Spring 1996

Reputations: Tibor Kalman

Moira Cullen interviews Tibor Kalman

Tibor Kalman was born in Budapest, Hungary in 1949 and emigrated to US with his family in 1956. From 1967-70 he studied journalism at New York University, where he worked on the university newspaper and joined the radical group Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). From 1968 he worked for the one-store company that eventually became the Barnes & Noble bookshop empire, creating window displays, store designs, signs and advertisements. In 1979 Kalman left to found his own design firm, M&Co. Initially, the company worked on whatever commercial projects it could get before moving towards the cultural sector and the creation of content and form in all areas of graphic design, as well as industrial design, film titles, television spots, children’s books (with his wife Maria Kalman) and architecture. Clients included Formica, Subaru, The Limited, Chait/Day, Williwear, MTV, Restaurant Florent, David Byrne and Talking Heads, and MoMA. Work is now archived a Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum and the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam. Kalman was art director of Artforum from 1987-88 and creative director of Interview from 1989-91. In autumn 1990 he was recruited as editor-in-chief of a controversial new Benetton magazine, Colors. He produced five issues in New York before closing M&Co in 1993 and moving to Rome, where he edited eight more issues. In September 1995 Kalman quit Colors and returned to New York to consider new directions. [Kalman died in 1999, see Tibor Kalman obituary, Eye no. 32]

Moira Cullen: You’re back.

Tibor Kalman: Everyone else invests more in this idea that I do. I never felt I’d left, so I don’t feel I’ve come back.

MC: We spoke just weeks before your departure for Rome, in the summer of 1993, when the economy was soft, nerves were raw, diatribes about legibility and relevance were being hurled across design’s generational divide, and the prospect of a “changing of the guard” prevailed. You were deeply dissatisfied with design.

TK: I thought the argument about legibility was in fact about typefaces, and arguments about typefaces are boring and narrow in the light of what’s really going on in the world and the true purpose and potential of communication. That isn’t the real issue.

MC: What is the real issue?

TK: Whether we can do something with design that makes a difference in the world. Whether designers can use their skills to create change - cultural, political and economic. Economic change is the one designers have been good at because they can make sales go up, stocks go up, sell more spaghetti sauce.

MC: But what about the other changes?

TK: They are not where the money is and are not what design has usually been called upon to do. I grew up doing very commercial work - brochures, logos, packaging and record covers. My journey has been a move from using graphics to make money to using graphic design to create new aesthetic ideas - which is where most designers start - to becoming frustrated and moving on to industrial design, film, television and architecture. After 15 or 20 years I discovered that design is just language and the real issue is what you use that language to do. Now I’m at a point where I’m tired of talking about what kind of accents to use. I want to talk about the words that are being said.

MC: To whom? Is the audience as important as the message?

TK: What is said determines who listens and who understands. Graphic design is a language, but graphic designers are so busy worrying about the nuances - accents, punctuation and so on - that they spend little time thinking about what the words add up to. I’m interested in using our communication skills to change the way things are.

MC: Was this the motivation behind your move to Rome?

TK: In the 15 years I ran M&Co I felt I had pretty much exhausted the avenues available to designers. I wanted to make the things that people buy or invest time in rather than designing the packaging for those things. Magazines are particularly swell medium for designers to work in because they tell stories visually. They’re about selling ideas.

MC: Yet Colors as a magazine was very much aligned with Benetton as a product.

TK: That’s bullshit. Just look at the magazine. What is true is that Benetton sponsored us – they chose me and my team to make a magazine. But we were never under any pressure to do articles about sweaters or Luciano Benetton’s art collection. We did articles about poverty, multiple cultures, things that mattered. The amount of influence our sponsor or advertisers had over our publication was less than in other supposedly “independent” commercial magazine I’ve worked for. We were free.

MC: Did you need to resolve the potential conflict between patronage and creative expression before you made the move?

TK: No. I started off just being excited about the chance to edit a magazine.

MC: To edit, not design?

TK: Yes. I was approached by Benetton’s creative director Oliviero Toscani late in 1990 when I was at Interview. He asked if I’d be interested in art directing a magazine for them. By that time I had art directed a couple of magazines and knew the difference between the roles of art director and editor. I wanted to role of the editor, thank you. The editor is the person who gets to decide what the content will be. The art director might be a partner and might suggest ideas, but the editor rules.

