Kalman himself said, "We're not here to give them what's safe and expedient … We're here to make them think about design that's dangerous and unpredictable. We're here to inject art into commerce."

"Tiborocity" has been supported by Mr. and Mrs. Leonard Riggio, the Nathan Cummings Foundation and the Jay Chiat Foundation. It is accompanied by a 420-page publication from Princeton Architectural Press edited by Peter Hall and Michael Bierut, Tibor Kalman: Perverse Optimist.


STANLEY ABERCROMBIE is editorial director of Interior Design magazine.