Stefan Sagmeister.


Stefan Sagmeister

I’ve always been fascinated by alphabets and by the use of type and letterforms. When I was a kid, I enjoyed looking at hand-made signs in my picturesque neighborhood in Guatemala. The red curvilinear Coca-Cola sign and childish Alka-Seltzer’s "Speedy" mascot from the 1950’s were among my favorites. I spent long hours staring at signs and trying to imitate these masterpieces. For most people these were just letters and deteriorating signs. They only saw the explicit or direct meaning of the word or phrase. Graphic designers and typographers tend to see beyond the superficial or primary meaning. They see emotions, beauty, shape, form, and why a typeface like Garamond, Bodoni, or Helvetica was chosen.

Typography has been one of the main reasons why I became a graphic designer. Well-known typographers and calligraphers like Eric Gill, Carol Twombly, Adrian Frutinger, John Bakerville, and Claude Garamond have been a great influence in my career. But the wit, sinisterness, and spontaneousness found in Stefan Sagmeister’s technique and style have made me look at typography and graphic design from a different perspective–beyond the use of line, point, shape, etc.

Born in 1962 in Bregenz, Austria, Stefan Sagmeister is one of today’s most innovative and influential graphic designers. He studied engineering after high school, but he started his design career when he was only 16 years old working as a writer at "Alphorn," an Austrian left-wing magazine. One of his first assignments was to create a poster advertising Alphorn’s Anarchy issue. He persuaded students to lie down and form the letter “A”. He then photographed them from the school roof.

His obsession for typography started primary as a need. He used old donated Letraset sheets (sheets of dry transferrable lettering), and the most popular letters like "e" and "s" were always missing. Instead of creating a new “e” by combining an “f” and a "y," Sagmeister realized that it was much easier to draw them. However, his passion for typography began much earlier when he was growing up surrounded by wooden signs painted by his grandfather who was a professional sign maker. One of his grandfather’s signs still hangs in his studio in Austria, and he follows his grandfather’s tradition with these typographic words of wisdom. The sign reads:

"This house is mine, and it isn’t mine
the second guy won’t own it either.
They will carry out the third one too,
so tell me, my friend, whose house is it?"

Sagmeister is well-known by creating spontaneously and without preparation. His work is often simple, to the point, enigmatic and charismatic. It possesses a unique sense of impulse, humor, sexuality and sensationalism, but in such an unsettling way that it is nearly offensive. Everyone can remember the notorious AIGA Detroit poster in 1999 where he had the details of the poster literally carved into his own skin with a knife by an intern. He went through all this to show his passion and to visualize the pain that accompanies his projects. I once cut myself with a X-acto knife during an art project and I was ready to switch majors.

Humor emerged as the dominant theme in his work during his studies at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York. On one occasion, a girlfriend asked him to design business cards costing no more than $1 each. Sagmeister quickly scrawled the contact details on dollar bill. His sense of humor is also present when a friend from Austria came to visit him in New York, and he was concerned that women would ignore him. Sagmeister creatively plastered his neighborhood walls with posters with a picture of his friend and the words, “Dear Girls! Please be nice to Reini." He also made an invitation for his fashion-designer girlfriend, Anni Kuan, by spelling out the entire details in clothes draped on the floor.

Sagmeister officially entered the popular culture, commonly known as "Pop Culture," in the late 90’s with his announcement poster for Lou Reed's album "Set the Twilight Reeling", and the CD cover for the Rolling Stones's "Bridges to Babylon." The lyrics in Lou Reed’s album were extremely personal, and to convey this meaning he wrote the lyrics directly over Reed’s face. In the past few years he has worked with the artist Douglas Gordon, the Guggenheim Museum, HBO and Copy Magazine. He also designed the famous "PigMobile" for the group True Majority. These vehicles traveled the country and were parked in public places to stimulate conversation and promote budget cuts in the Pentagon. He was the winner of the 52nd Grammy Award for Best Recording Package for his art direction on "Everything That Happens Will Happen Today" by David Byrne and Brian Eno.

His experimental refuge is located in the mystical Bali, Indonesia, miles away from the strident headquarters in New York City. He believes that his business flourishes on the creativity from his sabbatical principle—seven years of working then one year off. His first client-free year was in 2000 when he was 38. He is now beginning his second one at 46, and he is planning on two more sabbaticals before his retirement at 65. Sagmeister is very stringent about his sabbatical, and he does not take work from any clients even if the work is tempting and profitable.

In 2008, he declined an offer to design a poster for Barack Obama’s presidential campaign while on sabbatical. Sagmeister observed that he was less productive when he worked six days a week, week after week. He was exhausted and his designs began to suffer. During his time off, he spends the entire year experimenting with personal work, refreshing and renewing himself as a designer and artist and reinvigorating the creative productivity of his company. Sometimes just fifteen minutes away from my desk or a brisk walk around historic downtown Alexandria could make a significant difference in my work.

Sagmeister's style is not for everyone. Traditional designers prefer the formal elegance and sophisticated visual look, and they are satisfied with creating an image that is pleasing at first glance. Sagmeister relies primarily on instinct and impulse, and he challenges people to look deeper–beyond the medium. He often deploys a mixed range of styles to elicit an emotional response, often shock or laughter. "What I'm drawn to is his uncanny ability to reinvent himself," said Jessica Helfand, a columnist and lecturer on graphic design. "The only constant in Stefan's work, other than its superior quality, is that there's nothing constant about it.” Indeed, one of the things that makes it truly engaging is that Sagmeister seems to possesses a tireless enthusiasm to act upon his playful ideas, to go to whatever lengths necessary to turn them into reality.