lost civilization

A peek into a lost civilization….

Art Chantry (art@artchantry.com):

When this issue of Art Direction came out in 1981, it was generally considered a quirky, snarky, referential insider design joke – a sort of “look at the dopey stuff we used to do. Aren’t so much cooler now?” The outfit that created it was called “M&Co.” (spearheaded by a guy name of tibor kalman) and was based out of New York City. However, when I saw this thing, my head spun. This image single-handedly sent me into the direction that resulted in the research into mid -American industrial graphic design that empowered my “tool “poster I wrote about previously. Tibor’s exploratory snide joke of a cover was in my mind, the peek into a lost civilization that I’d been hoping for.

A couple of years later, Print Magazine did a profile of M&Co. and introduced me to the larger world Tibor explored. He tossed around the word “vernacular” to describe the sort of design he found fascinating. In reality, that word was a catch basin for anything that academia hadn’t really examined (for whatever sordid reasons) and had ignored. It if wasn’t European in origin or perhaps was so ubiquitously American that the authorship has been temporarily misplaced, then it became “vernacular” – as if it grew on trees.

art chantry:the issue subject is television ad medium (thus the TV). the comments submitted about this cover are credited to M&Co. (tibor is not mentioned, not being a public name, yet). this is what he wrote: "in this chromatically warm yet pungently asymmetrical cover design for Art Direction's television issue, the M&Co. team has once again woven a complex figure of contrapuntal voices, playing, as it were, on the surface of the superficial, the very front of the frontal. note how sign becomes symbol - the blue (sky) above, the red (earth) below - the symbol becomes artifact. the television set is rendered dumb (speakerless) in a masterstroke of Duchampian playfulness, and most significantly how the aggressive absence of the red border on a fourth side has made a frame a window, a window and aperture, the screen itself therefore a space within a void inside a box. neither illustration nor diagram, abstract nor narrative, neo-classic nor post-modern, this is design on the far shore of paradox, where meaning comes face to face with it's own logic, and subject matter and depiction are united in a final, climactic act of mutual recreation."

Tibor was instrumental in the rediscovery of our own American design history, (however, misdirected.) His entire ouvre consisted of design notions, mail order gimmicks, visual design puns, printing errors and sly sarcastic humor that draws heavily from the American visual environment. He used to send out little mailing items that would arrived and sorta blow your socks off.

He employed a brilliant staff of young designers (particularly one alexander isley) whose previous personal portfolios of self-promotional items became the backbone of M&Co.’s design reputation. as was/is the custom, when he hired new talent, they’re individual portfolios were folded into the company portfolio. As a result, M&Co. became renown for their “10-2-4 watches” and “paper weight” and “architectural template” etc. etc. However, they were deigned by his brilliant designer before they ever heard of M&Co. Tibor spotted their thinking and built a company vision on everybody’s combined history and effort. tibor had GREAT taste in the arcane and witty and he had a remarkable eye. Not bad for a guy who forthrightly claimed to not be a designer at all. Indeed, he was trained entirely outside the medium of design and sorta dropped into it cold.

Lunch, Brunch, Supper. Postcard. 1985. Designers: Tibor Kalman and Alexander Isley, M&Co.

The first time I met Tibor was when he and I were among the jury members judging an AIGA competition called “HUMOR” (back in the early 1980’s). His observations and quick mind became the spine of that competition and I felt I had made a new friend.

Later, I went to visit him with my meager portfolio in New York, hopefully to get some advice on how to find some work there. After touring M&Co. studios in an old beater downtown building, he pulled me into his office and we sat down to look at my work. He flipped through the pages of my portfolio and made the appropriate satisfying comments – “nice work”, and “lotsa good stuff in here.” When he was done, he pushed my book away and looked me in the eye and asked, “Art, just what exactly do you want from me? What is it that you want to do?”


I was sorta taken by surprise. Strangely, I hadn’t really considered an answer to that question before. I sorta stumbled and sputtered out, “gee, I want to do Talking Heads record covers like you get to do.” It was a classic hick newbie idiot response.

Tibor looked at me and silently got up and closed his office door. He then sat down and said, “art, I’m going to show you a little secret.” He reached under his desk and pulled out a New York city yellow pages telephone directory. “we do this. this is how I support 11 employees working here. We paste up the yellow pages. The only reason I do Talking Heads covers is because I met David Byrne at a cocktail party and we became friends. We’re talking about, what? $1550-$2000 for a record cover? How am I going to support 11 people on that?” I was totally taken aback. He was so blunt and so clear. It was maybe the best lesson I’d ever been taught in my entire design career up to that point. The emperor has no clothes. It was a classic Tibor Kalman moment.