To my surprise, Toscani called my bluff and asked what kind of magazine I wanted. My lifelong obsession was Life – the version that existed before 1965 – which to me was the most inspiring thing a magazine could be. That’s what I was after with Colors. The fact is, I described a magazine that Benetton should sponsor – Benetton is a global company with a political point of view in advertising and I was interested in multicultural issues. From their point of view, they gained credibility by sponsoring a publication that appeals to young people around the world – people wrote letters saying how fabulous Colors was and how they’d become lifelong Benetton customers because of it. I was and am totally comfortable with that. I think lots of people should go to Benetton shops and say they’re buying sweaters because they love Colors.

MC: Do you have any involvement now you’ve left?

TK: The March 1996 issue on war will be the first I have had nothing to do with. I’ll be happy if it’s great and secretly happy if it’s terrible.

MC: What was it like developing content with Toscani as art director? It must have been different from your practice in New York.

TK: Toscani was not the art director. As editorial director, he was the enabler. He got us the support and the funding and gave us the freedom to make Colors the way we saw fit. And Luciano Benetton deserves a lot of credit for his courage and willingness to bankroll an experiment like Colors. I had the privilege of conceiving articles about subjects I found interesting and then using a team of people to research them and figure out how they might be made interesting to others in a visual way. I can’t think of anything better.

MC: And working with Toscani? Were you ever constrained by his signature style?

TK: Toscani enabled the magazine to happen and then handed it to me. He’s a great photographer, a fun, interesting guy and I was influenced by his style and by him personally. But in the end I got to make the magazine I wanted with no limitations from either Toscani or Benetton. I consider myself extremely lucky – Tina Brown at the New Yorker has Richard Avedon and I had Toscani. He could shoot everything and he was free, so I used him a lot.

MC: What was Colors’ journalistic style?

TK: I’m not even sure that Colors was a magazine. A magazine is a box in which different writers tell their stories. Colors was more like a series of textbooks about different subjects – AIDS, shopping and other themes that were thought through I this laboratory in Rome, conceived on paper, researched with designers , photographers and illustrators, and finally written. It was a completely upside-down system compared with other magazines, but none of us knew any better. We worked out of my apartment on cellular phones for the first three months and for the first three Rome issues no one on staff, except me, had ever worked on a magazine before. It was the hardest work I’ve ever done in my life – I worked more hours in my first year there than in my last year in New York.

MC: It was an ambitious undertaking – making an international magazine “about the rest of the world”.

TK: I was born in Hungary, so I have always looked at the US through foreign eyes. In Rome I found that living in another country, where news goes through a different filter, is like seeing the world from outer space, through an international prism. Colors was about the end of nationality and the birth of subcultures. The difficulty for people making international media is how to find seductive ways to get people out of their narrow milieu and give them a bigger sense of the world. The difficulty of making magazines in general is finding ways to make them about something other than the reader and their desires, aspirations and world view. This is at the centre of why I find magazines so infuriating now. It seems that the only ones that succeed are the ones that tell you how great you are, how your life and home and sex life are fabulous and if you buy our magazine we can show you how they will be more so. The real issue now is how to find seductive ways to change people’s perception, not to reinforce them. We seem only to have two kinds of really successful magazines. One is news – here’s what’s going on and here’s how it affects your nice privileged life: in the US the ad line is “news you can use” – and service, conveniently split between men and women. Girls: get boyfriends, orgasms, look fab, be healthy, succeed at work. Boys: buy cool stuff (especially computers), make more money, get muscles, succeed in your career. That’s magazines now. In the mainstream, among big circulations, that’s all there is. And Ray Gun and Wired fit right in. Colors tried not to.

MC: Was Rome a good base from which to attempt such a magazine?

TK: Because we were in Rome, making the magazine was very difficult. I was trying to make a modern magazine in a 2,000-year-old yuppified, conservative monocultural capital where the largest employers are the Italian government, the Vatican and the 5,000 bureaucrats in the UN food organisation. Still, in the end Colors suffered most from lack of distribution.

