Wrongness in the Walls: M&Co. Remembered

Wrongness in the Walls: M&Co. Remembered
By Tiffany Meyers, May/June 2006

In 1988, Tibor Kalman, designer Emily Oberman, and intern Scott Stowell were frequently left at New York’s Ceasar Video without adult supervision in the middle of the night. They were working at the edit facility on M&Co.’s music video for the Talking Heads’ “(Nothing But) Flowers,” a typographically driven solution that would both break new ground and take an inordinate amount of time to produce.

Kalman had arranged a deal whereby M&Co. could use the facility 24 hours a day during the video’s production, giving them the run of the place after business hours—and often past 4 a.m. Hilarity of the kind that accompanies caffeine and overwork ensued. And Oberman recalls one night in particular, when Kalman removed every poster from every wall in the facility—Joseph Beuys prints, if her memory serves—and rehung each piece upside down.

When Ceasar Video staffers arrived for work the next day, there was intrigue and confusion—and finally, the decision to embrace the upended art. “And for as long as I continued to go to that facility, it stayed up that way,” says Oberman, now partner of Number 17 in New York, whose term at M&Co. from 1987 to 1993 was the longest run of any employee in the firm’s 14-year lifespan.

M&Co.’s sprawling mythology brims with antics along these lines, many with the same Marx Brothers’ quality. But the story of Ceasar Video and the art on its walls is a particularly tidy metaphor for Kalman’s preternatural ability to wrench audiences out of what they’d come to rely on as proper and right.

Graphic design in the 1980s was drowning in varnish. A blind reverence for expensive production values had begun to supersede content. And from 1979 to 1993, M&Co. scoured the gloss off those surfaces. As Peter Hall and others have noted, the firm’s signature style is often purported to be a lack thereof—or at least mutable in nature, largely dependent on the designers who worked there at any given time—but the oeuvre is unified by an overarching desire to “strip away the designer’s habit to make things line up or to be satisfied if it’s just pretty,” says Alexander Isley, who worked at M&Co. from 1984 to 1986 and today runs Alexander Isley Inc.

That sensibility drove projects large and small. For the 42nd Street Development Project, Kalman’s signage guidelines promoted not uniformity but the kaleidoscopic, mismatched mayhem of the street’s past. For Restaurant Florent, M&Co.’s 1986 postcards—printed on cheap, brown cardboard stock, featuring icons Isley drew from the yellow pages—flew in the face of the glitz and glam of New York City’s culinary culture.

Even printers were entrenched. When M&Co. cooked up the idea to print Florent’s matchbooks inside out—cardboard brown on the outside, that gorgeous gloss wasting away on the interior—it was diffcult to convince the printer to do so, “because that just wasn’t the way things were done,” says Isley. “It rocked their world that we were asking them to run the paper upside down. I wasn’t even convinced they were going to do it until the matchbooks showed up.”

Oberman remembers that Kalman—who famously entered the profession without a formal design education—aimed for what he called “just exactly not quite right,” and for 14 years, M&Co. designers worked in that vein under Kalman’s unrelenting style of creative direction thinking about things in the ostensibly wrong way with the intent to land on a more honest, more interesting kind of right.

“I hate all those expressions like ‘Think outside the box,’” says Stowell, an intern in 1988 and M&Co. designer from 1990 to 1993, “because I think the notion of accepting the fact that there’s a box in the first place is a big problem people have in general. And what you’re talking about with M&Co. is people who didn’t recognize—or care—that that box existed.”

When he joined M&Co. in 1983, Stephen Doyle, creative director of Doyle Partners, recalls walking into Kalman’s 57th Street office to see a gash in the wall behind the receptionist’s area, created with what he suspects were blunt axes. “It looked like a cartoon,” he says, “where Superman had just flown through the wall. So the minute you walked in the office, you saw this architectural wrongness to begin with.”

Two weeks after his arrival, Kalman fired every designer on staff but Doyle. There was, as Doyle says, “a lot of grid action happening at M&Co. at the time, and Tibor—untrained as a designer—wasn’t interested in the grid. He wasn’t interested in formalism.” Nor was Doyle. His arrival—followed by new hires Tom Kluepfel and Isley, Doyle’s former Cooper Union student—is associated with the first of many shifts in M&Co.’s evolution, this one a swing into its conceptual positioning.

Few discussions of M&Co.’s legacy fail to include accounts of Kalman’s raucous, confrontational, and sometimes self-contradictory attacks on contemporary design practice in the late 1980s, when he encouraged designers to be bad and to subvert what they’d come to accept as the design process. It’s difficult at first to reconcile that persona with Isley’s memory of his boss at early AIGA events around 1984, which has Kalman standing self-consciously in the corner, put off by the clubby atmosphere he never felt a part of. It’s a stark contradiction, but the connection between those two snapshots of Kalman—blending into the walls of AIGA or busting through them—is his outsider status, fiercely maintained and in many ways the foundation on which his celebrity is built.

