Interview with Stefan Sagmeister

Unconventional, unique, provocative and incredibly human. We are talking about Stefan Sagmeister. Known for his original, explorative works that have repeatedly been seen to break the norms and tweak the status quo.

The secret behind his work – personal intuition, inner research and an almost self-centric approach to design.

fluoro’s Editor-in-Chief, Nancy Bugeja sat down with Sagmeister and spoke to him about Design and Happiness, his origins and his socks.

Nancy Bugeja. You’re in Australia to conduct a series of workshops and keynotes. The subject generally: Design and Happiness. From my understanding it’s come from your progress to bringing a human element into your work after years of being in the industry as a graphic designer/designer/artist. How did this all come about? Was it a pursuit of happiness?

Stefan Sagmeister. Well, we have this program in the studio where every seven years we close and have a year’s worth of trying out stuff to see what else could be out there. On the second of such years, we found ourselves working on furniture and a friend of mine came to visit and he thought that this was all pretty much a waste of time, and I should work on something that people might benefit more from than furniture for our own studio. I did think that he had a point, and I thought about what that could possibly be. Then this idea of a film on happiness, a documentary, came about.

If I step back even further, the reason I was interested in the subject was when I thought about why it is that I’m doing things, happiness seemed to be the end point. I thought if that subject really is there, would it be possible to pursue it more directly?

I trained for a marathon once even though I was fairly un-sporty and after a year’s worth of training, I could finish a marathon. Simply by training. And I thought will the same thing work for the mind? Can we actually train the mind in the same way? So, that was the foundation idea and I knew if I made a design project out of it, I would be forced to do the real research.

NB. This is the Happy Film you are referring to?

SS. It is. It’s the Happy Film that I’m talking about and it clearly turned out – and even with that title – it could make me utterly miserable over proper periods of my life.

The whole process had an incredible impact in my life. The backbone of the film was three experiments from scientists I had met. There was one that really was outstanding, a research psychologist at that point at the University of Virginia, now at New York University in New York, called Jonathan Haidt. He had written a book called the Happiness Hypothesis in which he, amongst many other things, basically stated that in his research he found that the three strategies that would most efficiently elevate wellbeing would be meditation, cognitive therapy and drugs. Because that was all backed by research I thought well that seems like an interesting self-experiment, I’ll just do the three and report back, and that could be the structure for the film.

Considering that I’m a very planning oriented person, I of course wrote the script. It would have been much more comfortable just filming that script. As soon as I was done with the script I thought I’m probably not the right kind of person to do this, because my background is not psychology, I don’t have any really authority or any really believability as far as the subject is concerned. It also turned out that the subject was gigantic. You know like, anything, will fit in here, and in an effort to reduce it down a little we decided to make the film about my own happiness, considering that I am actually an expert of my own happiness, probably the world’s best expert there is on my own happiness. As we started to do that, after we threw the script away and really let the chips fall as they may, we, or mostly I, in the middle of it discovered that it became very much a film about me, because my own happiness and my personality or what’s going on in my life are of course extremely connected. So, ultimately I think it became a very personal film, or that’s where we are now. We’re hopefully about 3-4 months away from finalising the whole thing.

NB. And how did you go throwing away the script being such a planner?

SS. With difficulty, which was basically another challenge. I’m much more comfortable with a plan and then fulfilling that plan and much of the work we are doing in the studio is created that way. We would create a sketch and then we would work as long as it takes to make a very tight, very built-up, very sleek version of that sketch.

So for a planner like me that created a lot of anxieties and I’d say these anxieties are still not over, I mean some of them are definitely still with me. We will see.

NB. The Happy Film was one outcome of one of your sabbaticals. What’s another – do you end up with a big book of ideas that you would refer back to for the next seven years or is it more of an opportunity for spiritual inspiration or an emotional reset? Is it more about you or is it about the studio?

SS. It’s all. From a pure outcome, the first one led to a big sketchbook and nothing executed whatsoever. In the second one the physical outcome was about ten pieces of furniture, also a sketchbook, and the extreme beginning of a documentary film. But the outcomes in general were of course much more substantial.

