Graphic artist puts substance over style

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Graphic artist puts substance over style

One of the insecurities of design as an art form is that it’s all about the surface and says nothing about any grand philosophy of life.
Stefan Sagmeister, 42, one of the most influential graphic designers today, brilliantly sums up that notion in his catchy slogan “style=fart.” Indeed, his works have been known to further such insecurity by focusing more on “concepts” than “style.”
Eccentricity, when it comes to Mr. Sagmeister’s design, however, has often been praised by his clientele, which includes celebrities such as the Rolling Stones and David Byrne.
Some of the artist’s designs on posters, album covers and pro bono cultural projects are on display at the Zero One Design Center in Daehangno, which opened yesterday with Mr. Sagmeister’s show.
Mr. Sagmeister has taken on a mix of commissioned ads and artistic experimental projects for his own pleasure. One such project was a televised message for his mother’s birthday.
His quirkiness lies in his unusual media. When his girlfriend asked him to come up with a design idea that would cost no more than a dollar, he created a business card on a dollar bill.
In 1999, when Mr. Sagmeister was invited to design a poster of his own lecture for a school in Detroit, he carved the information into his body and photographed himself naked. He later recalled standing on a beach the following summer, noticing the scars from the carved text rising in pink as his flesh tanned.
After his application to a design school in Vienna was rejected when he was 19, Mr. Sagmeister began designing posters for a small European theater group.
In 1987, he won a Fulbright scholarship to study at the Pratt Institute in New York, moved back to Austria for a military service, then to Hong Kong to work as a typographer at Leo Burnett, an advertising company.
One of the first projects he tackled after returning to New York and setting up his own studio, Sagmeister Inc., was to design album covers for record labels he liked. One of his first bands was Mountains of Madness, earning him a Grammy nomination for best album jacket. Higher-profile musicians have approached Sagmeister ever since.


by Park Soo-mee

The Stefan Sagmeister exhibition runs at Zero One Design Center in Daehangno through April 18.
For more information, call (02) 745-2490. His workshop will take place today and tomorrow.

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An interview with designer Stefan Sagmeister

Q: There are aspects about your work that are very unsettling, dark and almost disturbing. Is that part of your nature?
A: I am not trying to avoid the dark side. It depends on the project, what they really call for.
At some point, I was fed up with the notion of design as being everything colorful and bright. I don’t see myself as a particularly dark person, though. I consider myself a positive guy. I am very happy to live life now, and I feel the same way about my future.

You’ve declined most of the Web work you’ve been offered by clients. What fascinates you so much about the print medium? And why not the Internet?
It probably has to do with my age. My reason for starting my job was because of print. It comes down to usual reasons. Prints are tactile. They stay around. There is permanence. People keep album covers at home. They don’t throw them in the garbage so quickly. Web works seem more temporary.

You often talked about keeping the company small.
I don’t think that as a rule. But by keeping the company small, I remain as a designer. When I worked in Hong Kong, I became a manager. ... [Staying small] also saves the monthly cost. By doing so, I become less dependent on my clients, which allows me to do other experimental works.

How do you feel about designers who are interested in satisfying the consumer’s taste rather than developing their own style?
I think it’s absolutely fine to cater to needs as long as you are promoting things that are worthwhile. I am not a friend of designers who promote the system, products or projects that they don’t identify with.
There is a strange divide between artistic designers and commercial designers. It’s a reality that big projects are still done by marketing people. I think it’s important that these jobs... are given to high-quality designers who often do posters for small productions or album covers for small bands.

There is increasing use of decorative patterns in your recent works. Your use of typography seems also very loose and free. You use text similarly to how artists use drawings.
Three years ago, we had a client who had given us concepts that were very, very open. There was no content to fill in, no problem solving. We had to come up with our own design. So I took a list from my diary which had things I’ve learned so far in my life and expressed them typographically, filling them onto the design. It was an enjoyable project. It was [more] a way of self-expression than regular designs. As to the use of flower patterns, I use them because I think they are pretty. It’s not much deeper than that. There were times I avoided beauty. Beauty didn’t interest me. Now I find it an excellent motive for design.

That almost contradicts your notion of “style=fart.”
I still concentrate on content. I don’t think you can communicate in style alone. It’s much easier to transport your content with good style. If content is wrong, the best design won’t help it.
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