Thursday, May 27, 2010

TIBOR KALMAN - Social Activist and Provocative Designer of 20th Century

fig. 1
Portrait of Tibor Kalman

Who was Tibor Kalman (fig. 1) and what did he do for the world? The answer is simple. He was a controversial graphic designer, editor and social activist of the 20th century. His biggest effort was to change some political and social issues and with his provocative design he influenced many people. In his design creations he got involved in subjects like racism, aids and sports. Firstly I will mention his move to New York and his beginnings there. After that follows establishing his own company and also I will introduce you his biggest step in his career as a successful editor in chief for Color magazine and will include some images of his great creations. After all is conclusion including some of my self evaluation about this wonderful artist.

Tibor Kalman was born in 1949 in Budapest. At his age seven, his family decided to immigrate to America, Poughkeepsie in New York because of Communist regime in the Hungary. In 1967 Tibor started to study at New York University and engaged into work on the newspaper and became one of the members of Students for a Democratic Society which was the organization organizing some actions to protest the Vietnam War. In 1970 he left the University and unlawfully went to Cuba as a member of the Venceremos Brigade to work as a cutter of sugarcane and gain some knowledge about Cuban culture. When he returned to New York in 1971, he began to work for Leonard Riggio as a creative director of Student Book Exchange and he worked there for the whole time that he was in New York. Leonard Riggio had a 20 college bookstores to run and he also bought another little business called Barnes and Noble. Tibor learned all from designing advertisements, shopping bags, store signs and B&N trademark on its own.

During the year 1979 he gained very well paid offer where he should design signs for a discount trading house and only short time after he eventually established his own graphic design studio. He created his office interior with a silly triangular-shaped table which matched into a silly shaped conference room. It was all made in post-modern fashion and his office was highly decorated but window at the reception was all shattered with hammer. Tibor‘s wife (fig. 2) was called Maira and had a nickname ‘M’, thus he gave the name to his company ‘‘M&Co’’.

fig. 2

Tibor's wife Maira

Tibor's explanation to his funny designed office was:‘‘You could bring a bank client or a rock group there for a meeting, it sort of cut both ways.’’(

The place of his M&Co business was in the Greenwich Village at his apartment but after one year he moved his place to the Manhattan office on West 57th Street. His first commission was to design some logos for supermarket which manufactured bags. Tibor was not very satisfied with this ordinarily job order, thus he changed his interest and began to concentrate on different field. After creating a Talking Heads album with four heads of group members (fig. 3) and with unusually typed letters upside-down his company M&Co started to be noticed in design trade press for reason of changing the way of familiar style in typography and design. (The New York Times)

fig. 3

Tibor Kalman, Talking Heads

Album Cover, 1980

In 1986 Tibor was co-chairman of the American Institute of Graphic Arts national conference in San Antonio, called ‘‘Dangerous Ideas’’. It was a great thing for Tibor, where he was able to pay a proper attention on designers work and investigate their impact on society with propagation of products which are not beneficial whereas dangerous and destroying the environment and society. Tibor Kalman always emphasized to designers that they should be very careful and responsible for work which they create and think about how their work will influence the society, culture and environment around us. He always encouraged designers to think about the impact of their creations on society; he thought that it is very important for designer to think about consequences of their work. One of the Tibor’s creations was soapbox, where he focused on homelessness and instead of sending usual presents to his clients on Christmas, he sent boxes with a modest typical meal for homeless (fig 4).

(The New York Times)

fig. 4 (Homeless Lunch Box for Christmas by Tibor Kalman)

Tibor slowly stopped doing graphic design in the way of magazines Art forum and Interviews, where he was not really able to express all his ideas and was unsatisfying for him. His most grateful job came when he became an editor in chief of Colors, which was an English and Italian magazine. The publishing of this magazine was by the Italian company Benetton which engaged in clothes fashion. This role of being an editor made impossible for Tibor to continue with his M&Co company and thus he was forced to stop temporarily and moved with all his family to Rome. The photographer Oliviero Toscani was the founder of Colors which was not common magazine. This magazine focused on cultural, social issues, problems like racism (fig. 5) and for example AIDS (fig. 6).

