Chee Pearlman is wearing a red shirt and red tights that match her red glasses frames, and she looks fantastic. She has a bright yellow legal pad too, on which she has made notes for this conversation between Michael Bierut (design luminary and partner at Pentagram), herself (editor-in-chief of the late ID Magazine, among other accomplishments), and special surprise guest Maira Kalman (illustrator, author, and subject of a ICA current exhibition), about the legacy of Maira Kalman’s husband, the designer, magazine editor, and manifesto writer Tibor Kalman, who died in 1999.
Words like “maverick” get thrown around a lot when people talk about Tibor, who never formally studied design: maverick, radical, visionary, non-conformist. Sitting on the stage, his widow uses blunter language: “Monster,” she says, half smiling. “People liked it when I came to the office,” she goes on, referring to M&Co, the “maverick” design firm Tibor ran, “because I tamed the beast.”
How do you evoke the charisma of someone who’s not there? It’s an inherently awkward proposition, but over the course of the evening the conversation among these three people—their stories, and the slides they show of Tibor’s work, and their palpable fondness—give a sense of the man who got his big chance when the window dresser at the bookstore where he worked was laid up sick and Tibor got to step in: And the rest is history!
Michael Bierut says: “Tibor did something the first time to prove he could do it, and the second time to prove how boring it was to repeat it.” Chee Pearlman, reading from her yellow pad, quotes Tibor’s dedication of the book Bierut and Peter Hall edited about him and his work, Perverse Optimist (Yale Architectural Press, 2000): “For my sexy girlfriend, beautiful wife, lifetime collaborator, humorista, goodness consultant, and fellow traveler on the international curiosity circuit.”
Maira says, “I like to keep it short.”
There is a lot of reminiscing about the Christmas gifts M&Co used famously to send their friends and clients: A bar of soap in a box engraved with the words “Basta nostalgia,” so recipients could wash that suspect quality away. An old book interleaved with cash: a one, a five, a ten, then a twenty, and finally an addressed envelope inviting you to put the money in, add some more, and send it all to a worthy charity! Tibor even turned giving upside down.
Toward the end of the evening, Michael Bierut asks Maira Kalman how Tibor influenced her as an artist, and she speaks quite beautifully about how he made her work. He believed in work, in finding the solution in the doing, in weaving together working and living. “He still influences everything I do,” Maira says.
Bierut says: “Really?”
Maira says: “I don’t know.”
Tibor’s maverick aura hangs in the room; what might it do? Order in pizza, as the man was known to during formal design conference presentations? Browbeat the audience? Make jokes? Brandish a ghostly bar of soap? Basta nostalgia! Time to get back to work.
The exhibition of Maira Kalman’s work, Various Illuminations (of a Crazy World), is open at ICA through June 6.