PRINT February 1999


Tibor Kalman

TIBOR KALMAN IS A GRAPHIC DESIGNER, a crafter of corporate logos, a producer of presentation materials, a maker of menus and restaurant posters. But Tibor Kalman is so much more than that.

According to most of those who judge such things (with whom I concur, by the way), he is accomplished, even brilliant at what he does. He may even be the greatest graphic designer of his generation. Certainly his output of the last twenty years, just collected in the three-and-a-half-pound book Perverse Optimist (Princeton Architectural Press), sparkles with witty solutions to the problems typical of corporate presentation. But why stop there? Kalman is, we are told, a radical—a breaker of rules, a dealer in astonishment, a deft questioner of the corporate order. In a manifesto co-authored in 1990, he insisted that graphic designers be “bad,” “disobedient,” “insubordinate,” that they refuse to be “a cog in the machine,” that they must make clients “think about design that’s dangerous and unpredictable.” It’s no surprise that accounts of Kalman’s oeuvre take pains to note his SDS exploits in the late ’60s.

The question that inevitably arises, though, is why a corporation should be so keen to hire a “radical” graphic designer. What makes Kalman’s radicalism, such as it is, a desirable quality in what is possibly the most constrained branch of creative endeavor? What does “radicalism” even mean in such a field? It certainly isn’t readily apparent from his work. What impresses one first about Perverse Optimist is not Kalman’s radicalism but his weird omnipresence in the most modish precincts of corporate-sponsored culture of the last two decades. Here is his work for the Talking Heads, here his ironic celebration of the commercial “vernacular,” here his packaging of David Byrne’s latest world-beat exoticisms, here his work for some hip restaurant or gentrification scheme, for Interview magazine, for the movie Something Wild, for the Times Square redevelopment project, for the Benetton clothing company’s magazine Colors. (Here is even late-’80s Artforum!) All that’s missing is Wired magazine—for whom, it turns out, Kalman did indeed work, although it is not included in the book.

It’s an amazing track record, an almost flawless string of loud but empty gestures. Beyond Kalman’s brilliance, the book is a parade of horrors, a reminder of all the things that were celebrated as authentic and transgressive over the last twenty years—each looking hollow, craven, and embarrassingly wrong with age. Look, for example, at Kalman’s 1989 work for “Red Square,” the spiffy housing project that was plunked down right in the middle of the Lower East Side. Brochures celebrated the neighborhood’s authenticity, its hardness, its bohemian goings-on (“It’s not to be confused with the Upper East Side” declared one brochure; another fantasized about ready access to “after-hours clubs,” “Dutch models,” “semi-famous guitarists,” and “young account executives ... out to conquer the world”). “Red Square” permitted affluent folks to participate in the neighborhood’s fun lifestyle radicalism—poetry slams, expensive leather jackets, safe deviance, bars with Talking Heads records on the jukebox—while forcing the nasty nuts-and-bolts radicals who made the neighborhood “colorful” in the first place off into the hinter boroughs. The project functioned as an efficient factory for the domestication of dissidence, all while a towering zany Kalman-trademark clock whimsically transgressed temporal boundaries overhead. Now that’s what I call culture war.

Kalman may be best known for Colors magazine, that triumph of agitprop emptiness published by Benetton and edited by the graphic designer from 1991 to 1995. It carried almost no advertising and was made up largely of startling photographs overprinted with bombastic slogans, most of them hectoring readers in several tongues and at several decibels on some simple lesson in elementary-school civics. Many have pointed out that Colors served fairly transparently as an extension of the famous Benetton advertising campaign, in which the sweater manufacturer, like so many other concerns in recent years, sought to identify its products with some unmistakably good bit of goodness. The consensus is that Kalman’s “radicalism” shines through nevertheless, that somehow Colors subverts the corporate project. What I found, though, was the opposite: Powerful images and strong language skillfully combined in the service of fatuous corporate sentiment. A consistent tendency to reduce every question to a gesture, to something you don as easily and as unproblematically as a Benetton sweater. A bullying species of what critic Chris Lehmann has called “lifestyle Leninism,” in which a simplistic, ultra-virtuous multiculturalism is presented repetitively as the solution to almost everything. But are we really confronting corporate interests when we trumpet the cultural benefits of open borders (a position so transgressive that The Wall Street Journal shares it)? Or was Kalman’s Colors—its pages crowded with businessmen-heroes and schoolboy pranks (the designer once retouched a photo of the queen of England so that she appeared to be black; Perverse Optimist revels in how this gesture “outraged” various prudes)—simply an effort to capture the smug righteousness of Reform for the globalizing corporate world, another machine for separating the glam of lifestyle “radicalism” from any actions that might actually pose a challenge to the Benettons of the world?

