A Q&A with the trailblazing graphic designer, feminist, and “Design Legend”
In 1968, Tobi Tobias and I, friends since childhood, were young mothers trying to become writers while caring for small children. The second wave of feminism was cresting, and thousands like us were feeling the tug of war between home and work — or, rather, work done for the home and the work we craved for ourselves.
Once her children were enrolled in school, Tobi announced to me, “Now I’m going to give it five years and see what happens.” Meaning, could she get anything written and published in that time? Her first published essay, on Twyla Tharp, a fellow Barnard alum, appeared in the 1970 issue of Barnard Magazine. Like Twyla, who had her own dance company just a few years after Commencement, Tobi, the future major dance critic, was on her way.
It’s easy to see why she chose Twyla Tharp as her first subject. The words she uses to describe Twyla — “talent, assurance, a clear cool vision of what she’s doing, and a formidable capacity for hard work” — define Tobi as well. Add to those Tobi’s effervescent delight in anything of beauty she found in art, books, the passing scene, and especially children. She loved to frequent flea markets and bring home rareties — Bakelite bracelets, Depression glass goblets. (I still use the two she gave me.) Aside from those oddments, her taste was for the pure, the classic, the meticulous: like the perfect line of a dancer’s leg in arabesque or the perfect sweep of an arm.
We met at age 12, in junior high school, living half a mile apart in a Brooklyn that back then was consummately dull. She showed me the path in more ways than her commitment to writing. When we were 15, she introduced me to the excitement of modern dance classes at the Henry Street Playhouse with the pioneering choreographers Murray Louis and Alwin Nikolais. “It’s just a trolley ride over the bridge,” she urged. When I wasn’t happy in my freshman year of college, she said, “Transfer to Barnard and we’ll take classes together.” At Barnard, she led me to French classes: The lectures given in French were challenging, and Tobi, sitting beside me, was taking notes in outline form!
What makes a friendship last more than 60 years? Besides our shared love of literature and of laughter, there was the growing up and growing old together — decades of intimate talk about marriage and children, the frustrations and triumphs of our writing, the intricate weaving of sensibilities, and the deeply satisfying sense of being known and loved. When I showed her my first collection of stories, dedicated to her, she admired them but said she wanted more. More what? I asked. I’m not sure, she said, just more. Now that she’s gone, that’s what I want of her too. More.
Read Tobias' full article, "Twyla Tharp," from Barnard Magazine's Winter 1970 issue in Barnard Digital Collections.