The boy didn’t speak much in 1957. He had plenty to say; he just didn’t have the language with which to say it. A year earlier he and his parents silently fled Budapest amid the final whimpers of a desperate revolution. They settled in Poughkeepsie, New York—where the Hudson River flows quietly on its southbound journey to the big city. In this unfamiliar town, the other children teased the boy for his peculiar language. Tibor Kalman was only seven, but this experience shaped in him a fierce inquisitiveness about the power of communication.
Tibor learnt fast. His mother tongue was forgotten and in its place, perfect English. But he did not forget his years as the outsider. He enrolled in journalism at NYU. It was the late 60s. He was a radical. One day, on his way to blow up the mathematics department, Tibor met a young woman who was busy daydreaming. Her name was Maira. She wrote poetry and knitted him sweaters. She lent him money for his journey to Cuba. Somewhere in the cotton fields outside Havana, Tibor was touched by the unspeakable language of love. It drew him back to Maira and Manhattan.
A small bookshop near the NYU campus employed Tibor to design their window displays. He had no experience in graphic design but considered this a distinct advantage. He would not have to waste time worrying about breaking the conventions of design; he simply didn’t know them.
In 1979 Tibor and Maira started M&Co. out of their loft in Greenwich Village. They worked hard. They felt the relief of commercial success. But for Tibor success meant comfort and comfort meant boredom. There was suddenly time to reflect on the role of the designer in society. “Design,” he said, “is just a language and the real issue is what you use that language to do.”
Every Christmas, the design companies of Manhattan would show off by sending flashy gifts to their flashy clients. M&Co. sent out a box filled with a typical meal at a homeless shelter; a sandwich, a piece of fruit, a drink. Throughout the 80s—when greed was good—Tibor became graphic design’s relentless conscience. He questioned clients’ motives and harangued colleagues: What message does this design carry? How will it change things? Tibor ruffled feathers. He was the self-styled bad boy of graphic design.
When Italian fashion label Benetton asked Tibor to be the art director for their new magazine Colors his response was a firm, “No! Not unless I’m the editor”. So they made him editor, and the young Kalman family moved to Rome.
From a crumbling, 2000-year-old palazzo, Tibor and his team styled a magazine that spoke the language of a global village. He knew instinctively that the presentation of certain content—poverty, sexism, race and AIDS—was secondary to the content itself. Changing the colour or a theme of a spread to make it ‘pretty’ would not do. Tibor was interested in imperfections. This is what he meant by the art of “undesign”. “I’m not against beauty,” he said, “it just sounds boring to me.”
In his last issue of Colors Tibor printed a magazine that spoke with no words. His images told the narrative of shared human experience. His images became a shared mother tongue.
Tibor and his family returned to New York in 1997. He had to stop fighting the world’s battles and start fighting his own. He had cancer. For the last two years of his life Tibor continued to teach, create and inspire. He passed away in Puerto Rico with the love of his life, Maira, by his side.
A colleague of Tibor’s has suggested that he be reincarnated as a verb: to “tibor”, meaning to force an assembled crowd to face their obligations for social responsibility. But something, in the word, is lost.