MC: But Benetton’s distribution strategies are legendary. Wasn’t the magazine, as a product, supported by the company?

TK: Benetton may be good at manufacturing, but magazine distribution is different from sweaters. Apparently they didn’t see Colors as important enough – despite my brilliant memos – or potentially remunerative enough or maybe even good enough to treat it as a business. In the end, what slays me is that maybe they really didn’t want a magazine. It’s like saying “I didn’t really love you” after three years. It’s hard to realise, but that might have been what happened.

MC: So you decided to return to New York?

TK: With all the creative freedom, but no distribution and little feedback, we were beginning to contort our bodies in weird ways to get oxygen – we were turning in on ourselves, eating our own tails. It was like playing the violin in the middle of the forest – it’s nice, but if nobody hears you it’s useless. Besides, it was getting very difficult to stay in Rome and make the magazine better. The language problems were insurmountable, there was no talent pool, our copy editing was still being faxed back and forth to New York, and so on.

MC: Why did your last issue have no words at all?

TK: I’ve always been frustrated with language and I wanted to see if we could create something visual that went beyond it. So the last issue can be enjoyed virtually the same way by a person in Vietnam as by a person in Uzbekistan or New York. I wanted to communicate this equality through pictures. I would have liked another 50 pages and another 10 or 15 years to work on it, but the great thing about Colors is that we got to experiment. Some of the stuff worked and some failed, but the idea of a magazine was pushed a bit further. There are very few magazines willing to do that. The zillions of magazines around the world are all based on a set of formulas you can count on one hand.

MC: You took a risk. Are you glad you went?

TK: I learned an incredible amount and doing Colors was the most complicated and thrilling project of my life.

MC: Why was editing more gratifying than being a designer?

TK: I could preach and teach and communicate lots of information.

MC: But you delivered strong opinions in your design too.

TK: We always attempted to put content where it didn’t belong. In Colors the purpose of the pages was to interest, educate and entertain. The purpose of a brochure is to sell widgets. It’s the difference between the advertising and editorial in a magazine and it’s similar to the difference between the roles of the designer and the editor. Traditionally a designer is there to amplify, clarify and elucidate material the editor wants in the issue. There are art directors who edit and the great ones even write, but fundamentally what separates the roles is that one deals with content and the other with form.

MC: But as technology links everyone and everyone uses the same tools, isn’t there a hybrid role and process emerging whereby content and image are developed and synthesised collaboratively, in teams?

TK: The people who do that well are ad agencies. They’ve been working that way forever. We need to develop generations of young people who will kidnap these commercial techniques and apply them to issues that matter – ecology and racism, for instance – to change people’s perception of the world. It’s something like what we did at Colors – we created teams of writers and art directors who worked together to realise an idea. We used commercial techniques to promote ideas, which is what I’m interested in continuing. A lot of people decry that model, saying you can’t talk about biodiversity in under 500 words. Well, fuck it, then nobody will read it. You have to be ready to talk about it with a picture and 75 words. Editors have a responsibility to seduce their audiences to promulgate the truth. For this reason I tried to make Colors as interesting and as sexy as possible, like candy and canapés, so juicy you can’t resist them. It wasn’t a formula. It was an experiment. I love to read. And Colors itself was beginning to experiment with longer text pieces.

Today there are more writers working with designers, but that wasn’t the case five years ago. The agency team system is a much more powerful way of working because it unites word and image. Designers are notorious for separating the two. The main purpose of advertising is to change people’s minds and rekindle their motivations. Designers working in design firms are mostly worried about making things look cool.

MC: Meanwhile electronic media are pushing the ultimate synthesis – the short form, quick read image/text block?

TK: And designers are being dragged along instead of leading.

MC: What skills do they need to lead?

TK: Writing, writing, writing. Reading, reading, reading. Everything designers aren’t taught. It’s absurd. There’s a need to know more now than ever before, but with the evolution of computer designers have become production artists. At best, designers who don’t read and write become translators. They sit in the UN and someone speaks French in one ear and Spanish comes out of their mouths.

MC: When you left the US few designers used e-mail, had surfed the Internet or could conceive of designing Web sites. How connected were you to this transition to new media?

