S=Style (+Content): Stefan Sagmeister

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Stefan Sagmeister used to dis style so hard that he equated it to an embarrassing bodily function. "STYLE=FART" read an infamous placard that once hung from the wall of his Manhattan penthouse studio. It summed up the graphic guru's long-touted belief that style was a bunch of hot air. What did matter was the idea. Now the sign's gone - it fell off from water damage, he says - but tellingly, the 37-year-old Sagmeister seems in no rush to hang it back up. Recently he's been doing a lot of thinking, about his own design and where he wants it to go. He's even decided to take a year off to figure it out. In the meantime, he's swapped his die-hard devotion to content for a more holistic view. "When I started out, I really, really, hard-corely believed in it," he says of his anti-style ethic. "I didn't think that personal style had much value in graphic design." Not even a year ago, Sagmeister told everyone who would listen that content was king. But he fesses up that his change of heart became apparent way before that. Years ago, he started to adorn his work with inky, scribbled words - and realized that he couldn't stop. "Normally, I would have done one handwriting project and moved onto the next one," he says. "I realized that there would be more in the writing than just one project." On a poster for Lou Reed's 1996 Set the Twilight Reeling, he scrawled the album's lyrics on a close-up of Reed's grainy face. The design emerged from the concept that Reed's words were highly personal. But the designer's distinctive doodling didn't end there. "I discovered that if I really changed my style every single time, there was a big danger that I'd always just scratch the surface and never get quite accomplished in it," he explains. The handwriting later reappeared alongside phallic tongues and headless chickens in posters for the AIGA "Fresh Dialogue" and "Jambalaya" conferences, and in the promos for this month's New York "Great Bazaar" fundraiser for Design Industries Foundation Fighting Aids. Each subsequent project has produced stronger, better work.

Sagmeister, who was born in the small town of Bregenz, Austria, studied graphic design at Vienna's University for Applied Arts. A series of black posters he and some fellow students designed for a local theater stood out among other venues' brightly colored banners. This work, he believes, led to a Fulbright scholarship that allowed him to study at New York's Pratt Institute. "I just lucked out," he says humbly. "A lot of the awards committee members were avid theatergoers, so they knew my posters."

It was Sagmeister's anti-style stance that originally drew him to the late Tibor Kalman, also renowned for his content-driven ethic. While at Pratt, he hounded Kalman until the master granted him an interview for Sagmeister's thesis, called "Amazing, Exciting, Spectacular Gimmicks in Graphic Design." Kalman was so wowed by Sagmeister's work that in 1993 he hired him to run M&Co., Kalman's design studio. Sagmeister's stint there lasted only six months (the company folded when Kalman moved to Benetton's Colors in Rome). Nevertheless, it landed him his first CD cover project, for Ryuichi Sakamoto and the Yellow Magic Orchestra. Jewelcase design soon became the forte of his own shop, which he opened soon afterwards.

In its seven-year existence, Sagmeister Inc. has become known for its big-name music clients like Aerosmith, the Rolling Stones, David Byrne and Lou Reed. Sagmeister's designs are characteristically thought-provoking, unconventional, even interactive. The Grammy-nominated cover for H.P. Zinker's Mountains of Madness used optical tricks to show an old man who at first looks sullen but turns to rage when the pamphlet is slipped out of the color-treated case. The concept behind the project was 'urban rage': the idea stemmed from an encounter Sagmeister had with a homeless man who all of a sudden freaked out and started to shout obscenities. Another notable project was the cover for Pat Metheny's Imaginary Day, which was illustrated completely in hieroglyphic code, liner notes and all. Sagmeister said that the idea came from sitting down with the guitarist and selecting things that related to his music and point of view.