fig. 5

Colors Magazine

Issue 4, (1993)

''Race'' (cover)

Tibor Kalman said: ‘‘Aimed at an audience of flexible minds, young people from 14 to 20, or curious people of any age.’’

fig. 6

Color Magazine,

Issue 7, (1994)

This magazine called Colors was a real liberation for Tibor as he could boundlessly realize all his ideas. One copy of Color magazine was focused on racism which title was ‘‘How to Change Your Race’’, other issue called ‘‘What If.’’ was including the collection of world famous people with racially changed skin color. Tibor Kalman changed the skin color of Queen Elizabeth (fig. 7) and Arnold Schwarzenegger to black; he also made Pope John Paul II as Asian, changed the skin color of Spike Lee on white and transformed Michael Jackson into Nordic type. Tibor Kalman said: ‘‘Race is not the real issue here, power and sex are the dominant forces in the world.’’(The New York Times) This is what I particularly like about Tibor Kalman, his ability to provocatively communicate message to the world.

fig. 7

Queen Elizabeth II, Colors Magazine

Issue 4, ''Race'' (Spring 1993)

He said: ‘‘I can design and manipulate in spin people politically in direction that I want and that is what I like about design.’’(You Tube, An Hour Conversation With Designer Tibor Kalman, 1998)

I like Tibor’s provocative expressions in his design, huge enthusiasm for changing the world with his wonderful and very creatively processed ideas. I admire him for his great success, his natural talent and touch for design; already for that reason he never formally studied to be a designer. Tibor was a truly great talker through his design creations and he made a lot of positive contributions to the world with his art work. Although he died at age only 49 he managed to contribute to the world and society enormously.

Reference list:


Hall, P., Bierut, M. (2000) Tibor Kalman: Perverse Optimist. New York: Princeton Architectural Press

Kalman, M., Kalman, T. (no date) Colors: Tibor Kalman, Issues 1-13


Obituary: Tibor Kalman – Arts & Entertainment – The Independent (1999) Obituary: Tibor Kalman [Online]. Available at:

(Accessed: 12 May 2010)

Tibor Kalman, ‘Bad Boy’ of Graphic Design, 49, Dies – Obituary; Biography – (1999) Tibor Kalman, ‘Bad Boy’ of Graphic Design,49,Dies [Online]. Available at: (Accessed: 12 May 2010)

Tibor kalman/article/Pata Magazine (2009) Tibor Kalman [Online]. Available at: (Accessed: 12 May 2010)

Art Directors Club/Hall of Fame/Tibor Kalman (2004) Tibor Kalman [Online]. Available at: (Accessed: 12 May 2010)

Tibor Kalman: Facts, Discussion Forum, and Encyclopedia Article (2010) Tibor Kalman [Online].

Available at: (Accessed: 12 May 2010)

Video: (1998) An Hour Conversation With Designer Tibor Kalman.

Available at: (Accessed: 12 May 2010)


fig. 1

Portrait of Tibor Kalman [Online]. Available at:

(Accessed: 12 May 2010)

fig. 2

Photograph of Maira Kalman [Online]. Available at:

(Accessed: 12 May 2010)

fig. 3

Kalman, T. (1980) Talking Heads Album Cover [Online]. Available at:

_remaininlight_talkingheads.jpg (Accessed: 12 May 2010)

fig. 4

Kalman, T. Homeless Lunch Box for Christmas [Online]. Available at:

(Accessed: 12 May 2010)

fig. 5

Kalman, T. (1993) 5 Colors Magazine, Issue 4, ‘‘Race’’ [Online]. Available at:

(Accessed: 12 May 2010)

fig. 6

Kalman, T. (1994) Color Magazine, Issue 7 [Online]. Available at:

(Accessed: 12 May 2010)

fig. 7

Kalman, T. (1993) Queen Elizabeth II, Colors Magazine, Issue 4, ‘‘Race’’ [Online].

Available at:

(Accessed: 12 May 2010)


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