Graphic Designer (1962-)
STEFAN SAGMEISTER (1962-) is among today’s most important graphic designers. Born in Austria, he now lives and works in New York. His long-standing collaborators include the AIGA and musicians, David Byrne and Lou Reed.
When Stefan Sagmeister was invited to design the poster for an AIGA lecture he was giving on the campus at Cranbrook near Detroit, he asked his assistant to carve the details on to his torso with an X-acto knife and photographed the result. Sunning himself on a beach the following summer, Sagmeister noticed traces of the poster text rising in pink as his flesh tanned.
Now a graphic icon of the 1990s, that 1999 AIGA Detroit poster typifies Stefan Sagmeister’s style. Striking to the point of sensationalism and humorous but in such an unsettling way that it’s nearly, but not quite unacceptable, his work mixes sexuality with wit and a whiff of the sinister. Sagmeister’s technique is often simple to the point of banality: from slashing D-I-Y text into his own skin for the AIGA Detroit poster, to spelling out words with roughly cut strips of white cloth for a 1999 brochure for his girlfriend, the fashion designer, Anni Kuan. The strength of his work lies in his ability to conceptualise: to come up with potent, original, stunningly appropriate ideas.
Born in Bregenz, a quiet town in the Austrian Alps, in 1962, Sagmeister studied engineering after high school, but switched to graphic design after working on illustrations and lay-outs for Alphorn, a left-wing magazine. The first of his D-I-Y graphic exercises was a poster publicising Alphorn’s Anarchy issue for which he persuaded fellow students to lie down in the playground in the shape of the letter A and photographed them from the school roof.
At 19, Sagmeister moved to Vienna hoping to study graphics at the city’s prestigious University of Applied Arts. After his first application was rejected – “just about everybody was better at drawing than I was” – he enrolled in a private art school and was accepted on his second attempt. Through his sister’s boyfriend, the rock musician, Alexander Goebel, Sagmeister was introduced to the Schauspielhaus theatre group and designed posters for them as part of the Gruppe Gut collective. Many of the posters parodied traditionally twee theatrical imagery and offset it with roughly printed text in the grungey typefaces of punk albums and 1970s anarchist graphics.
In 1987, Sagmeister won a Fulbright scholarship to study at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York. Here humour emerged as the dominant theme in his work. When a girlfriend asked him to design business cards which would cost no more than $1 each, Sagmeister printed them on dollar bills. And when a friend from Austria came to visit, having voiced concern that New York women would ignore him, Sagmeister postered the walls of his neighbourhood with a picture of his friend under the words “Dear Girls! Please be nice to Reini”.
After three years in the US, Sagmeister returned to Austria for compulsory military service. As a conscientious objector, he was allowed to do community work in a refugee centre outside Vienna. He stayed in Austria working as a graphic designer before moving to Hong Kong in 1991 to join the advertising agency, Leo Burnett. “They asked if I would be interested in being a typographer, ” he later told the author, Peter Hall. “So I made up a high number and said I would do it for that.” When the agency was invited to design a poster for the 1992 4As advertising awards ceremony, Sagmeister depicted a traditional Cantonese image featuring four bare male bottoms. Some ad agencies boycotted the awards in protest and the Hong Kong newspapers received numerous letters of complaint. Sagmeister’s favourite said: “Who’s the asshole who designed this poster?” By spring 1993, he had tired of Hong Kong. Sagmeister spent a couple of months working from a Sri Lankan beach hut before going back to New York.
As a Pratt Institute student, his dream had been to work at M&Co, the late Tibor Kalman’s graphics studio. Sagmeister bombarded Kalman with calls and finally persuaded him to sponsor his green card application. Four years later on his return from Hong Kong, the green card came through. His first project for M&Co was an invitation for a Gay and Lesbian Taskforce Gala for which he designed a prettily packaged box of fresh fruit. Cue a logistical nightmare as M&Co’s staff struggled to stop the fruit rotting in the heat of a sweltering New York summer. A few months later, Tibor Kalman announced that he was closing the studio to move to Rome, and Sagmeister set up on his own.
His goal was to design music graphics, but only for music he liked. To have the freedom to do so, Sagmeister decided to follow Kalman’s advice by keeping his company small with a team of three: himself, a designer (since 1996, the Icelander, Hjalti Karlsson) and an intern. Sagmeister Inc’s first project was its own business card, which came in an acrylic slipcase. When the card is inside the case, all you see is an S in a circle. Once outside, the company’s name and contract details appear. The second commission came from Sagmeister’s brother, Martin who was opening Blue, a chain of jeans stores in Austria. Sagmeister devised an identity consisting of the word blue in black type on an orange background.
As none of the record labels he approached seemed interested in his work, Sagmeister seized the chance to design a CD cover for a friend’s album, H.P. Zinker’s Mountains of Madness. Many of his contemporaries felt that music graphics had become less interesting once their old canvas, the vinyl LP cover, had shrunk to the dimensions of a CD, but Sagmeister saw the CD as a toy with which he could tantalise consumers. Having spotted a schoolgirl on the subway reading a maths text book through a red plastic filter, he placed his CD cover inside a red-tinted plastic case. Replicating the optical illusion of his business card, the complete packaging shows a close-up of a placid man’s face, but once the CD cover is slipped out from the red plastic, the man’s face appears furious in shades of red, white and green. Mountains of Madness won Sagmeister the first of his four Grammy nominations.
Invited by Lou Reed to design his 1996 album Set the Twilight Reeling, Sagmeister inserted an indigo portrait of Reed in an indigo-tinted plastic CD case. When the paler coloured cover is removed, Reed literally emerges from the twilight. The following year, Sagmeister depicted David Byrne as a plastic GI Joe-style doll on the cover of Feelings. One of his trickiest assignments was for the Rollings Stones’ 1997 Bridges to Babylon album and tour. Sagmeister struggled to persuade the band’s management to accept his motif of a lion inspired by an Assyrian sculpture in the British Museum. Also the astrological sign of the Rolling Stones’ lead singer, Mick Jagger (a Leo), the lion doubled as an easily reproducible motif for tour merchandise.
As well as these music projects, Sagmeister still took on other commercial commissions and pro bono cultural projects, such as his AIGA lecture posters. The obscenely elongated wagging tongues of 1996’s Fresh Dialogue talks series in New York and a Headless Chicken strutting across a field for 1997’s biennial conference in New Orleans culminated in the drama of Sagmeister’s scarred, knife-slashed torso for 1999’s deceptively blandly titled, AIGA Detroit.
In June 2000, Sagmeister decided to treat himself to a long-promised year off to concentrate on experimental projects and a book Sagmeister, sub-titled Made You Look with the sub-sub-title Another self-indulgent design monograph (practically everything we have ever designed including the bad stuff.) The worst of the “bad stuff” was a 1996 series of CD-Rom covers for a subsidiary of the Viacom entertainment group. “Don’t take on any more bad jobs,” Sagmeister scolded himself in his diary. “I have done enough bullshit lately, I just have to make time for something better. Something good.”