Tuesday, January 22nd, 2008

Sagmeister on celebrity, plums, and other stuff

Sagmeister on celebrity, plums, and other stuff
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Text cut into the designer’s torso with a razor; a whoopee cushion featuring the inscription “style = fart”; a German Shepherd that lunges in to attack; and a studio introduction featuring the principal’s enlarged member. Stefan Sagmeister’s plays on surprise and sensationalism have resulted in a string of iconic images in the world of design.

Sagmeister continues to create design that captures our attention like few others. Today ideasonideas is lucky enough to have him with us for some Q&A.


Eric: Thanks for taking the time for this interview Stefan. Your career seems tied to notions of public persona, both in how you present yourself and in the people you’ve chosen to work with (Lou Reed, David Byrne, the Rolling Stones, et cetera). How do you feel about designers using celebrity to further their careers?

Stefan: I was hoping that the fact that the studio is now better known would help us in getting projects through with less hassle, and this sadly worked only to a very limited extent. On the other hand, when I look at somebody like Marc Newson, who produces exactly the kind of work he wants, exhibits it in limited edition in galleries and sells it well, – good for him.

Eric: Although it may seem somewhat odd that designers concern themselves with publicity, it helps attract new work. How important is this? Should designers dedicate part of their time to self-promotion?

Stefan: If you have fun doing so, yes. If not, no. See, I do get a kick out of doing public talks and don’t mind answering your questions in this interview, both tasks connected with publicity. If these things would be a chore for me, I would not do them. I sometimes (like, right now for example) use them as an excuse so that I don’t have to do actual work, which is much harder, of course.

Eric: Fashion is the widely documented; design, on the other hand, remains largely absent in common discourse. What is it that keeps design from being discussed more commonly?

Stefan: Unlike in fashion, people rarely tend to wear our work on their skin, and unlike in architecture, they don’t tend to live in it.

However, there is a MUCH livelier and more in depth discourse going on now than there was a decade ago, not only are there more (and arguably better) magazines, there are plenty of blogs, some discourse in consumer titles, a movie about typefaces in the cinema, and in New York there soon will be a master program for design criticism.

Eric: Recently I watched a documentary on Paris Hilton with an interesting thesis. The film-makers argue that Paris orchestrates her media involvement quite efficiently and in doing so generates millions in revenue for the “Paris” brand. What do you make of an era in which people are known for “being known”, instead of any kind of meaningful achievement?

Stefan: It’s and extension of companies not producing anything.


Eric: You speak at a great number of events. Do you feel that this interaction enhances your work, or would you prefer to scale-back and spend more time in the studio?

Stefan: I go forward and backward: There are times when I overdo it and take too many on (but I try not to cancel once I’ve agreed to come), and then, after having not been outside of New York for a while I get bored and long to go somewhere. Also, one of my most frequent sources of inspiration is a newly occupied hotel room. I find it easy to work in a place far away from the studio, where thoughts about the implementation of an idea don’t come to mind immediately but I can dream a bit more freely.

Eric: How many trips did you take last year?

Stefan: About 25.

Eric: Do you talk to the person next to you on the flight? Or do you just eat the peanuts and look straight ahead?

Stefan: I mostly work. I tend to save up certain projects that lend themselves well to be worked on a plane.

Eric: As one’s work becomes admired, it can become increasingly appropriated. Where do you draw the line? Do you accept it as flattery, or does this imitation erode the integrity of your work?

Stefan: When large corporations flatter us by doing something we designed for a small client (and make tons of money when we did it for little), I can still get that little hovering feeling in the stomach. Apart from that I don’t mind.

Eric: You once condemned style for being frivolous; nevertheless, you’re execution often relies upon a very distinct personal style. Do you ever worry that your work is overly dependent on your past approaches?

Stefan: Yes. I do.

Eric: Which stories are you tired of? Are there any questions you never want to be asked again in an interview?

Stefan: No, I actually don’t mind retelling stories. Especially in writing, because then I can cut/paste them.


Eric: What are your “celebrity” clients like to work with?

Stefan: As different from each other as non-celebrities.

Eric: Your work seems to often balance the needs of the client with your desire to create something that delights the audience. Do these agendas come into conflict? If so, what wins: the client’s desires or your belief in a solution?

