For the past 20 years, Stefan Sagmeister, the Austrian-born and New York-based graphic designer and typographer, has been one of the brightest lights in graphic design.
Happiness is a carrot.
Two years ago he co-founded a new design firm, Sagmeister & Walsh Inc., with 24-year-old designer Jessica Walsh, as a successor to Sagmeister Inc., the company where he created, among many other things, album covers for Lou Reed, The Rolling Stones, David Byrne, Aerosmith, and Pat Metheny, work that garnered him several Grammy nominations and two actual awards. Sagmeister is known for his inspired, and often provocative, work (the most famous example, perhaps, being the 1999 AIGA conference poster for which he had all type cut into his naked skin with a razor blade). Last year Sagmeister ruffled some feathers by ridiculing advertising and design’s sudden obsession with the concept of “storytelling.” (“Stefan Sagmeister to Creatives: ‘No Fuckhead, You Are Not a Storyteller,’” ran a headline in Adweek). Michael Weinzettl chatted to the graphic design superstar about his recent work, which includes a commercial for a mango fruit juice brand, his long-in-the-making film project about happiness, and his encounters with the founder of Lürzer’s Archive, Walter Lürzer, who for 20 years held a Chair of Advertising at Vienna’s Academy of Applied Arts, the university Sagmeister himself graduated from back in the early 1990s.
Hi Stefan, two years ago you co-founded Sagmeister & Walsh to succeed the much-acclaimed design firm Sagmeister Inc. You create “identities, commercials, websites, apps, films, books and objects for clients, audiences and ourselves.” How did the decision to create this new partnership come about?
Jessica worked for us as a designer for about two years and was unusually talented. She has wonderful ideas and knows how to execute them. She has an uncommonly highly developed sense of common sense, i.e. knows what will work and how to get it made. Our interests are very similar, and at the same time they manifest themselves very differently, simply because she is a woman and about half my age. This works nicely.
What are some of the criteria you use in choosing clients? And can you tell us a bit about the clients you’ve had at Sagmeister & Walsh? Have these criteria changed in any way over the course of the two decades of your career to date?
We don’t seek out clients, they normally come to us. I am not particularly proud of this, I think it would be good if we’d contact people we’d like to work with. But as I don’t very much like doing it, and we always have many more clients knocking on our door than we could possibly take on, it stays the way it is. We love clients with interesting projects, proper deadlines and budgets, who are also nice people.
We recently featured your commercial for Indian mango juice brand Frooti on the Lürzer’s Archive website as our “Spot of the Week.” I know you’ve worked in commercials/films before but is this the closest to a “regular” TV spot – including pack shot and celebrity endorsement – that you’ve ever come?
I had directed a commercial before, for the bank Standard Chartered, but in that case it was a very different, a typographic approach.
What was it about the Frooti project that tempted you?
We liked the product, Frooti is a good drink. The client is a lovely and kind woman. She is in charge, there are no middlemen between her and us. They had a proper budget and deadline.
You have become a design celebrity partly as a result of your CD design for such high-profile clients as the Rolling Stones, Lou Reed, and David Byrne, all of them now classic examples of great “design for music.” Do you still work for clients from the music industry? What kind of music do you listen to yourself these days? What has best corresponded with your predominant feelings recently?
We do not work in the world of music anymore. I had, many years before, discovered that working on the 29th cover was not as much fun as the first. We still listen to a lot of music in here, and right now the new Sufjan Stevens album is playing. I saw his show last night in Albany.
“Carrie & Lowell” – such an incredibly beautiful album! When preparing my questions for this interview, I watched your TED talk “Happiness and Design” with great interest. The idea of happiness, of achieving it, figures prominently in your work. Do you see it as a constant or a curve?
Happiness is neither a constant nor a curve, it’s a carrot dangling in front of us that evolution designed to show us the way. A compass that constantly points north would not be very helpful.
About a month ago you completed the final scene in a documentary called “The Happy Film” you have been working on for several years. Can you tell us a bit about that and when we’ll be able to see it?
I used to do a talk on Design and Happiness, the one you mentioned, that had gotten good feedback. While in Bali working on furniture, a friend stopped by and thought that all this furniture design for our own studio was a waste of my time. I should be doing something viewers can possibly benefit from. Thus the idea for the Happy Film was born.