WERE ONE TO RESTRICT his or her reading of Perverse Optimist to Kalman’s writing and remarks in interviews, though, one might easily take him for the dead-on (if less than subtle) critic of capitalism he purports to be. He begins the book with a double-barreled blast at the culture industry, declaring that “consumer culture is an oxymoron” and “most media, architecture, design and art exist for the sole purpose of creating wealth.” “Corporations have become the sole arbiters of cultural ideas and taste in America,” Kalman tartly observes in an essay titled “Fuck Committees.” “Our culture is corporate culture.” We hardly need him to tell us this, but given his embeddedness in the center of it all, we begin to expect great revelations.

But we are disappointed almost immediately. Kalman actually argues that the only capable challenge to the total-corporate world is from . . . corporations. Or, to be precise, good-hearted entrepreneurs and CEOs, those Benettons who are willing to sink enormous money into the work of people like Kalman. His manifesto concludes by mourning the disappearance of the really, really big philanthropists and advising readers to seek out “lunatic entrepreneurs,” persuade them to bankroll our projects, “treat them well and use their money to change the world.” There’s Rolf Fehlbaum of the Swiss office-furniture concern Vitra, whose adventurous projects and openness to innovation are the subject of a 590-page montage-homage that Kalman put together in 1997. That book was whimsically entitled Chairman Rolf Fehlbaum and designed to resemble those little red books from the ’60s, but that is where Kalman’s romance with Marxism ends. “I think you can be political only when you’re privileged,” Kalman opines at one point in Perverse Optimist. “The agent of social change,” he declares in Wired, “is the corporation.” Historical agency is a thing reserved for capitalists and their hired pens, whom Kalman suggests that we “trick ... into doing socially responsible things.” This may seem like a fairly realistic vision of culture and corporate responsibility to those whose world is underwritten by foundations and errant millionaires, but as a description of the way history works, it stinks.

Beneath this curious “radicalism” is an oddly dated view of the world of business. In “Fuck Committees,” Kalman vents that the “struggle” now is “between individuals with jagged passion in their work and today’s faceless corporate committees,” and complains that “TV scripts are vetted by producers, advertisers, lawyers, research specialists, layers and layers of paid executives who determine whether the scripts are dumb enough to amuse what they call the ‘lowest common denominator.’” But in fact, while it’s true that business imperatives determine mass-cultural content, those imperatives are vastly different from what they were in the ’60s, when Kalman’s passion-versus-hierarchy rap first became popular. Today it’s a different story. Embracing nonconformity, practicing transgression, smashing the existing order—these are the clichés of organization these days, repeated every year thousandsof times over in hundreds of business magazines and management books, translated into countless pictures and charts and formulas, each one struggling to convince you of the same thing that Kalman apparently believes to be his special revelation and his alone.

What Kalman overlooks is that it is not simply a fluke that a “radical” like him has become one of the most sought-after architects of the corporate facade. It’s not even a new phenomenon: All through Perverse Optimist one hears echoes of George Lois and Howard Gossage, two of the superstar graphic designers of the ’60s (famous for their campaigns for Esquire and Irish Whiskey, respectively) who were also fierce critics of American business and who, curiously, were at the height of their powers when American business actually was dominated by the bean-counters and creativity-quashers that Kalman imagines, wrongly, still to be in power today. The best admen, publicists, and designers of the last thirty years have been the self-hating producers, idealistic folk whose disgust with the system for which they toil gives their vision of redemption-through-products an invaluable ring of authenticity. That business allows “radicals” to do its graphic design is not the inexplicable exception, the “crack in the wall” that Kalman believes to be such an opportunity for disruption; it is the rule. And it is the rule for reasons that Perverse Optimist makes abundantly clear.

Thomas Frank contributes this column regularly to Artforum.