Jim Sholly is a member of the Design Arts Society at the IMA. He kicks off a series of blog posts on acquisitions for the IMA's new Design Arts galleries, opening in fall of 2013.
Being a graphic design student in the 1980s could be a confusing thing. In one philosophical corner, the well-rooted tenets of Modernism and its zealots were holding fast to their rules of white space and Swiss precision. In the other, undisciplined agitators freed by punk rock, personal computing and a DIY ethic, were making inroads into the mainstream. Somewhere — leading from the middle — was Tibor Kalman (1949-1999).
M&Co., the firm Kalman began in his Greenwich Village apartment in 1979, was a seemingly conventional design agency with clients in real estate, publishing, fashion, and music. But it was also a venue for Kalman and his band of like-minded provocateurs to rattle the status quo whenever opportunity knocked.
Kalman’s own work was rooted in traditional graphic design — he began as a self-taught, in-house designer for the store that became Barnes & Noble. Perhaps motivated by a need to make a difference or challenge conventions (most likely both), he began pushing the boundaries of what the profession would allow. His work raided the lowest brow vernacular to promote the most upscale New York restaurants. He famously altered the ethnicity of Queen Elizabeth and portrayed Ronald Reagan as an AIDS victim in the pages of Colors magazine. In a notorious 1990 essay in Print magazine, he encouraged graphic designers to “stop being the lap dogs of big business . . . We’re here to make them think about design that’s dangerous and unpredictable. We’re here to inject art into commerce. We’re here to be bad.”
M&Co. never let the fact that they were graphic designers limit what they were capable of producing. They were as adept with music videos and film titles as they were with the printed page. Product design was an unexpected area in which they excelled. Many of the wryly conceptual accessories they created (Kalman called it “yuppie porn”), are now considered classics of the era. A paperweight that looked like a crumpled piece of paper, a black umbrella with a cheerful blue sky on the inside — clever commentaries on our expectations for what these everyday products should be.
After a 1983 venture with the Japanese company Sointu soured, Kalman formed an alliance with a Swiss manufacturer and began the production of the first watches under the M&Co. label. Traditional in appearance, the early designs evolved from straightforward timepieces into a collection of concepts that playfully poked holes in our familiarity with the measurement of time. One design altered the customary positions of the numbers into a new composition. It was momentarily jarring, until you realized that you really didn’t need those cumbersome numbers anyway. No numbers, blurred numbers, scribbles, multiple hands, stubby hands — all upended conventions of traditional watch design that M&Co. (sometimes literally) turned on their side. Churning out dozens of designs within the period of a few years, M&Co. embodied the motto imprinted on the back side of each watch: Waste Not a Moment.
A standout in the collection was the 10-ONE-4 design.
Although its origin has been disputed, it is generally accepted that the concept for this design came from the sketchbook of famed author/illustrator Maira Kalman (who happened to be Tibor’s wife). A stunning example of reductionism put into practice, the black and white face of this watch eliminates most of the numbers and leaves the seemingly random 10, 1 and 4 to accomplish the job. The minimalist elegance of the design is enhanced by the use of the classic thick/thin typeface Bodoni — a major consideration given the few visible design elements. Typically presented with a black bezel and black leather band, this watch transcends the trends of the 1980s and remains a timeless piece of timekeeping hardware.
Already at home in the Museum of Modern Art, the 10-ONE-4 watch (which Kalman dubbed “ironic modernism”) now takes its place as a stunning piece of graphic-cum-product design in the IMA’s burgeoning design collection.