Stefan Sagmeister (English)


Published in Items magazine, Amsterdam 2003. Originally published in Dutch, I quickly translated it into English for Sagmeister to read. That version was marginally corrected for this website.

Stefan Sagmeister is famous as the designer of music packaging for the likes of David Byrne, the Rolling Stones and Lou Reed. He managed to convinced the latter to sport a chicken suit for the hilarious video to his song Modern Dance. His provoking posters for graphic conferences, lectures and competitions caused anger, astonishment and admiration among his colleagues. For corporate clients he conceived campaigns that did exactly what they had to, in a way never envisaged by the client. He professes not to have a style: ‘Style equals Fart.’ The constants in his work are challenging ideas, a boundless commitment, and a strange mix of anarchy and perfectionism. Stefan Sagmeister lives in New York, and has manifested himself in his self-chosen fatherland as a critical and committed citizen. For years he has been taking part in the political initiatives of the businessman-activist Ben Cohen, designing campaigns such as Move Our Money en True Majority.

Stefan Sagmeister is tall and friendly and looks a bit like Nick Cave; he speaks English with a disarmingly ugly Austrian accent. Behind his charming appearance hides an uncompromising workaholic who since his student days has committed his mind, body and soul to create images that go beyond an easy solution and challenge the viewers’ intelligence, humor and stamina.
Sagmeister (1961) entered into the business in a period – the eighties – in which the development of graphic design was determined by stylistic experiments: the unconventional lettershapes and layouts of Neville Brody; the baroque photo-text compositions of Hard Werken and Emigre; the layered visual puzzles by Cranbrook graduates. Sagmeister couldn’t care less about style. ‘Style = Fart’ became his adage. He once visualized that slogan by printing an invitation to a party, written in his inimitably chaotic handwriting, on one of those fart bags you put under chair cushions as a prank. Stylistically, his work varies from totally chaotic to awe-inspiringly precise, from baroque and busy to slick and chic. To Sagmeister, form – always smart, often technically sophisticated – is merely the final piece of a thinking process. The ideas are what counts.
Part of his work seems to fit in with the Austrian tradition of intense conceptual performance art. In his work there are traces of the Hermann Nitsch’s Orgien-Mysterientheater or the sexually provoking actions of Valie Export. One of his contributions to the 1998 designers anthology Whereishere was a close-up of his scrotum, juxtaposed with a picture of the book’s title scratched into his skin. The next year he conceived the ultimate image for ‘the ordeals of the design profession’: for a poster that announced his AIGA lecture he had the complete text carved into his body by an intern – an eight hour session. Later he realized that perhaps his lecture had not lived up to expectations: ‘Probably some people were disappointed at what a tame guy I am.’ Self portraits like these sometimes provoked fierce criticism: Rick Poynor wrote about ‘the profession’s obsession with the self’. Yet Sagmeister’s is not the work of (what the Dutch call) an ‘ego tripper’ and he is just as capable to choose to make a design in which the client or the name of the product is the focal point. What counts to him is to make images that work – that if necessary, sell a product or make the hall fill up – by touching the viewer. This may sometimes hurt, but sometimes it is simply intriguing or very funny.
If Sagmeister happens to cross the boundary between personal commitment and exhibitionism out of pure enthusiasm, he may later refer to that ironically in a lecture; this also happens frequently in the wonderful catalogue of his work titled Made You Look, with texts by Peter Hall and Sagmeister himself, published in 1991 by Booth-Clibborn. It’s a unique publication — what other designer will comment his most ‘tasteful’ older projects with biting handwritten notes, tell savoury anecdotes about his clients (the Stones!) and, as an encore, provide the reader with data about the number of hours spent on each project and the amount of the invoice?

Stefan Sagmeister was born and trained in Austria, but has been living for about twelve years in New York now. He first came there in 1987 on a Fulbright scholarship at the Pratt Institute. Two years later he was back in Austria for his ‘replacing military service’ in a refugee camp near Vienna. In 1991, more or less by chance, he landed a job at the advertising agency Leo Burnett in Hong Kong, where he was in charge of the design department for a year and a half. In the spring of 1993 he established himself in New York – first as right hand man of his big hero Tibor Kalman, but soon as an independent designer.
After having lived and worked in New York for ten years, he feels like a fish in the water there. Among his clients are firms in the music world, informatics and fashion. He has a beautiful relationship with the fashion designer Anni Kuan, whom he first got to know as a client. Sagmeister: ‘New York is the first place that I could ever truly call home. When you come in from JFK, just before the midtown tunnel when you can first see the whole skyline... I always love it, even such a cheesy picture like the skyline.’

