Great names in graphic design: Tibor Kalman

Tibor Kalman (1949-1999) was one of the most influential graphic designers in history. Alexander Eckstein explains why.

Tibor Kalman is universally acclaimed as one of the greatest and most gifted graphic designers in the history of mankind. A true creative genius and a passionate rebel, his highly celebrated work for the Talking Heads, Restaurant Florent, Interview, and Colors left behind an immense influence on art, literature, society, culture and morality.

Early life and career

Tibor Kalman had a huge influence on the world of graphic design

Kalman was born in Budapest, Hungary on July 6, 1949. His father was an engineer while his mother was a housewife. After the Soviet invasion, his family moved to Poughkeepsie, New York. Kalman became an American citizen in 1956.

A few years later he went to New York University, but he abruptly left his studies after attending one year of journalism classes. His early career started at the NYU’s SBX (The Student Book Exchange), where he sorted books alphabetically and began designing the window displays in the late 1960s. This 'little bookstore' later became Barnes & Noble (B&N).

Kalman joined as the art director of its in-house design department in 1971, and worked here the next eight years. He created ads, logos, stationary, and shopping bags for the firm’s high-class clientele.

Launch of M&Co

Tibor designed the iconic album cover for Talking Heads' Remain in Light

In 1979 he established a startup design firm, with the help of Carol Bokuniewicz and Liz Trovato, two of the former designers from B&N. It was named M&Co. after Kalman’s wife and the firm’s co-creator, Maira. Their early client base consisted of banks and department stores.

The reputation of M&Co. as a groundbreaking innovator in the design world - with a fantastic body of work that wonderfully blends humor, wit and social satire – built steadily, thanks to their unique style cleverly shifting between deadpan and expressive.

Within a few years, the firm attracted numerous high-profile clients such as Restaurant Florent and Talking Heads. Tibor designed the now-iconic album cover for Remain in Light and even created film titles for movie studios. He also worked as a creative director for two famous magazines; Artforum and Interview.

Colors magazine

Four revolutionary cover designs Kalman created for Color Magazine

In 1991, M&Co. was hired to design Benetton Group’s sociopolitical magazine Colors. The magazine was produced in-house at the studio until 1993. Kalman dissolved M&Co. in 1993 and moved to Italy as the full-time editor of the magazine.

Under his supervision, Colors centered on multiculturalism, diversity and global awareness and satirized highly recognizable figures such as the Pope and Queen Elizabeth.

Final years

Kalman was diagnosed with cancer in 1995. As a result, he returned to New York and briefly reopened M&Co. His final issue of Colors was the first-ever magazine to be published without any words, instead comprising of visual essays.

Kalman continued to work in his “old firm” until his death in 1999 in Puerto Rico. Many of his employees, including Stephen Doyle, Alexander Isley, Stefan Sagmeister, Emily Oberman and Scott Stowell, established successful design studios of their own.

Where to learn more

Liz Farrelly's book traces the trajectory of Kalman's design career from his beginnings with M&Co to the editorship of Colors magazine

Books

Tibor Kalman, Perverse Optimist by Peter Hall and Michael Bierut

Tibor Kalman: Design and Undesign by Liz Farrelly

Tibor Kalman: Creative Resistance in Design, Art and Corporate Culture by Mark Vaughn Roper

Online resources

Words: Alexander Eckstein

Alexander Eckstein is the managing editor of Famous Logos. An established journalist and design critic who has previously worked for a number of reputable publications, he also maintains a logo design blog.