Stefan Sagmeister: “The latest negative tweet does not mean that we are living on the brink”

We find the optimistic designer in reflective mood as he discusses new work with coffee brand Illy, taking on less commercial work and commuting (ascending his spiral staircase).

Stefan Sagmeister is trying to think long-term at the moment. The 24-hour news cycle – aided by platforms like Twitter – means it’s easy to only see “democracy in peril, ubiquitous conflicts and an overall outlook of doom”, he tells Design Week.

“As you know, short term media like Twitter and hourly news create an impression of a world out of control,” the designer says. But the opposite is true, according to Sagmeister, pointing to a global rise in literacy rates, fall in hunger and increased life expectancies.

It’s the thinking behind the graphic designer’s latest project – a series of reflective espresso and cappuccino cups and saucers for coffee brand Illy’s Art Collection. The cups have a mirrored titanium surface, which reflects the minimalist geometric graphics of the saucers. He hopes that “viewers might see them as reminders that the latest tweets are just blips in an overall rather good environment”.

As far as the current pandemic goes, Sagmeister is finding some comfort in the past. “If you look at pandemics from a point of view of 100 years, you will see that the Spanish flu killed 45m people, AIDS/HIV about 30m,” he says. “This of course does not mitigate the unbelievable one million humans that have lost their lives during Covid-19, but it does put the often-quoted view that we live in ‘unprecedented times’ into perspective.”

Sagmeister’s designs for Illy

Sagmeister’s current routine is well-suited to lockdown. He gets up at 6:30 and works out on his roof – using a virtual reality (VR) exercise app designed for the Oculus Quest system. “After being incredibly sweaty and a subsequent shower I’m normally in the studio by 8:30am, the commute being a spiral staircase up from my apartment,” he explains.

In his home studio on Manhattan’s 14th Street, Sagmeister has a “wide view over the New York skyline and a far view of itself”. He says he’s surprised at how much he missed those wide-open views when working in studios on 23rd Street and Broadway which provided only views of the streets.

Though New York is now home, Sagmeister was born in Austria and studied graphic design in his home country before leaving for America. After working for graphic designer Tibor Kalman’s M&Co, he set up his Sagmeister Inc. in 1993, where his diverse client list ranged from bands (The Rolling Stones, The Flaming Lips) to television networks (HBO) and cultural institutions (The Jewish Museum, The Guggenheim).

In 2012, he renamed the studio Sagmeister & Walsh after Jessica Walsh became a partner. Last year, it was announced that Walsh would form commercial studio &Walsh while Sagmeister Inc. would focus on self-generated design projects. At the time, Sagmeister stopped accepting all promotional, branding and advertising-related design work to concentrate on projects he finds more “meaningful”.

The Illy coffee cups fulfill this purpose, Sagmeister says, as they will hopefully “serve as a reminder that the latest negative tweet we see does not mean that we are living on the brink”.

By not accepting any traditional advertising work, he was also able to collaborate with designers remotely early on in the year. “So I was fully set up when the lockdown arrived in March,” he says. “This was not prompted by smart foresight but caused by pure luck.”

Sagmeister is known for taking a sabbatical around every seven years and not accepting any work in that period. It’s an appealing concept, though it won’t be affordable for many designers. And at a time like this, it seems all but impossible. Again, his long-term view might provide some perspective here. “I’ve kept a business diary for three decades and can clearly see that our studio made me happier in times when we produced good work compared to times when we were very profitable,” he says.

How does he think that working practices might change for designers more generally? “Tasks requiring complex equipment will still be completed in a physical space, while many other processes can be handled from a home office anywhere,” he continues. But over time, he believes that a “certain fatigue” will set in from working alone. “People will have a desire to work 2-3 days a week surrounded by their colleagues,” he expects.

As well as affecting daily routines, lockdown has put a stop to international travel. The designer, who has often found travel an inspiration to his work, says that he’s found solace in train rides to Philadelphia and Washington. “There’s always a fantastic possibility to let the mind wander while the landscape is flying by,” he says. “And it’s a fantastic space to come up with ideas.”

Sagmeister is known for his combination of art and design, most recently seen in his multimedia exhibition Beauty, accompanied by a visiual book. But he’s also branched into social media, finding an active design community on Instagram. Perhaps it’s not surprising that a designer known for headline-grabbing antics (designers at Sagmeister & Walsh posed naked for staff photos) would lend himself well to the visual platform.

To over 450,000 followers, Sagmeister writes reviews of design projects from around the world. Anyone is free to send in a submission to his email account. Unlike more traditional design criticism, Sagmeister’s writing is short – “the visual medium simply demands it” – and most comprise only two or three sentences.

He offers “constructive reviews” to the young designers sending in their work. Many other creatives also add their opinion in the comment section, again mostly with constructive feedback. “So far, cynicism, snark and aggression which are so prevalent on other social media platforms have been kept widely at bay,” he adds.

He picks projects according to the following criteria: “Am I able to give advice that improves the project? Is the project so delightful that it needs to be celebrated?”

View this post on Instagram

@_silentlines writes: It is time to unite all together to become the strongest we have ever been.⁠⠀ ⁠⠀ Dear Silentlines, The 7 color rainbow started out as a peace flag in Europe in the sixties, than became a symbol for the gay pride movement in the US (using 6 colors), only to be reclaimed – executed as a child’s drawing – as a symbol for the Corona time. I feel the rainbow has worked really hard. While I certainly know that we need to be more united going forward, there must be more own-able symbols out there for coming together, united. ⁠⠀ ⁠⠀ ⁠⠀ If you want your project reviewed within this space, email me a square jpeg or mov file on white or black background, do include your IG address. Please do not send in designs based on the work of another designer. ⁠⠀ StefanSagmeisterig@gmail.com

A post shared by stefan sagmeister (@stefansagmeister) on

Sometimes they diverge from design projects. At the end of October, Sagmeister posted about Alex Gibney’s investigative documentary Totally Under Control which took a critical look at the US government’s response to Covid. Sagmeister’s post included a photo of Donald Trump removing a facemask.“Sometimes I do pick a project I consider not successful, but only if it allows me to make an important point,” he adds.

In the week before the US election, Sagmeister admitted to having no “smart predictions” when it came to the result. “The elections scare even an optimist like me shitless,” he says. “Outside of that, I will continue to look at the world from the long-term perspective and will try to create work true to that.”

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