After that we kept in casual touch. We once participated on a panel discussion in holland and we hung out. I watched as his reputation for brilliance deservedly grew. He eventually became the art director of Bennetton’s “COLORS” magazine and won international admiration for the brilliant work he executed. My modest efforts out in Seattle were paying off and I continued to explore my interest and made my impact. Life was cool.

---tibor kalman:"Formal training always creates certain formulas and certain kinds of solutions that you learn in school. And what i've always tried to do is to get people to unlearn what they learned in school. My greatest success has always been hiring interns and turning them into designers." Tibor Kalman, did not study to become a graphic designer, and this made him a better graphic than the others. In his world ideas had the upper hand on everything, error won against correctness and ugliness won against beauty. In this way, obtaining interesting results was and still is more interesting. Like an oxymoron he lead a studio of graphics that taught him the profession. He tried to surround himself with people that could give him much more than just graphics. One of the first things that he asked during the job interviews was "what have you read in the last year?", because graphics and design need to be influenced by the external world and not only by themselves.

Then, one day, completely out of the blue, I got a phone call from a casual acquaintance from my earlier Seattle days. Seems she had traveled through the fashion business and eventually ended up at Bennetton in a senior position. She was calling me to offer me the job as the art director of COLORS magazine. I was sorta stunned.

To begin with, a move like that for me (from Seattle grunge scene to an office then situated in Paris) would have been mind-blowing. The very idea of following in Tibor’s shoes on such a prestigious project as COLORS was a huge flattering compliment. I felt unworthy to the task. but, of course, I began the conversation (i’mno fool.). After a few phone calls, I finally asked the big question (at least the big one for me), “well, how does Tibor feel about this?”

There was a moment of silence. then she responded, “well, we haven’t told Tibor yet. In fact we want to keep this al very hush hush for now. Things aren’t working out with Tibor.” I was appalled. THIS was they way they were treating my friend? This is how the chose to deal with the brilliant and wonderful Tibor Kalman? Sneaking behind his back to secretly hire some boob from the middle of nowhere?

After I got off the phone, I immediately contacted Tibor and told him my story. His response was two-fold and telling. He said “well, that’s interesting. It’s news to me.” Then he began to encourage me to take the job and that it’s a great opportunity for me. I only said that i didn’t think i could do that. If they were going to treat HIM (my friend and a design uber-mensch) like that, then how would they eventually treat me? Man, I sure didn’t want to stuck flat broke and unemployable in Paris (then the most expensive city in the world).

After I got off the phone with Tibor, I decided to not respond to the Bennetton offer. In fact I immediately cut off all conversation. I could never consider taking that gig in good conscience and would feel like a schmuck if I took it.

That was also the last time I ever talked to Tibor. Soon thereafter it was publicly revealed that he was suffering from the cancer that would eventually take his life. It was fortunate to have actually known him, even casually. I didn’t have much contact with him over the years, But the contact I DID have was of a quality that altered my life in profound ways.


Art Chantry: i think it’s hilarious and brilliant. he manages to simultaneously poke fun at the pompous bullshit language of the ad man (always selling in nonsense terminology) and still gets exactly his point across. he manages to laugh the whole time while he sez exactly what he wants to say.

ed fotheringham used to tell me, “you know, you can say any damned thing you want if you say it with a smile.” he’s so right…. if you examine the rest of the issue (or any issue particularly from that era) it’s a pretty shallow surface dimwitted scene. in a way, he’s describing it exactly with his description of his cover.

context is everything. that may be the biggest lesson tibor taught us. this would not have been anywhere near as good a co ver for any other magazine of that particular moment. it means that graphic designers are “snipers” not “carpet bombers” or “nukes’. we can only comment to the narrowest demographics. when you switch context and demographic, all hell can break loose.

yeah, i was never too good the fake frontal ‘smiley’ pose, either. i’m way too blunt (read, “frank)”…we’re hustlers and salesmen – always on the make. doesn’t matter what the quality is. it’s not important, making the deal is important. it’s the american way.

it’s one of the reasons why we love european design so much. they don’t work that way….

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