The graphic designer Stefan Sagmeister is now a kind of phenomenon. In recent months, he’s released a second book, mounted a solo exhibition at the renowned gallery Deitch Projects, and made a splash at Art Basel. And these are just the latest achievements in a career brimming with landmark design solutions and attendant accolades.
All of which has been well-earned. His work is often breathtakingly ambitious in its understanding of what design can be. It takes a certain kind of ingenuity and clarity of vision to intuit that this profession can mean typography carved into human flesh, or charts and graphics rendered huge and inflatable, or hanging out the side of the Empire State Building.
What’s more, his work also possesses a unique sense of whimsy that’s typically scarce in graphic design. Whether it’s a wall bricked with hundreds of bananas or a two actual school buses stacked one on top of the other, there’s a healthy amount of pure mirth present in most of his solutions — you rarely get the idea that he’s weary of his assignments, or that he’s doing anything less than having the time of his life. Indeed, one of the things that makes it so genuinely engaging is that Sagmeister seems to possesses an indefatigable willingness to act upon his playful ideas, to go to whatever lengths necessary to turn them into reality. Contrast that alacrity with the resignation of those of us who, if we can’t conjure up a solution in software or within ten feet of our desks, rule out anything more ambitious entirely. (Guilty as charged.)
All of this was made clear to me this past Tuesday when my colleagues at AIGA New York arranged for Sagmeister to give a talk about his recent work at the Haft Auditorium on the midtown campus of The Fashion Institute of Technology. He sold out that venue of 775 seats — among the biggest venues in which you’re likely to see a design event take place — and the crowd had a truly frenzied, star-struck energy the night of the event. And that’s not even mentioning the round-the-block lines reported at his solo show at Deitch Projects. The Sagmeister name brings out the masses.
Aside from his work being so generally compelling, I started trying to understand why it was that Stefan Sagmeister has become ’the Sagmeister phenomenon.’ The superficial answer, I think, is that he’s crossing over from the world of graphic design into the world of art. Even though he insists that his recent, largely self-driven design solutions are still in fact solutions — they use design for specific if unconventional purposes — he has played so fast and loose and for so long with the concept of ‘client brief’ that he seems far closer to the world of gallery openings than client presentations.
Getting Away With It
Even if it were true that we designers, in our enthusiasm for his artistic excursions, are celebrating his ‘graduation’ into a more refined cultural strata, I’m not sure that that’s such a satisfactory explanation for his celebrity. Rather, I think what’s at work here is we’re all enthralled by his ability to get away with it.
Sagmeister, clearly, is a designer who somehow manages to get clients to buy what he thinks is right, or even whatever he thinks is right. This upended economic relationship, in which the vendor calls the shots and the buyer submits, is a kind of holy grail for most of us. We daydream of working with clients who are so beholden to the singularity of our vision that they in turn let us do whatever the hell we want. In fact, I can’t think of a more succinct expression of what most of us strive for, even though statistically speaking a vanishingly small number of us will ever reach that pinnacle. Still, it’s an ideal that motivates a tremendous number of us, I’d wager.
But the novelty of authorship seems like weak criteria for judging real art. Ultimately, I think Sagmeister’s work, while remarkable as high-grade graphic design, amounts to only a low-grade of contemporary art. The works are obvious, not particularly dimensional, and somewhat juvenile. He himself has admitted that the premises upon which many of his self-driven designs are based are quite banal, and I wouldn’t argue the point.
What’s more important about Sagmeister is not so much the fact that he’s somehow managed to hypnotize his clientele into pliability, nor even that he’s successfully established a hyperbolic, Claes Oldenburg-like conceptual framework that appears poised to cross over into contemporary art. Rather, I think it᾿s that his definition of graphic design is far huger than most of us dare to dream, that he’s willing to get his ass out of his chair to act upon it, and that he seems to enjoy every minute of it. Take note, people.