Stefan Sagmeister is no mere commercial gun for hire. Sure, he’s created eye-catching graphics for clients including the Rolling Stones and Lou Reed, but he pours his heart and soul into every piece of work. His design work is at once timeless and of the moment, and his painstaking attention to the smallest details creates work that offers something new every time you look at it.
While a sense of humor invariably surfaces in his designs, Sagmeister is nonetheless very serious about his work; his intimate approach and sincere thoughtfulness elevate his design. A genuine maverick, Sagmeister achieved notoriety in the 1990s as the designer who self-harmed in the name of craft: He created a poster advertising a speaking engagement by carving the salient details onto his torso.
The book is based on a list of maxims made by the graphic designer on his “experimental year” in 2000, where he took time out from working on commercial projects. While the maxims read as a mixture of wise pragmatism with philosophical reflection, they quickly became incorporated into projects for clients when Sagmeister’s office reopened, and it is 20 of these projects that form the book.
Installation view of Sagmeister’s exhibition at Deitch Projects
As we have come to expect from Sagmeister, the work produced from the maxims appears in wildly varying forms, and has been published all over the world in spaces normally reserved for advertising or promotions; on billboards, magazine spreads and even on the cover of an annual report. “They are all made for different clients and different countries, yet they form a coherent series and it made sense to make a book about them,” Sagmeister tells CR.
The idea for an exhibition came after Sagmeister was approached by various Chelsea galleries in New York keen to show his work. “I didn’t know which one to go with so I asked Jeffrey Deitch and he said, ‘why not do it with me?’,” he continues. “He was very happy to show the work as graphic design, and it fitted well, so the whole thing made sense.” It is a logical link-up, particularly as Deitch Projects has built a reputation for showing ambitious projects from artists working across a variety of disciplines. Alongside major exhibitions by contemporary artists, it has previously featured shows by director Michel Gondry (whose second show with Deitch follows Sagmeister’s exhibition) as well as events from musicians including the Scissor Sisters and Fischerspooner.
Self-confidence Produces Fine Results, 10,000 bananas and glue, installation view at Deitch Projects
“The book has 20 pieces in it and maybe half are shown in one way or another in the gallery, and we’ve made a number especially for the gallery,” continues Sagmeister. “Some pieces work especially well, better than they do in the book.” The exhibition also includes an interactive piece, for the maxim Being Not Truthful Always Works Against Me, which reacts to viewers as they approach.
Spread from book, from piece entitled Trying To Look Good Limits My Life
Sagmeister’s work has often appeared to land on the blurred line between graphic design and art, yet he is firm in his understanding of these projects. “I see it all as graphic design,” he says. “It’s made by a graphic design office in mediums normally employed by design and all has a client behind it. But from a viewer’s point of view it doesn’t matter. The whole question of art versus design has limited interest – it comes in waves, in the 20th century there were times when art and design were embedded in each other, the Bauhaus for instance, and then they separated, and then they came back together, and then they separated… from the viewer’s point of view, it’s always just a question of ‘is it good or not?’.”
Cover from Things I Have Learned In My Life So Far by Stefan Sagmeister
Things I Have Learned In My Life So Far is on show at Deitch Projects until Feburary 23. Sagmeister’s full list of 20 maxims are as follows:
1. Helping other people helps me.
2. Having guts always works out for me.
3. Thinking that life will be better in the future is stupid. I have to live now.
4. Organising a charity group is surprisingly easy.
5. Being not truthful always works against me.
6. Everything I do always comes back to me.
7. Assuming is stifling.
8. Drugs feel great in the beginning and become a drag later on.
9. Over time I get used to everything and start taking for granted.
10. Money does not make me happy.
11. My dreams have no meaning.
12. Keeping a diary supports personal development.
13. Trying to look good limits my life.
14. Material luxuries are best enjoyed in small doses.
15. Worrying solves nothing.
16. Complaining is silly. Either act or forget.
17. Everybody thinks they are right.
18. If I want to explore a new direction professionally, it is helpful to try it out for myself first.
19. Low expectations are a good strategy.
20. Everybody who is honest is interesting.
“He Will Make You Look,” an Interview with Stefan Sagmeister
Stefan Sagmeister is without-a-doubt one of the most interesting designers of present day. His ability to run a small firm that focuses on “concept” rather than “style,” and his uncanny knack for convincing clients to follow his lead, have all won him international acclaim. With his enjoyment of optical tricks and a newfound push to improve the design world, it is certain that Sagmeister will make you look—and listen.
