New York

Tibor Kalman

UNLIKE WALT DISNEY'S corporate-sponsored global pavilions at Epcot Center, “Tiborocity,” a theme park cleverly disguised as a museum retrospective, is based on a single mythical “village” that could be anywhere in the nonindustrial universe. In a playful yet political twist on the small-world-after-all theme, local sites within this village—public square, classroom, storefront, etc.—showcased two decades of far-flung work that Tibor Kalman and his design firm, M&Co., created for an equally disparate roster of clients. The ingenious installation (co-organized by Aaron Betsky of SF MoMA, where the show originated, and Kalman, who died of cancer last year) relied on two cornerstones of the designer's process: change as crucial to creativity and the vernacular as a font of inspiration.

No grandiose wall titles here: just a red, floor-to-ceiling, stenciled “T” with two small scraps of paper taped nearby offering “IBOROCITY” and the subtitle, “Design and Undesign by Tibor Kalman, 1979–1999.” Moreover, this identifier was around the corner from the entry, so that the visitor first encountered a wall of shelves piled with chewing gum, ticket stubs, photos, maps, bobby pins, and other everyday flotsam. Viewers were invited to add and remove objects, creating a display in constant flux. Also in this section (the “public square”) were unbound issues of Colors, the Benetton-funded magazine that Kalman created, edited, and art-directed in the early to mid-'90s. The barrage of imagery demonstrated Kalman's talent for creating a visual language that could be relevant around the globe. On view nearby, a small-scale version of Times Square Billboard Park, 1993, comprised a sign reading “EVERYBODY” above chairs that transformed sitters into street art (or here, window art).

Further along in the village, a “classroom” displayed Kalman-designed children's books by his wife, Maira, along with his own Chairman Rolf Fehlbaum (1997), which visually echoes Mao's Little Red Book, on a shelf in the corner. A sunny yellow “storefront” held Kalman's collection of packaged goods—Ipco Creamy Snuff, Miraculous Insecticide Chalk, even Karl Marx potato chips (“share them”)—emphasizing his reverence for the humble, the throwaway, and the vernacular. M&Co.'s music, video, and film projects were gathered in the “music and video shop,” cleverly low-tech boxes into which visitors could stick their heads for a close-up view of a record's jacket and an aural sample of its music.

A “coffee shop” highlighted Kalman's designs for eateries like China Grill and Restaurant Florent; a “jail” contextualized his political work, including a project criticizing cigarette packaging, with that of other designers in the '60s and '70s; and a museum of curiosities housed M&Co.'s famously witty watches. An upside-down “humor house” showcased Kalman's satirical projects, including Yanni Perfume Bottle, 1998, and the legendary lampoon of corporate branding, Canada Finds an Identity, 1985.

In contrast to the bustling “public square,” a final, cozy, blue room hinted at Kalman's afterlife (a video made during his last months was set into the wall) and illustrated his overarching philosophy. Inside, a floor lamp's shade was printed with “I'm not sure,” its on/off pull chain readily apparent. Up in a comer, however, a naked lightbulb glowed warmly with another message: “but I'm optimistic.'' ”Tiborocity“ is a monument not just to Kalman's work, but to his mission as a rogue ”imagineer"—and a rambunctious, unabashedly egocentric, contrary iconoclast, not to mention a successful anticapitalist. Now that's edutainment.

Julie Caniglia