March 29, 2012  |  Artists, Behind the Scenes
Celebrating Tibor Kalman and 20 Years of Blue Skies

Tibor Kalman and Emanuela Frattini Magnusson. Sky Umbrella. 1992

In 1992 the MoMA Design Store introduced a new umbrella to its product mix. The umbrella’s exterior gave away nothing more than a simple black canopy with a classic wooden handle. Once opened, however, a cheerful blue sky dotted with fluffy white clouds was revealed, causing delight on even the rainiest of days.

The umbrella was designed by legendary graphic artist Tibor Kalman, who is represented in MoMA’s collection, and Emanuela Frattini Magnusson. It became an instant favorite and continues to be an iconic MoMA product 20 years later. A simple idea brilliantly executed, the umbrella deftly captures the humor and irony that characterized Kalman’s work and made him one of the most influential voices in design during the 1980s and 1990s.

Tibor Kalman. Image courtesy of Maira Kalman

Kalman, well known as a founder of the design firm M&Co and editor of Colors magazine, often addressed controversial issues with a visual language that was bold, confrontational, and distinguished by a generous dose of humor, frequently dark (the cover of a Colors travel issue pictured passengers aboard the wreckage of an Aloha Airlines plane that crash-landed after its fuselage ripped off mid-flight). Beyond editorial work at Colors and a period as creative director of Interview magazine, Kalman’s expansive oeuvre includes Barnes & Noble shopping bags, Talking Heads album covers, postcards for New York’s famously idiosyncratic Restaurant Florent, and paperweights shaped to resemble trash.

The visual motif used in the Sky Umbrella would appear again in a 1995 issue of Colors. Titled “Heaven,” the magazine featured a blue sky theme running throughout its pages, which were peppered with young people’s responses to the question: “What is heaven?” Kalman hoped this issue would bridge gaps between people, a recurring objective of his work. “Ninety nine percent of the world understood the idea of heaven, and it was also the way you wish for good things,” said Kalman. “It was an easy way to create cultural comparisons.”

The magazine printed a wide range of heavenly interpretations—a good lawnmower, an eggplant, a place one can suntan without burning, and the act of living underwater without an oxygen tank, to name a few.

What are some of your everyday pleasures that approach celestial bliss? I know for many of us, enjoying blue skies on a stormy day is a start.