I spoke to Sagmeister last spring, when he was present at the conference ‘Grafic Europe’ in Barcelona to hold a lecture titled ‘Touching the heart through graphic design’. Bagdad had not yet fallen. And as a European American, Sagmeister felt uneasy about the situation. For the first time, he said during the interview, he felt uncomfortable in his chosen fatherland. “Right after 9/11 I could understand a lot of the frustration that was going on and I even had a pretty open mind for all of the flag waving because yeah, it was a big catastrophy especially for New Yorkers. But I feel really uncomfortable about this war. Being a fulltime taxpayer I feel extremely sorry for the fact that a big chunk of my money goes to a war I don’t support whatsoever. At the same time I think that the old adage that New York is not the US is very very true. I hardly know anybody personally who is for the war. And to be honest, it make very little sense to me because I find Americans in general, in all my daily dealings with them, very unaggressive people. If I go to a baseball game, you can be for the other team and nobody will have any aggression towards you. people in Europe are much more heated ands aggressive then in the US, even in regular discussions at things like a speakers’ diner.”
“It’s hard to reconcile. My theory is basically the same as why I’m such a big believer in the True Majority Group: that most citizens of the US are inherently uninterested in what’s going on in politics. Basically they are all busy doing something else, then somebody puts a microphone in their face and they go, yeah yeah, let’s kick their ass, but they’re not even behind it, it’s a completely uninformed opinion. Which is why the approval ratings go up and down and Bush can basically do whatever he wants.”

A similar analysis has been the bases of two political initiatives which Sagmeister was involved in during recent years: Move Our Money and True Majority. The initiator of both groups is Ben Cohen, co-founder of the ice cream company Ben en Jerry’s in Vermont and one of the figureheads of socially responsible entrepreneurship in the US. In 1988 Sagmeister saw Ben Cohen speak for the first time, presenting his group Business Leaders for Sensible Priorities. Sagmeister was impressed, especially because this was not ‘the usual bunch of leftist democrat hippies’, but hundreds of successful, impeccably dressed businessmen. Cohen criticized the US defense budget, showing that it still amounted to 90% of the cold war budget – with most of the former adversaries gone. By reducing the budget to a more rational level, the Us would be able to implement necessary improvements in education and health care, thus preparing for its own future. Things ‘clicked’ between Sagmeister and Cohen and in the nineties began a collaboration which has lasted to date. In 1998 Sagmeister designed the campaign Move Our Money, centered around the proposition to move 15% of the defense budget to health and education. After a long process – during which many cheesy drawings of united citizens and dollar bills ended up in the dustbin – Sagmeister proposed a series of colored graphs which visualized the painful facts and which where used on mugs, ballpoints, cards and sky-high inflatable sculptures.
The rather successful campaign abruptly came to an end on September 11, 2001, After the attack on the WTC, the message of Move Our Money became impossible to sell. ‘Nobody would have listened to us’, says Sagmeister. Therefore Ben Cohen and the other group members decided to widen the objective and try to involve American citizens in many facets of political decision-making. Based on its ‘principles of peace, justice, and sustainability’, True Majority wrote a charter listing ten points of attention. Every time one of these point comes up in congress or senate, all members receive an email. After confirming their standpoint, the congress man or senator of their choice will receive a message – a paper fax, which makes a stronger impression – hoping that the vote can be influenced in this way. With hundreds of thousands of members, True Majority is beginning to make a difference in Washington. Sagmeister: ‘We hear back from senators and members of congress that it does make a difference in their decisions. The ones that are in favor love the fact that they can haul into their chambers stacks and stacks of faxes and say: there is a grass-root support for what we’re doing.’ Things have changed in the US in the past year: ‘The military complex is not regarded as the golden cow of 18 months ago. Ironically, in my view our best chance is represented by democratic presidential nominee General Clark, who is probably the only democrat who would dare to make substantial military cuts. Hhe knows the most about the waste.’
Sagmeister describes his role within True Majority as ‘below a founding member of the group but above a graphic designer’. ‘I am part of the group but I’m not a policy maker. When it came to drafting the ten points – the ten commandments that we believe in – I did not draft any of those ten commandments, but I was very happy with every one of them. I guess that I could seek to have a stronger role and be involved in the group’s policy-making. But I think then I will have to get rid of my design business. And I don’t think that would be the ideal role for me to play. At the same time I don’t think I could make a lot of change if I’m just in the function of a regular graphic designer. My experience is that you cannot do much for a socially responsible group if you’re not part of it. In the past I sometimes tried to “do good” for things that I really did not know too much about and found that I was designing stuff that was not the stuff that was needed. You cannot do this type of work as a tourist.’

Sagmeister’s first major book, Made You Look. Cover with and without its red plastic slipcase.

The 4 A’s, naughty poster for Hong Kong design competition. Paintings executed according to Sagmeister’s instructions by a traditional Chinese painter-for-hire.

Poster for the Lou Reed album Set the Twilight Reeling (1996), for which Sagmeister also did the packaging.

Poster for exhibition at the Visual Arts Gallery, New York, 2004