Stefan: I do try to take the audience more importantly then the client. But we run into obvious difficulties, for one we mostly get paid by the client (not the audience) and usually sit in more direct meetings with the client.

Eric: What’s the greatest success a client has seen as a result of your work?

Stefan: He got a girlfriend.

Eric: Can you tell us of a time that a great idea you had resulted in a problems for one of your clients?

Stefan: We designed a charity invite for the New York chapter of the Gay and Lesbian Task Force which contained an actual plum and banana. 5000 invites were produced and sent out in the middle of a New York heat wave.

Knowing that we might run into problems, our producer organized everything to the spot. All New York addresses were to be delivered by messenger, the rest by courier. We had standing orders for 5000 plums and 5000 bananas. We felt safe.

On the day the conversion house were supposed to wrap the fruit in printed tissue, combine them with cards and box them, we had 5000 bananas, but no plums. Plums are arriving in the afternoon, we were promised. So they wrapped and boxed the bananas, afternoon came but no plums. Next day: No plums. When they arrived the day after, the wrapped bananas were brown and leaking. So out go the bananas, plums get wrapped, bananas come, but now there is not enough pre-printed tissue paper to wrap another 5000 bananas.

Reprinting of tissue paper takes 2 days. Now the plums are bad.

Somehow it all got done at the end, most packages arrived fine; the dinner was a success.

Eric: Tibor Kalman used his position to address social concerns. I wonder if you have a personal mission with your work. Could you tell us about it?

Stefan: Do no harm.

Eric: Your work with Worldchanging interests me. Do you feel designers have a responsibility to the planet and people around them?

Stefan: No. But we might have such a responsibility as people.

Eric: As much as I enjoy them, I do feel a little fatigued with books on design. Designer monographs, for example, seem to have been fashionable for some time. How do you feel about them? Are they meaningful, or symbolic of an overly insular and narcissistic practice?

Stefan: The declaration of hating design monographs has become about as fashionable in design circles as the monographs themselves.

I myself do know a couple of design monographs that I very much appreciate, Tibor’s is among them. So is David Crow’s, and Martin Woodtli’s and Tadanoori Yoko’s. Loved Neville Brody’s when it first appeared.

And you will hate the fact that we are going publish another monograph soon:

By far the most gratifying project I have been involved in the last years is a series of typographic works came out of a list I found in my diary under the title: “Things I have learned in my life so far.”

Every one of these pieces was published; so far they appeared as French and Portuguese billboards, a Japanese annual report, on German TV, in Austrian magazines, as a New York direct mailer and an American poster campaign.


Eric: What’s the smartest thing you ever did from a business standpoint? (i.e. Taking on a particular project that advanced your career.)

Stefan: Keeping the studio small.

Eric: What is the happiest moment in your life?

Stefan: I wrote these down for a talk once:
Mama’s pride after Matura
Motorcycle ride through mountains
Idea for Ronacher in Tivoligasse
Excess with Lisli in Vienna
With Andrea in Tivoligasse, orgasm
Pratt New York, final exhibit with T. Despigna
Cruising through New Jersey with Lucia Pool with Viennese butchers after 110 c Sauna
Coming back from Yale workshop in Buick Going to Stones meeting in New Jersey
Oriental Hotel in Bangkok Hugs from Anni by the door
Looking out at view in Jackson Hole, Wyoming
Running at the Cape in South Africa

Eric: Are there any exciting new designers that you feel we should know about who haven’t yet received the attention they are due?

Stefan: I very much like the guys from Topos Design and Helicopter (both in Brooklyn), and then of course my two former colleagues Jan and Hjalti at KarlssonWilker.

Eric: I don’t see you on Facebook. Could you join and be my friend? ;-)

Stefan: Because I do spend so much time traveling, I tend to meet a lot of people that become acquaintances. When I am in New York, I rather spend more actual time with a few friends (and my girl friend) then spend yet more time in front of a screen with more acquaintances. Many people are using these sites to network; I have absolutely no need to network more.

Eric: I appreciate you taking the time to indulge my meandering questions. I’d like to thank you on behalf of all the readers of ideasonideas for your insightful responses.

Stefan: Thank you so much, Eric. It was a pleasure.

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