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TIBOR KALMAN, PERVERSE OPTIMIST

PETER HALL & MICHAEL BIERUT

The book chronicles the work as one of the most interesting minds in the graphic design field in any era. Tibor Kalman's design firm M&Co is mostly the subject of this book, and a comprehensive survey of the breadth, consistency of ideas, and his love for engaging the public rather than attend to them passively as consumers.

The sheer physicality of this tome is comforting to any fan of Tibor Kalman and his work. Coming in at a solid 420 pages, every page is designed more for feel-of-content than for the content itself. Kalman (and his team) worked in a variety of media, from print to music videos to product design, and this book’s design/writing team of Michael Bierut and Peter Hall have nicely captured the urgency you feel when you encounter something by Kalman.

Kalman was an ideas man with an international sensibility. It is one of the first things that comes through page after page. The book covers his work from Barnes and Noble, to his work at M&Co., and his subsequent work as co-founding editor-in-chief for COLORS Magazine. There's also the work for, among other things, the Red Square building which involved erecting a permanent statue of Lenin, and his work for Florent, an after-hours diner in the meatpacking district, here in New York. 

There’s the section for work done for the music people (Talking Heads) and the stuff for a variety of clients from Artforum to Interview and music videos and film titles.

The COLORS Magazine section is among my favorite parts of the book. I had a subscription to the magazine in its early days. It was the first full-color, not-fucking-around, politically charged, well-designed publication paid for by a commercial client that I’d ever come across, it introduced me to the possibilities of a design activism that was fueled by a "global citizen" appetite.

The book features a number of contributors including Paola Antonelli, David Byrne, Jay Chiat, Jenny Holzer, Isaac Mizrahi, Florent Morellet, Leonard Riggio, Rebecca Robertson, Ingrid Sischy, Elizabeth Sussman, and Oliviero Toscani and essays by Kurt Andersen and Rick Poynor.

“Good designers are no longer satisfied in taking the manuscript from someone and making it look nice. One of the things that I've tried to do is move from being a designer to a content provider.” 

— TIBOR KALMAN, 1998

I love this book because every page is delightful to look at for both its visual content and for its editorial surprise. That's the guaranteed thing about designers who come to it with a personality: there's a point of view, and it is often unrelenting. But I also like to look at the pictures of some of the M&Co objects I have eventually collected.

Kalman and his work are singular in what he brought to the profession. He believed that designers ought to be more involved in understanding how their work matters outside the client’s needs, and he pushed hard to move the needle on how things play out in culture. Even before the COLORS work (which would be his last period of work before his death from cancer), a number of his projects brought attention to poverty, homelessness, the AIDS crisis, race, and corporate greed. The other thing is that Kalman had the fearlessness of a polymath. In the course of his short-lived career, he had produced an incredibly large volume of interestingly designed projects. Throughout, he had managed to do it on his terms. 

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