We should be done at the end of May, and will submit to the festivals. It was a very hard and difficult journey, amazing to see how utterly miserable I could become while working on a film about happiness.
Can you relate to the notion that creativity has its source not in happiness but in melancholy?
I myself do much better work, and am more useful to people, when I’m in good shape. In times when I am down, I produce nothing useful at all. I found the idea of the suffering artist mostly untrue. New research showed that even the most iconic of all suffering artists of all time, Vincent van Gogh, did not cut his own ear off. Apparently, he lost it in a drunken fight with Gauguin.
Do you find our world a great place to live in? Do you feel, as many obviously do, that you’ve contributed to making it better with your work?
I do love being alive. And I find living in NYC wonderful. My contributions are tiny.
Do you feel that the current cultural output around us is at a historical peak or a low compared to, say, 20 years ago?
Peak, peak, peak. Even the Oscar winners are great now. Birdman. Boyhood. Citizenfour.
How do you feel about the current state of graphic design in general? Is this a great age for people wanting to start out in the field? What advice do you give them?
There are more opportunities than ever before, the possibilities are bigger, and the field has gotten much wider. My two cents: Work your ass off. Do as much as possible. Figure out what you really like and get good at it.
The work of which living artists do you love and why?
I had a deeply moving experience, much more than a simple “wow effect,” while observing James Turrell’s new Skyspace, permanently installed at Rice University in Houston, Texas. This is basically a large ceiling with a square hole cut into it. He reflects the colors of strong LEDs on the ceiling, running slow-moving gradients of color on it. This contrasts with the color of the sky seen through the square hole, which, when you observe it during sunset, features its own slow-moving gradients. The subtlety of the color changes, and the incredible richness and ultimate mind-shattering gorgeousness and pure beauty of the color, creates a true experience. The night sky turns from blue to dark blue, to darker blue, to the darkest of dark blues I’ve ever observed, something that would be impossible to print or weave or create in any other way (well, it’s infinite space that creates that blue). It made me see nature in a new way.
Are there any examples of ad campaigns (print/film/digital) that you have enjoyed/admired in recent years?
The original Sony Bravia commercial is the one that I’d say was worthwhile to do. It transcended mere advertising.
Do you think your Austrian roots inform your work in any way? Do you still feel a connection to your native country? Perhaps more so as you grow older?
I was surely influenced by the Viennese Actionists Brus, Muehl and Wiener but did not even realize it until I saw the big Actionists exhibition at the Museumsquartier in Vienna. Pain is part of our life, so of course if we want to create design that talks about our life, it would have to show up there too. The same is true for joy. And happiness.
What drives this interest in making lists you have talked about?
Having been born five miles from the German border.
With reference to some of your most famous work – the 1999 poster for an AIGA lecture, the “On a Binge” poster, the announcements that you were founding Sagmeister Inc. in 1994, and Sagmeister & Walsh in 2012 – Creative Review wrote: “Sagmeister has used his body, literally, to advance his career. He has used nakedness as a way of conveying a promise of daring, wit, bravery and commitment.” Do you have any comments on that?
The human body is just one of the strongest forms there is, one that is incredibly familiar to us all. Of course we use it. In general, I would love to do more work where the story of the making becomes part of the design. The most famous, classic example I know of is that Pink Floyd Animals cover where they photographed that flying pig above Battersea Power Station for real as a huge inflatable rather than photomontaging it in. The pig then broke loose (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 photoshopped that AIGA Detroit poster, rather than cutting the type in my skin. I think the results were more authentic and the process more interesting (and painful).
Which part of your body feels most present when you close your eyes?
Right now my heart. It hurts.
Can you share any memories of this magazine’s founder, the late Walter Lürzer, whom you met – I believe in the late 1990s – through the university you once graduated from, the Academy of Applied Arts in Vienna?
Walter hated the hat his agency partner had just bought and was proudly showing off. He secretly borrowed it, went back to the same hat store, exchanged it for one two sizes larger, and put it back on the agency hat rack (yes, there was such a thing). The hat now fell over the partner’s eyes, who of course could not explain the sudden expansion but solved the problem by putting a newspaper into its inside rim. Walter went out again and exchanged it for a hat four sizes smaller, resulting in the partner walking around with a tiny clownish hat sitting on top of his hair. While he told me this story, tears of laughter were running down his cheeks. Down mine too.