TK: I was pretty insulated. We were computerised and on the Internet, but we weren’t able to modem our layouts or anything. Since I left the US there has been a radical shift in what media are available. I’m catching up, surfing and cruising, but I think a lot of the attention is overblown and out of proportion. I find the Internet slow, tedious, and the disadvantages far outweigh the advantages. A magazine page is a much more vibrant object than a home page. Of course, I can click on the blue words and get from this page to that, but I can also turn the page of a magazine, or walk across the room and pick up a magazine faster and with more reliability. It’s insane. Designers are now engineers worrying about SCSI cable and gigabites, wasting time that could be spent figuring out the meaning of something or looking at pictures, films, books, reading words. People are dying left and right and we’re noodling with the tabs instead of writing the essay.

MC: Do you think the new media will bring about the end of print?

TK: People are wasting their lives in front of CD-ROMs and monitors and I’m dying to do books, magazines and movies. People haven’t started fucking with the printed page in a serious way yet, despite the fact that they’ve been able to make it illegible. My belief in print is a belief in ink on paper. Everyone complains that it has all been done before, but we haven’t even begun. There’s an incredible amount of new tricks up good people’s sleeves. I really believe that good media people can create sexy and symbiotic relationships with corporations that are good for corporations and good for media and good for culture. I can’t wait for advertising people to start working on something that makes a difference, it will be incredible. Even corporations are beginning to realise that advertising is useless.

MC: What do you mean?

TK: Jay Chiat of Chiat/Day advertising says that companies don’t need ads, they need media. So companies will start magazines and TV stations. Smart corporations will continue to sponsor creative people who understand that content will become the advertising. And when Coca-Cola owns TV stations, things will get very dangerous and complicated. The divisions between the present form of media (one publisher, many advertisers) and some of the future media (one publisher, one advertiser) will create incredible pressure on the values of creative people – editors and art directors. How will creatives work with any integrity when a corporation says please take out this negative reference because it will bum people out about our products? What do you do?

I think the argument is this. Editors will need to create and cultivate audiences. If they are capable of that, they’ll get freedom because the company will be happy for the attention, for the privilege of sponsorship. I believe this will be an effective way for corporations to create good image and sales. If the company meddles they will get hamburger instead of steak and nobody will pay attention. Am I being an optimist? Tough.

MC: Does this effectiveness hinge on the process, the content, or the distribution?

TK: These are separate issues – one is how you make the work, the other is how it’s distributed. But if designers are interested in becoming authors, they need, like all authors to be concerned with distribution, to realise they will have more influence if their work is distributed successfully.

MC: You have been considered the “bad boy” of design. Has Rome changed you?

TK: Rome hasn’t but New York has. I was convinced I was the only person working in Rome. Now I feel like the only person not working in New York. For the first time since I was 19 I’m not working. I’ve saved up some money. I’m spending time with my wife and my children. And with myself. I’m resting. I’m reading. I’m thinking. I’m tired of that bad boy mantle – I think it’s old, boring, macho.

MC: In four years’ time you’ll be 50 years old. What is the next stop on your journey?

TK: I’ve no idea. I have lots of dreams and millions of goals, but I’m trying to go slow. I’m thinking about what media will be about in the next two years, where money will come from and how it will flow in and out of contexts, and how I can get freedom and independence and penetration. Generally I’m trying to find a way of working which reduces the number of layers of assholes between me and the public. I haven’t made films yet, but I’d like to work more in architecture and I’m still very interested in the ways type and films interact, which is an area like the printed page where we’ve just scratched the surface. I’m also interested in theatrical documentaries. The only thing I’m not interested in, and of course I’ll end up getting involved, is television, which I find tremendously problematical – it’s just a balm, a salve, like Vaseline. We don’t even have a TV.

MC: Will you start another company?

TK: No. Well, if I did it would be more like a media lab with projects and sponsors than a service firm that says, “Hi, we’re here to make your thing look beautiful.” I don’t want to sell stuff, I don’t want to design labels for perfume bottles or brochures or wristwatches or even record covers. I don’t want to be an art director for a men’s fashion magazine. I’ve set up some pretty tough criteria for myself, but I’d like to find a way to make responsible media or responsible culture.

First published in Eye no. 20 vol. 5, 1996