They say you should quit while you’re ahead, but how many in design have the nerve to do it? For all the talk about repositioning and start-ups pledging to do things differently, change is invariably a gradual thing – more to do with evolution than revolution.
But there are some who dare to force change, among them cult New York designer Stefan Sagmeister, creator of seminal CD covers and other work for, among others, Talking Heads, the Rolling Stones, Aerosmith, Lou Reed, Live and Pat Metheny. The Austrian-born 37-year-old is shutting down his consultancy from 1 May for a year, to get on with his own projects. The sabbatical will be “a year without clients”, he says. His staff and his bank manager were told months ago and are supporting the venture.
“I’ve wanted to do it for a while,” he says “Even if it goes really badly and I end up watching TV all day, I want to do it.” What Sagmeister will do remains to be seen. He will continue teaching at the School of Visual Arts and at Parsons, both in New York, and he talks of lectures, travel, as well as possible collaborations.
“I will do commercial work, but not for clients,” he says enigmatically. He adds, “I’m not a fine artist… We’ll do happy design experiments. That means developing little seedlings for concepts to be executed later – possibly, but not necessarily for clients – [which will involve] trying out some typographic directions that I have long wanted to explore, and maybe even research some technical aspects for an electronic sculpture I’ve been dreaming about.”
It will be surprising if music doesn’t come into it somehow. Music has been fundamental to Sagmeister’s life so far. He was first drawn to study design at the School of Applied Arts in Vienna because of album covers, he says, particularly the work of British graphics stars such as Storm Thorgerson and George Hardie.
In the early days he was with “bad bands”, he says, but since moving to the US he has taken up company with “better bands”. The turning point came in 1994 when the album Mountains of Madness, by the band HP Zinker, was nominated for a Grammy award. Sheer persistence in touting his work around record labels finally tempted David Byrne of Talking Heads to give him some ads to do. “It took a year, spending half my time going round to see record labels,” he says. It eventually paid off; the rest is history.
After graduating from Vienna – the school that turned Adolf Hitler down, he says – he won a two-year scholarship to the Pratt Institute in New York, which marked the start of his love affair with that city. Despite a two-year stint in Hong Kong, where he made an impression – a book in Chinese was published about his work – he eventually returned to the US.
These experiences left Sagmeister with a clear idea of the cultural differences between various continents – and left him clear about where he needed to be. Hong Kong, he observes, has “a money culture. The culture is driven by capitalism, not architecture or fine art.” Austria, on the other hand, exudes “an overall laziness, resting on its laurels”. The attitude is, he says, all talk and no action.
New York, meanwhile, is the most inspiring culture from all sorts of angles, “which is why I went back” – and why he plans to stay. The mindset of New Yorkers, he adds, is “let’s do something now”. Coming from Hong Kong seven years ago to the US to join the late Tibor Kalman’s consultancy M&Co New York seemed “like a socialist city”, he says. “You can always find a good writer or photographer.”
After Sagmeister had been with M&Co for six months, Kalman quit to join Italian retailer Benetton in Florence as editor of its controversial Colors magazine. “I had no choice but to set up on my own,” says Sagmeister. His time at M&Co hadn’t panned out anyway. He was brought in to run the consultancy, he ended up being “just another senior designer”, he says.
When he set up his own studio his objectives were clear: it was going to be about the music business; and the operation was going to be tiny. He started out with one other designer and an intern, and so it has remained. “I took advice from Tibor, who said the most difficult thing in a design studio is not to grow,” says Sagmeister.
The music business has remained Sagmeister’s main arena, though he also loves working on books and has done “one or two corporates a year”. But Sagmeister is dismissive of the corporate projects, conceding, “It’s so easy to do mediocre work.” He also works on a couple of charities, including an Aids charity. “Designers do charity work to win awards,” he admits.
“The advantage of staying small is that you can be selective [about the work you take on],” he says. He has no interest in having a big design consultancy – “It’s hard to do just print,” he says, suggesting that volume print work is the only way for bigger groups to pay the bills.
While his passion for New York rages on, Sagmeister is disappointed by the quality of design work there. Perhaps wooed into thinking the grass is greener elsewhere, he praises the work of UK design groups such as Tomato, Fuel and Me Company and individuals like Peter Saville, Thorgerson and Jonathan Barnbrook.
As Sagmeister seeks to reinvent himself, we can be sure of one thing: he’s unlikely to become a moving image aficionado, despite his links with the multitalented impresario Byrne, the music business and youth culture. “I like record stores and book shops and I hate MTV,” he says. “I’ve never felt like spending love and affection on things that end up on MTV. You have to watch four hours to see one good video.” That should be incentive enough to make the best of the next year, given that watching TV is his self-imposed measure of failure.