Good = Bad, or Why I Like Tibor Kalman

Everything is an experiment.

I remember when I first saw the work of Tibor Kalman in Colors magazine, the Benetton-financed enterprise that sold ideas not clothes. I was a suburban kid with little knowledge of art let, alone the difference between Bodoni and Helvetica. But I remember those images: a white Spike Lee (huh!?), an Asian Pope (ha!) and a black Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth (HA!). And so it was, a kid in the burbs got her first taste of Tibor (the name just lends itself to first name familiarity). What I find so engrossing about Tibor’s work is that its reach is so broad and its range is so extensive. As I walked through the current exhibition Tiborocity: Design and Undesign by Tibor Kalman, 1929-99, on view through October 26, 1999 at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, I was struck by just how familiar his work was to me. Tibor’s work has had enormous influence on everything from urban redevelopment to watch design.

The man who wrote "once you learn, move on" did just that. From his early days as the "creative guy" for what would become Barnes & Noble to his revolutionary video for the Talking Heads’ song "Nothing but Flowers" made under the auspices of his own company, M&Co, he moved on, and on, and on. With that process he created diverse body of work and a legacy of design that continues to be both relevant and funny.

Rules are good. Break them.

Tiborocity runs the gamut of Tibor’s innovative design and, more importantly, undesign over the past twenty years. The exhibition, organized by Kalman and SFMOMA curator of architecture, design, and digital projects, Aaron Betsky, began as a retrospective and, after his untimely death this past May, became a tribute to his life and work. Tiborocity transforms the white gallery space into a colorful, loud virtual-village located somewhere between the first and third worlds.

Contradiction was the basic tenet of Tibor’s life. After all, Tibor dropped out of New York University in the late ’60s in order to pick sugar cane in Cuba. Upon his return to New York, he found himself working as a designer for shopping centers in New Jersey and the emerging book giant Barnes and Noble. In true Tibor fashion, the nine parts of the exhibition include such installations as a humor house, complete with Yanni cologne dedicated to the muzacian himself ("one people, one planet, all Yanni"); an advocacy jail containing a 1946 electric chair from South Dakota and finally, a forest beyond the village with no trees.

The organization of the gallery is typical Kalman. The "forest" exit borders the entrance and a sign exclaims: "Don’t (please) come in here until you are done because this is the end. So go around the corner, stare at the other stuff in the show and sit somewhere and talk to someone or, if you wish, no one. And then leave through this room, which is the end."

Good designers (and writers and artists) make trouble.

The opening of Tiborocity set the tone of the exhibition. Michael Bierut, partner at Pentagram Design and editor of Tibor Kalman: Perverse Optimist, the 1997 catalogue raisonne, and Chee Pearlman, editor in chief of I.D. Magazine spoke on "Good designers make trouble." The talk and panel discussion was at times hee-haw hilarious and intensely moving. Since Tibor’s death, there had’t been a public forum for his admirers to grieve. Beruit and Pearlman spoke about their experiences with Tibor as inspiring, frustrating, and funny. It felt like an intimate gathering of friends who shared a common loss. Maira Kalman, the "M" in M&Co, spoke of Tibor’s vivacity saying that even in death he was more alive than most people are in life.

Following the lecture, the opening party continued in the spirit of Tibor. Waiters wove among the guests-who included Maira, his children Alex and Lulu, and film director Jonathan Demme-with trays of onion rings, French fries, and mini-vegetarian burgers. An impromptu visit by a gold-lamé-clad Elvis impersonator, who presented Maira with a bunch of Mylar balloons and party hats for her children, complimented The California-trash cuisine. Tacky, yes, but appropriate to the party and the man.

I am in search of the simple elegant seductive maybe even obvious IDEA. With this in my pocket I cannot fail.

The success of the exhibition, and the work of Tibor in general, is rooted in the simple and profound idea that bad design is good design is bad design (in the Michael Jackson sense of the word). Although most people outside the design community don’t recognize the name Tibor Kalman, most, when shown his work, have the "o-oh yeah, he did that" reaction. The beauty of his oeuvre is that everyone can find something that either a) is inspiring; b) pisses them off; c) makes them chortle and d) makes them buy something. Most people have all those reactions at once and I would wager that this is the goal. It’s bad (in both connotations of the word) and that is the beauty of Tibor.

Tibor argued his whole professional life that being good is a waste of time. After all, who would have thought that a museum would hang framed onion rings next to a bag of Karl Marx potato chips ("share them," says the bag)? Appropriately, Matisse’s Femme au chapeau, the birth mother of Fauvism herself, hangs just down the hallway as a symbol to a whole different case of bad art = good art. But onion rings? Yeah, onion rings and an electric chair, some magazines stuck on plywood and a speck of dust dutifully labeled "unknown, unwanted."

Once, in an interview with journalist Kurt Andersen, Tibor said, "To embrace something like diner and donut-shop was a way of rejecting graphic design’s formal past... the way that modernism rejected the past. It was a way of rejecting this culture where everything was too beautiful for words and was meaningless." Part of what makes Tibor’s work so engaging is that it is never beautiful, but it is always personal. It is for precisely that reason that it succeeds in touching (or slapping, as the case may be) viewers. The merging of the personal and the political with the commercial may seem a contrary notion, an impossible marriage of good and evil; however, Tibor proved that it could work.

Perhaps the best example of this is M&Co’s Christmas presents, many of which are on display in the exhibition. Laid out under glass are some of the most ingenious gifts, each wrapped in some type of ideological incentive to do something good. In 1989, M&Co. celebrated the holidays by sending the twenty-six dollar book: a random fifty-cent used book wrapped in string and seeded with notes and dollar bills asking "A book? Just a cruddy book?" and "What are you going to do with all this money?" The books included twenty-six dollars-one dollar over the Federal limit on gifts. In the spirit of giving, a bunch of charity envelopes were also included and an effort was made to keep track of what people did with the money. In Perverse Optimist he wrote, "The entire transaction took place inside the individual’s conscience; it was a completely private experience. We were interested in exploring those feelings. That is what Christmas is all about. It’s the guilt holiday. You feel guilty so you give money to charity, and presents to your family. It’s meant to correct imbalances in the system, and it’s inadequate. The system is too imbalanced. A few bucks donated to a charity can’t change socioeconomic justice."

The following year, M&Co continued to provoke guilt and tempers when they mailed a gift box containing the meal a homeless person at a shelter would receive: a can of juice, a sandwich, a packet of mustard and a piece of pound cake. They also included a page from the New York Times real estate section and a twenty-dollar bill with an invitation to buy a hamburger at the 21 Club or send it to the Coalition for the Homeless to buy eighteen homeless people a meal. These gifts were indicative of a fierce political spirit that left nothing sacred and nothing spared. They pissed a lot of people off and it made a lot of people think, but else would a cardboard box of stale food get into a museum?

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.

Tiborocity is an ode to a man that maintained that "imagination is more important than knowledge." Indeed, Tibor was never formally trained in graphic or product design. A director more than an actor, he was the idea man, the provocateur, a citizen designer. Amidst all the strong images and potent words, all the ugly and the bad, the personal and the political, the right and the wrong, Tibor stands beaming a silly and triumphant grin (see the cover of Tibor Kalman: Perverse Optimist). In the end, when the visitor has had his fill of wit and politics, he enters the forest beyond the village and it is here where the Truth of it all rests, final elegy to Tibor. In a dark room, there is only a floor lamp with "I’m not sure" written on it. In the corner, a lone light bulb shines "but I’m optimistic."