Doyle, too, situated himself in the fringes of the rarified world of graphic design. “I never felt like I was a part of the design canon,” says Doyle, who had worked at Rolling Stone and Esquire magazines prior to joining M&Co., “so I was ready to try anything. And it didn’t matter to me a whole heck of a lot if I failed at something, because I never thought I was going to go all that far anyway. I used to play at work, and the designers with a capital D at the time worked at work. That’s not to say I didn’t take it seriously, but I took it seriously as play.”

Among other things, Doyle brought a classical sense of typography to M&Co., which he employed in the creation of sophisticated visual incongruities. On the cover of the Talking Heads album Little Creatures, his use of Torino against the painting by folk artist Howard Finster seemed antithetical to instinct. His cacophonous album-cover design for a Thelonious Monk compilation—one of the most layered mechanicals he ever did, Doyle says—had nothing to do with professional, “capital D” design.

“I was delighted to make things wrong by heading in the opposite direction of what was going on around me,” he says. “It was the ‘80s and it was nasty. People were doing very collage-y stuff and lots of stair-steppy things. Everything had a grid—and by grid I mean a graph-paper kind of grid. Makes me crazy, that stuff.”

To Doyle and Isley, M&Co. felt so removed from commercial practices—so “outsider art,” as Doyle puts it—that neither appreciated the impact their work was about to have. “We were totally flying by the seat of our pants,” says Doyle, “making things up as we went along.” It wasn’t until 1986, when Kalman organized the Fresh Dialogue conference at AIGA, that Isley realized M&Co.’s reputation as the anti-design firm—and Kalman the anti-designer—had captured the imagination of the design community it had very little to do with until then.

The invitation, printed on cheesy paper with bad letterspacing, promised “Design Without Designers: or How I Learned to Stop Letterspacing and Love the Non.” To a sold-out audience in FIT’s Katie Murphy Amphitheater, 24-year-old Isley presented a slide show of disassembled cardboard boxes in a discussion of “unseen design,” created without regard for aesthetics or audience. Other presentations similarly extracted examples of vernacular design—including the auto magazine Hemmings Motor News, as crude in design as it is beloved by car enthusiasts—from their intended contexts to examine and appreciate them in a formal sense.

“It was one of those few times in your life when you feel you’re doing the right thing,” Isley says. “We were behind this guy who maybe wasn’t sure exactly what he was doing himself, but he was pushing against stuff. And those of us who were there wanted to see if you could love and hate graphic design at the same time. Can you know there’s something better out there even if you’re not sure what it is?”

Kalman frequently said he didn’t like to work on the same kind of project more than twice. “The first one,” he told Kurt Andersen in an interview in his monograph Tibor Kalman: Perverse Optimist, “you fuck it up in an interesting way; the second one, you get it right; and then you’re out of there.” As Kalman continued to insert himself in areas in which he lacked expertise—culminating in his role as editor in chief of Benetton’s Colors, where he found full expression and corporate sponsorship for his vision of design as a means to provide relevant content to a world suffering from its dearth—the improvisational quality that Isley and Doyle brought to bear continued to shape M&Co.’s output.

In a real sense, “(Nothing But) Flowers” was informed by a lack of insider information. While Oberman had studied filmmaking at Cooper Union, neither she nor Kalman had produced a music video before.

“In hindsight,” says Oberman, “I look at that video and think, ╘Wow, we really didn’t know what we were doing.’” The video—in which the lyrics move across the screen as the band performs in a stark set—pushes typography into the role of a dynamic, narrative device.

When David Byrne sings that years ago he pretended he was a billboard against the side of the road, for example, the type—projected directly onto Byrne’s face—dramatizes the lyric, essentially turning him into the billboard he says he pretended to be.

From a production standpoint, the technology that facilitated those now-basic special effects was in its infancy, rendering the concept inconvenient to produce, at best. It’s also likely that those inside the music video industry would have rejected the typographical approach as too quaint, or “bouncing ball-y,” Oberman says. “It wasn’t someone in spandex busting a move. But because we were designers and typographers, it seemed like an interesting way to tell the story.”

To hear M&Co. designers’ recollections, there’s often the distinct sense that the ground they broke was more stumbled on than sought out. Stowell, who would later serve as art director of Colors magazine in Italy from 1993 to 1994, recalls that his former boss once said, “Everything I do is motivated by this.” Kalman then thrust his middle finger in the air in defiance of any mite of establishment thinking that might have been floating therein. Certainly, that general outlook infused the atmosphere with a spirit of purposeful insubordination. And certainly, very little of what Kalman did to upset the established order—including his inclination to work in categories whose conventions he didn’t know from the inside—was accidental.

The perception among those on the outside was that M&Co. designers were on a crusade to shock the world with their messianic, anticorporate message. In reality, they were often just doing what they did. They were typographers, in other words, using typography in a music video. Because Kalman cultivated an upside-down way of looking at things—and because M&Co. designers often shared the inclination to do so—”what they did” invariably countered prevailing standards. “There wasn’t the sense that this is the way things are done, so let’s do them differently,” says Stowell, who today runs his design studio Open in New York. “It wasn’t as though we’d get a job and figure out a way to give everyone the finger. We were just doing good work, or trying to do good work, and Tibor was doing the same thing.”