Now, if I look back at the studio I divide it in the first seven years, the second seven years, and the third seven years, because the studio changed so much with these markers in between. In the first seven years, we were basically a studio interested in design for the music industry. During the sabbatical I decided to change that, which proved extremely lucky because two years after the sabbatical the music industry collapsed, but by that time we were already gone and we were already doing other things. In the second sabbatical this whole idea became stronger of doing more work in the direction of the subject of the human, the non-machine made.

Also I think there is a good way to look at work: You can see it as a job, you know, from 9 to 5. Then other people look at it from a career point of view and they’re more involved but they still have that nagging thought in the back of their mind, you know, is all that hard work really worth it? And then you have a calling where you would basically do it also if you wouldn’t get paid. If I look at my students I would say the majority of them see this as a calling, but once they’re out there and they’re working, that turns into a career and into a job for most of them. And I found that, that was even true with my own studio.

NB. And with yourself?

SS. And with myself yes.

Out of all of the strategies that came my way, by far the most successful one that manages overall to keep my job a calling would be the sabbaticals. In all sorts of directions. Also most surprisingly to me, the direction to get rid of all the stuff that I think I would love to do, but when I actually have the possibility to do them it turns out I don’t want to do them at all.

NB. It seems that everything you do has purpose and meaning and you obviously can control this with your self-initiated projects. Have you found that this has set a precedent for the type of work you will accept in your studio, or do you still find yourself in situations having to deal with meaningless briefs?

SS. Well I’d say we kept the studio pretty small throughout, even now, over ten years in business and we’re still only six people so it’s a small studio and one of the many advantages that comes with this is that we have more clients than we could possibly work on, and so obviously we tend to pick the best ones. So I would say almost none. You know, the criteria roughly are: Is it a product or service that we think needs to be in the world, or would we use it ourselves? Are the people we’re dealing with nice? Do they have a proper deadline? Do they have a proper budget? That’s roughly it.

We’ve made mistakes in the past, and I’m sure that we’re going to make mistakes in the future. I mean, I’d say I got much better at it because there’s experience.

NB. Do you find that your Austrian heritage ever comes into or has an effect on your work? Is it a country or a place that you’re still very connected to?

SS. When people ask me to describe myself in one sentence I would say that I’m an Austrian designer that lives and works in New York. There are some very obvious cases. I only afterwards discovered that a poster that we did years ago, where the type was cut into my skin, was related to a movement that happened in the late 60s, early 70s in Austria called the Viennese Actionism that I was very aware of as a student but then had forgotten about again in New York. I left Austria when I was, I think 24, so basically the entire time when my brain was growing I spent in Austria, and these are clearly the formative years, so there’s a lot of influence from there, absolutely.

NB. My final question as we run out of time is one you might be bored by. You announced your partnership with Jessica Walsh with that amazing portrait. Why are you wearing socks? Has that come up a hundred times? My guess is they’re lucky socks.

SS. <laughs> They’re not the lucky socks. It’s actually, I think, just sort of the ridiculousness about it, you know guys wearing socks and the rest being nude. It’s just so unsexy and the desire to be unsexy was basically what was behind it. Ultimately, the whole thing was a little joke on the opening card that we had originally, and when Jessica became partner I said why don’t we do a similar card? I’ll be naked again and you’re dressed very conservatively. Then Jessica said why do I have to be the conservative one? And we couldn’t quite do the reverse, because if I’m in the suit and she is naked that has all sorts of other connotations, so we just said, then let’s both be naked.

NB. Perfect, and on that unsexy note we’ll end this interview. Thank you so much for your time.

SS. Thank you.

Working with the Australian Graphic Design Association (AGDA) and Billy Blue College of Design, Sagmeister will in the following days be sharing his experience and knowledge with a series of keynotes and workshops across Melbourne and Sydney.

The interview on film will be released shortly. Stay tuned to fluoro and subscribe to fluoroNotice for advanced news into a world where art, fashion, architecture, history and innovation come together.

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