In Praise of Kalmans
I spent a good chunk of today leafing through Tibor Kalman: Perverse Optimist at the San Francisco Public Library, Main Branch. The book is a retrospective on Kalman, a very clever designer-generalist-messenger who you may or may not know from his studio, M&Co, or the magazine he edited, Colors.
The book is out of print, and SFPL only has it at the reference desk, meaning you can’t take it home. Kalman himself passed away in 1999 after fighting cancer. I can walk to this library, but this was the first time I actually did in the three years I’ve lived in this apartment.
All of this lent the book a sense of totemic specialness. In this age of easy, instant information, here was something I had to hunt down, full of images and words I couldn’t find online. I haven’t had that feeling of guessing, anticipating what something might contain in a while. It was kind of refreshing.
The image above is the first one in the book, and it sums up a lot of what I love about Tibor Kalman’s work, and the work of his wife, Maira Kalman. I’ve become a big fan of Maira’s illustrated writings and designs over the last couple years, and she’s quickly become a very bright star in my personal universe of heroes. Their work is different, and I know hers better than his, but the things I love about this image and the statement it’s paired with can be found in both. It’s beautiful, bright, disorienting. And it’s confused. Confused in all the positive (excited, free, wild) and negative (lost, unmoored, anxious) senses of that word.
In this wonderful TED talk, Maira Kalman talks about how M&Co started with the idea that “We don’t know anything, but that’s alright.” It’s a liberating stance, and a scary one — and it’s about a lot more than design. It’s punk, in the best sense of that word. The way kids are punk, and this 91-year-old woman is punk. It’s about feeling free to rip it up and start again, even if — maybe especially if — you’re not sure you ever really had it in the first place.