There was, in fact, a rightness to much of what went on at M&Co., whose ranks were filled with impeccably trained designers, many of whom had cut their teeth at corporate identity firms. Colorblind though it was, Kalman’s eye had an otherwise precision-engineered quality, including an ability, which Douglas Riccardi, principal of Memo Productions, describes as “admirably, freakishly, scarily good,” to zero in on the one concept, among hundreds of sketches, that was incontestably right. “To me,” says Oberman, “that talent was as important as having done the sketch in the first place. He could take a great idea and make it better.

And often it would be better because he pushed it a little bit more in the wrong direction.”

That so many M&Co. designers were versed in the rules put the firm in a more authoritative position to break them. Amid the piles of portfolios M&Co. amassed daily—one festooned in pink faux fur, another bursting with fake album covers—there would be a lone manila folder from a Swisstrained designer. “And that would be the person Tibor would hire,” says Riccardi, who himself had worked at corporate identity firm Anspach Grossman Portugal prior to joining M&Co. in 1986. “It allowed the design process to stay where it should,” he says, “which is at the conceptual level. If we came to grips with the concept, if we agreed on whatever it was we were trying to achieve, he would trust that we’d pick the right typefaces and colors, but we didn’t waste too much time talking about those things. So I think that part of his ╘thinking wrong’ was that he was just thinking, period.”

As creative vice president of Bumble and bumble Alexander Brebner remembers, working at M&Co. required that he suspend what years of training had taught him as proper and right. During his tenure from 1986 to 1991, he spent a good deal of time wondering whether his work was “wrong enough, or wrong in the right way,” a process he describes as a kind of intellectual contortionism, both draining and liberating. “It can be exhausting to incorporate that kind of ╘thinking wrong’ into your ethos,” he says. “You have to constantly be prepared to ask if there’s another way. And of course there always is, but you have to dig and dig. You have to go through the looking glass and put yourself in a backward context in order to contort your thinking.”

To this day, Kalman’s creative direction is part of Brebner’s process, an inner critic he calls “either a Tibor angel or devil” that sits on his shoulder, questioning whether his work could be better, different, whether he’s settling for just good enough. While the intensity of that voice has diminished in recent years, Brebner says that one look at Kalman’s portrait on the cover of Perverse Optimist, from which his former boss smiles up at him, is enough to activate the running commentary.

Upon Kalman’s untimely death in 1999, a reporter from TIME called Doyle to see if he might provide a few famous examples of this celebrated designer’s work, projects that the mainstream would recognize. For a moment, Doyle was tempted to fabricate a list of all the familiar work—the Exxon and IBM logos, for example, and the Heinz ketchup bottle—that Kalman never produced. Had Doyle succumbed to the temptation, the stunt might well have made the point that M&Co. operated neither for nor in the mainstream but against its grain. It also would have raised a one-fingered salute to the establishment, one last time, on Kalman’s behalf. “It would have been a fitting tribute,” says Doyle, “But ultimately, I knew TIME had a weapon against that kind of thinking: fact checkers.”


THE ASKEW WATCH: M&Co. watches were a studio-wide effort for which designers created sketches during their down time. Alexander Brebner, who still wears his Askew watch most days, has made a sport of observing people’s cartoon, double-take reactions to Isley’s design of that watch model, on the face of which the numbers appear in jumbled order. It takes a moment for people to realize why the Askew watch feels wrong, Brebner says, “and then the response is either delight that someone felt they could do that—take a basic rule of society, something as established as a clock face, and just turn it on its head. Or they’re totally disturbed for the same reason. People think, ╘I couldn’t possibly tell time wearing that thing.’” Properly placed numbers aren’t, in fact, a requisite for time telling, but the numerical disorder, like much of M&Co.’s work, astounds people out of the stupor of habit. “The task was to define the thing or the element of the watch that could make it more than a watch,” says Brebner, “to take the mundane act of telling time and make it more difficult, more interesting, or less of an automatic.”

JOB SHEETS: Job sheets from M&Co.’s weekly meetings. This one is from July 1988, when Oberman was working on no fewer than 10 projects, highlighted in orange. The green numbers on the left indicate the priorities she and Kalman worked out together. “The weekly office meeting was the time you got to get together and laugh and figure things out,” she says. “The job sheets were an important marker of life at M&Co. Each one is like a snapshot of the week.”

AIGA HUMOR SHOW POSTER: For Isley, the assignment to design the poster for the 1986 AIGA Humor Show was like being shoved on a stage, then ordered to be funny. Rather than crafting a funny image with a funny punchline—the predictable, and in many ways natural, approach—he exploited the possibility of humor in his audience’s recognition of a shared bad experience.

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