Tibor and Maira Kalman’s (un)Fashion book was like a special edition of the Colors magazine he used to edit. A curated work of visual anthropology it shines a light on the everyday design of non-designers
When designer Tibor Kalman died in 1999, he left a legacy of deeply influential work that was significant as much for its cast of mind as it was for its design. Currently the notion of the designer is expanding, from the producer of ‘design thinking’ to the idea of the designer as storyteller. The latter being somewhat disputed by graphic designer Hamish Muir (founder of 8VO) in a recent Tweet.
But Tibor Kalman really was someone who told stories through design. In fact storytelling, using images to throw out ideas and spin yarns, was a characteristic that placed him on the edge of the design world, an edge he designed with often eccentric charm. He was a diviner of design eccentricity, the stuff that didn’t sit with prevailing tastes and trends. Kalman’s stories were often anthropological stories, told in photographs, exercises in comparing the stories different cultures tell themselves through customs and ritual. Another way to describe this kind of visual content is the “design of everyday life”. Or perhaps the (un)Design of everyday life.
While in the 1990s and early noughties, there was a heated debate around the idea of graphic design as self-expression, Kalman took graphic design elsewhere – neither self-expression, nor professional. Design as visual anthropology, discovering visual styles and objects, the vernacular of everyday life, created by non-designers, stuff that communicates differently to the rules of current design practice. Perhaps most famously in his ads for Restaurant Florent based in the off-radar meatpacking district of New York, and though Kalman wasn’t seeking ‘authenticity’ as a style (he played with irony as you can see in the copy), this couldn’t have been more ‘authentic’ if the pig for the ‘boudin’ advertised in the ad smoked Gitanes while sweatily performing an impression of Jacques Brel singing Ne me Quitte Pas. In a similar way, visually the ‘local’ for Kalman meant the visual geographies that fell outside the radar of conventional tastes and design.
He finished the picture selection and design for his book of photography (un)Fashion with his wife Maira Kalman (both credited as Creative Directors in the book) before he died, and it was published in 2000.
Some of the book’s impact has been softened as the book was published when the internet was still crawling – images took an age to load at 26kps, and Flickr was launched in 2004. The exotic appeal of imagery of the local is now much more ubiquitous.
What remains is Kalman’s facility to tell a story in pictures, in this instance about clothes and accessories that really don’t fit with a fashionable vision of fashion, a beautiful idea of fashion or even a good-looking idea of fashion. (un)Fashion is what people wear everyday in different local spaces around the world, and its incredibly diverse. (un)Fashion, is mostly expressive in its idiosyncrasy, and like its close neighbour Fashion, is a way of looking at the world.
Sometimes, as in uniforms, unfashion plays with the uniformity of fashion, with the idea of uniformity as a mirror.
Sometimes (un)Fashion is clothing that invests a vision of being closer to God or a representative of God.
This is a book by a designer (and an illustrator, Maira Kalman), not a picture editor, or a journalist, someone who makes visual, conceptual and narrative relationships between pictures.
It’s also fascinating to observe the exact point where the ‘local’, as a sign of taste, becomes unfashionable, unaccessible as a communication. When the local gets so local it becomes unreadable to an outsider, when the local configures you as an outsider, not just outside a place, but as an outsider in that way you feel when you see an extraordinary image – it takes you outside yourself, outside your normal assumptions conditioning how you see things.
Kalman’s visual version of the local in (un)Fashion, is as the title suggests something that doesn’t quite fit how we see things, disrupts the visual formats which we use to screen out stuff we can’t process quickly in everyday life. The local in (un)Fashion is also a sign of creativity that isn’t schooled by the official channels. Kalman’s vision of the local is a romantic and necessary one. Over the next few weeks we’ll explore some different versions.