Brandon Luhring, Scene 360: You are active in several design communities (e.g. AIGA); have you found any online design communities that interest you as well? Which?
Stefan Sagmeister: I have not. It’s probably because of my age, I still like to read from paper, and I spend as little time as I can in front of the screen. I have looked into different pages (like designershock), but don’t visit any regularly.
“The headless Chicken Poster,” created for Aiga’s 1997 Biennial conference in New Orleans. By Sagmeister.
How has the Internet affected your work? Have clients ever asked you to do web work? And also, are there any websites that have amazed you?
The biggest web influence on our work is Google. We can now find things quickly that would have taken serious research three years ago. It enables us to do (printed) things differently. Clients have often asked us to do web work and so far we have always declined. I became a designer because of print (I could have done TV graphics then too, but they never interested me much), so as long as I have a choice (and I don’t get bored), it’ll probably stay that way. There are many amazing web sites out there. These three I have enjoyed lately:
You often refer that one of the best decisions you had made, was keeping your firm small (i.e. normally you have two other employees besides yourself). This makes the selection of talented individuals very personal to you. What are your main selection points when hiring?
A sweet personality. Matthias and I are spending more time in here than me and my girlfriend do in a typical week, so the fact that we get along well is important.
Good work. Hopefully not the same kind of work as I did before (I know how to do that, I don’t need another version of me in the studio), but somebody who complements what I do, and loves to do the things that I don’t know how to do, like most of the computer work).
Rolling Stone’s “Bridges to Babylon” album. CD artwork by Stefan Sagmeister.
Keeping the firm small has also allowed you to be very selective with the clients you work for—a luxury that other designers only fantasize about. Do you attribute your successful designs to the great clients you have worked with?
Yes. It is not possible to do satisfying work for an indifferent client. We need the support and the willingness to collaborate on many levels. They have to want something good. In our case some did.
Eclecticism seems to surround you. Your work, your life, and those you’ve chosen to work with—all showing a wide range of nationalities and cultural influences. How much do you think this has molded your creativity and success as a designer?
Actually, I don’t see myself as a particularly eclectic person. I am pretty regular. Different influences are always helpful. Most designers I like, have big interests in other fields such as John Maida and his programming abilities, Tibor Kalmann and his political background in the student movement, Storm Thorgeson and his photo montage wizardry; they all stayed away from the typical influence of design annuals.
In another interview, you were asked how far you go to maintain your concepts, and you replied, “I scream, I yell and I beg.” It obviously works, but how do clients normally react at first?
Our “normal” client reaction is that they like it, we have not had an unsuccessful first presentation in some time. But we had some averse reaction to what we showed in the past. I also did lose many fights. Also: Often, I was wrong.
“Style = Fart” is a great notion rolled into a memorable slogan. Have there been times when you found yourself not living up to it, or enjoying other designers’ work that were lacking on the conceptual side?
Yes, on both counts. I am not so sure about the entire “style=fart” idea anymore. I found that attention to style can make the delivery of good content easier, so why not pay attention to it.
I also found that by changing our own style on every project we stayed much on the surface stylistically and were in danger of ripping off styles developed by other people. I still find work that is gorgeous, but has nothing behind it—it’s fascinating at first, and then see it go stale quickly (kind of like a dumb blonde).
3D book cover of “Sagmeister: Made You Look,” by Sagmeister.
In your book, “Sagmeister: Made You Look,” there is a personal quote stating, “Art fucks design and vice versa.” You seem to be a fan of both. Why do you think these two don’t play nicely together?
Because right now, with all the talk about blurring the line in between them, they still don’t know much about each other. But there were always moments in time when they did have a great time together, in this century at the Bauhaus in Germany and at the Wiener Werkstaedte in Vienna. Or, a more recent example, that Damien Hirst book by Jonathan Barnbrook; one of my favorite art and design collaborations.
