Kalman was born in Budapest and became a U.S. resident in 1956, after he and his family fled Hungary to escape the Soviet invasion, settling in Poughkeepsie, New York. He later attended NYU, dropping out after one year of Journalism classes.
In the 1970s Kalman worked at a small New York City bookstore that eventually became Barnes & Noble. He later became the supervisor of their in-house design department. In 1979 Kalman, Carol Bokuniewicz, and Liz Trovato started the design firm M & Co., which did corporate work for such diverse clients as the Limited Corporation, the new wave group Talking Heads, and Restaurant Florent in New York City's Meatpacking District. Kalman also worked as creative director of Interview magazine in the early 1990s.
Kalman became founding editor-in-chief of the Benetton-sponsored Colors magazine in 1990. In 1993, Kalman closed M & Co. and moved to Rome, to work exclusively on the magazine. Billed as 'a magazine about the rest of the world', Colors focused on multiculturalism and global awareness. This perspective was communicated through bold graphic design, typography, and juxtaposition of photographs and doctored images, including a series in which highly recognizable figures such as the Pope and Queen Elizabeth were depicted as racial minorities.
Kalman remained the main creative force behind Colors, until the onset of non-Hodgkins lymphoma forced him to leave in 1995, and return to New York. In 1997, Kalman re-opened M&Co and continued to work until his death in 1999 in Puerto Rico, shortly before a retrospective of his graphic design work entitled Tiborocity opened its U.S. Tour of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. A book about Kalman and M&Co's work, Tibor Kalman: Perverse Optimist, was published by Princeton Architectural Press in 1999.
From 1981 up until his death, Kalman was married to the illustrator and author Maira Kalman.
Today the influence of M&Co is still strong, both as a result of its work and that of the many designers, like Stefan Sagmeister, Stephen Doyle, Alexander Isley, Scott Stowell, and Emily Oberman, who worked there and went on to start their own design studios in New York City. Howard Milton and Jay Smith who worked with Kalman in 1979 went on to found Smith & Milton in London. Tibor Kálmán was a member of Alliance Graphique Internationale (AGI) and one of the 33 signers of the First Things First 2000 manifesto.