CDs make up about 50 percent of the work at his studio, a three-person outfit Sagmeister runs with his associate, Icelandic designer Hjalti Karlsson, and an intern. Sagmeister has done advertising art for postproduction house Dennis Hayes & Associates, HBO Studio Productions and fashion designer Anni Kuan. To introduce Kuan's 1998 line, he took a particularly subversive approach. Only after he cut up, muddied and had a dog urinate on Kuan's clothing designs did he photograph the precious couture. Then he reprinted the black and white pictures on newsprint and shrink-wrapped them with a wire hanger and corrugated board - all within the budget of printing a postcard.

These days, Sagmeister is more concerned with how his work impacts an audience, with his design's approachability. That may be one reason he's broadened his once black-and-white views. "When I proclaimed that style and form are not important, there's a big danger that you wind up with these very smart things that nobody pays attention to because they don't look good," he says. "It's like meeting a very smart person who is dressed so horribly and has such bad teeth that you never bother to really talk to him, so you never find out how smart and beautiful he actually is inside."

But that's not to say that content now equals fart. "If you want to communicate something, you'd better make sure that your design piece is well-dressed and that its teeth are fixed," Sagmeister continues the metaphor. "At the same time, I still believe that if it is only stylistically great and it has nothing to say, it still is not going to make a lasting impression on anybody. Just like an underwear model who looks great and is dressed perfectly, but is completely brainless, might not make a lasting impression on you when you meet her at a party," he says. "You need good style, great form, and fantastic concept. Today I would say, definitely, you need all three."

All three have been present in recent work with his favorite clients David Byrne and Lou Reed. Take the cover for Byrne's Feelings, which features David Byrne dolls in a range of emotional expression. "There was a concept there, of course, but we also took form and style very seriously," he says, recalling how he and Byrne originally used 3-D scanned images of the singer's head. Sagmeister was unimpressed by the look, so he had a modelmaker craft Byrne's likenesses.

Sagmeister recently completed, with Lou Reed, Pass Thru Fire, a compilation of the musician's lyrics. The designer sat down with Reed to discuss his experiences recording each album. The result: pages of classic-font text that is manipulated and obscured in a variety of ways. Throughout the project, Sagmeister says he paid as much attention to style and form as he did to concept.

The designer allows content to prevail where it should. He just completed a promotional campaign for the lobbying organization Business Leaders for Sensible Priorities. Founded by Ben Cohen (of Ben & Jerry's), the group is running a 'Move our Money' effort to convince U.S. citizens and government to move 15 percent of the military budget into education and health programs. Cohen met Sagmeister at the famous TED (Technology Entertainment and Design) conference and was instantly drawn to his approach. "He does a great job of integrating content with design," says Cohen. "In our particular case, we had fairly complex, dry content to present, and Stefan helped us simplify it and crystallize it and present it in a way that was entertaining, easy to grasp, and beautiful at the same time." Sagmeister created the campaign's numerous advertising novelties, which include a pie chart logo pin, image-shifting cards that juxtapose current military expenditures with their education and health-care equivalents, a tour bus covered in $100 bills, and 16-foot-high inflatable bar graphs that puff up to reveal outrageous spending statistics.

Sagmeister's new mindset comes on the heels of having stepped behind a camera for the first time. Last month, he co-directed the music video for Lou Reed's "Modern Dance" with Austrian filmmaker Robert Pejo. In the video, a chicken-suited Reed stands on a kitschy baroque stage and gets plucked and boiled as two women shift cartoon-like backdrops from behind.

But don't expect him to direct any Perdue spots soon. For now, audiences won't even be seeing much more from Sagmeister on MTV or on CD covers. On May 1, he closed his doors to all clients for an entire year - or so he claims - in the hopes of finding fresh inspiration for work he feels has become "weaker" and "less fun." Both excited and nervous, he calls the sabbatical his favorite project to date. He'll devote the time to "happy experiments," testing out seedling ideas he never had the time or energy to pursue - all for the sake of future design pieces, of course. "Some people said, 'Oh you're going to become a fine artist now and do exhibits and stuff,' " Sagmeister says. "But I have no desire to do that. I really like design and I'm going to stay with it."

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