Also in your book, there is a random paragraph that appears to have been taken from a romance novel (among others). Do you often place hidden jokes in your work for those who are paying attention? How important do you think humor is to design, and does it sell?
I love to hide surprises in places where it makes sense, like books or CD covers (which are scrutinized very carefully by a small minority of readers). Humor in design is as important or unimportant as humor in life, and who gives a shit if it sells.
You have criticized yourself for talking big about changing Design, yet you have not made much of that change on your own. What future changes do you have in mind for your work? And how do you want it to affect others?
I would love to do more work where the story of the making becomes part of the design. The most famous example I know of is the Pink Floyd “Animals” cover, where they photographed that flying pig above the Battersea Power Station, for real, as a huge inflatable rather than doing a photomontage to put it in. The pig then broke lose (the guy who was supposed to shoot it down in that event was on lunch break) and flew all the way up to Wales, landing on the field of a freaked out farmer), the whole story creating a lot of press and admiration among fans.
We probably could have Photoshoped that AIGA Detroit poster, rather than cutting the type in my skin. I think the results are more authentic and the process more interesting (and painful).
Artwork for series “Art Grandeur Nature” (2004). The full frase spells out “Trying to look good limits my life.” Concept and design by Sagmeister.
“Instead of giving up on graphic design, I should try to reinvent it for myself” (a quote from your diary). How often have you been on the verge of “giving up?”
You are pushing for “Design” to become more humanistic and less shallow. You gave two design examples of instances where you have touched people (“Dear Girls! Please be nice to Reini.” and a televised happy birthday wish for your mother). Unfortunately, neither of those two has made you any monetary profit. In addition, when business advertisements focus on social issues rather than their own products, they are often criticized. Is there a happy medium?
I think businesses are criticized because their cause is seen as inauthentic. I used to think the whole Ben & Jerry’s socially responsible behavior was a marketing gimmick without any real values behind it. Ben Cohen in the meantime became a client and a good friend and I have changed my mind on his intentions completely. I think I become less cynical as I get older.
Critics have lashed their tongues at you calling you an exhibitionist and a designer adding to the depravity of society. You do appear nude in some of your artwork. Do you enjoy it? Are you indifferent to nudity? Or is it merely the best way to make your statement?
It’s just a cheap trick. It worked in the past and will probably work again in the future. Being naked is no big deal for me (studying in Vienna where many public bath places are nude or topless) but seems to get everybody’s attention here in the States every time.
You work on many CD designs. You have also stated that downloadable music, such as MP3s, will take over the music industry. Have you put much forethought into what music design will be like, after CDs have gone the way of the 8-track? There must be a better application for the future of music design than “Winamp Skins”…
No, I have not put much thought into it. Videos will surely stick around.
Left: Promotional poster design for Lou Reed’s new album “Set the Twilight Reeling. Right: Poster design for AIGA Detroit, expressing “the pain that seems to accompany most of our design projects.” Both concepts by Sagmeister.
Your portfolio includes political work. Are you politically minded, or is it simply client work that you happen to agree with?
As I grew up, political questions were part of my life. Naturally, I would like them to play some role in my design work. But then there are times when I think my whole evolvement is bullshit. That I should just forget about it, go about doing my little harmless music design projects, have fun, and leave it at that. Why do good? It seems all you get is a lot of shit for it, and it’s just so damn hard at succeeding at it—who gives a shit anyway.
On top of it, if you support a cause, who knows if you are right. I was at a conference in February 2002 in Monterey where a Chemistry Nobel Prize winner called global warming a farce, saying that the entire question is a scientific fiasco clearly traceable to a measuring mistake.
You have even ventured into directing music videos. Its a step away from the print medium. Do you regularly create in other mediums (film, music, literature)?
No. I think I’ll stick with design.
New York has been great for you. Are you there to stay, or are your dreams to move to Sri Lanka still intact?
Sri Lanka is still calling. New York is definitely the best city I know of anywhere, but that does not mean that I don’t want to try out some other places too.