Sagmeister simply has taken a firm stand on the style vs. content question: "I think design that lifts from style is somehow less penetrating than design that lifts from content," he explains. "Ten years ago in the design schools, everyone did Neville Brody; now they do David Carson. The typefaces and the treatments are instantly recognizable from 10 feet away. People like Tibor Kalman, who work from content,
are much more difficult to rip off. In fact, they can't be ripped off, except in the sense that you must come up with an equally great idea." The mention of Kalman is anything but random. Not only has Sagmeister-who studied at the University of Applied Arts in Vienna, as well as at Pratt Institute during a three-year Stateside stint as a freelancer in the late '80s-produced his share of Kalmanesque weirdness, he was briefly creative director at Kalman's late, lamented M & Co., in the months before it closed in 1993. Kalman even got Sagmeister his green card. "He needed someone to run M & Co. and I needed someone to get me out of Hong Kong," says Sagmeister. "There's nothing going on there. There's no culture outside of the business culture. I always loved M & Co.'s work, and there was really no other company I was interested in working for." While there may be nothing going on in Hong Kong, Sagmeister did manage to start up the Leo Burnett Graphic Design Group, and besides the behinds that were ahead of their time he can claim credit for an insightful notebook for Burnetters that was distributed at an Asian creative conference: each book included an authentic glass eye, each eye color-coded to its recipient. Sammy Davis Jr. was not invited.
Since he opened Sagmeister Inc. after Kalman headed for Europe, Sagmeister, 32, and Korean-born designer Veronica Oh, the firm's only full-timers, have done fashion ads and trade ads for production companies and post houses and the like (Dennis Hayes and HBO Studio Productions are among his clients), but half of the work is music related, with an emphasis on unusual CD package design. A disc for a group called H.P. Zinker, on indie Energy Records, does color tricks with a red-tinted jewel box and overprinted pictures, so that the shot of a sad old man on the booklet cover turns into an enraged old man when you slip it out. Likewise the photo of the band members on the back of the booklet becomes a series of unsettling anatomy charts when placed in the box. The record is titled "Mountains of Madness," and it's about urban rage. Less angst-ridden are discs for YMO, Ryuichi Sakamoto's techno group, on Toshiba/EMI. A release titled "Technodon" features a Jenny Holzer quote on the booklet cover that can only be read through a moire circle on the jewel box. YMO's latest release features nothing in the booklet but solid blocks of color, arrangements of squares and some Op Artish stripes. Sagmeister says the group is so popular in Japan that no words are required.
A CD-ROM package for a multimedia company called Studio:SGP goes hands-on interactive as you roll up the silver foil insert, place it in the disc hole and see a pair of perfect eyeglasses reflected from the distorted image on the disc surface. Theme: "A new way of seeing multimedia."
All of this pales in comparison to Sagmeister's concept for Pro-Pain, a speed metal band also on Energy. The record is called "The Truth Hurts," but the booklet hurts more. The cover is a photo of a young, attractive nude seen post-autopsy, her torso sewn back together with football seam-size stitches (at retail, a sticker on the shrink wrap covers her body). The rest of the booklet is loaded with authentic crime scene photos, all from the New York City archive, and some of this is very nasty stuff indeed. There's even a dead dog. "The music sounds just like the cover," says Sagmeister. "It's very fast, very loud and the lyrics are rough and tough. At first it just seems like a wall of noise, but after a few listens it becomes accessible, and there's an incredible beauty to it. The cover photo works the same way; on the first look it's very disturbing, but after a while you see the incredible beauty of the woman's pose; she seems content, at peace." Despite a couple of violently negative reactions, Sagmeister has had no second thoughts about putting this extremely un-PC piece in his portfolio-"I have nothing to hide," he proclaims.
While Sagmeister has also done a disc for David Byrne's label, he's not exactly playing the Garden so far. Not that he wouldn't, on certain conditions: "Yes, it would be nice to do a major band, but I'm not interested in doing, say, a Madonna cover if it's going to have another Herb Ritts photo on the front and some nice type over it. I'd be happy to do mainstream bands if there was a certain freedom attached."
Yet at the same time Sagmeister wants to remain unattached. His short-term goals include "not to grow," he says. "I have no interest in having 30 people working for me next year." He also has no interest in making multimedia: "All the CD-ROM projects I've seen, with one or two exceptions, have been incredibly boring." Film and directing don't interest him either, at least not at present. "What can