Stefan Sagmeister: The Pursuit of Happiness and Beauty
Stefan Sagmeister has spent the past 40-odd years demonstrating how graphic design can make even the most abstract ideas tangible. And he does it with his own unique style—his own idiom.
Stefan Sagmeister is an influential graphic designer known for his unorthodox and provocative art. He designed album covers for such artists as the Rolling Stones, Lou Reed, and Jay-Z. and worked for HBO, Time Warner, and Levis, among other companies.
Born and raised in Austria, Sagmeister earned an MFA at Vienna’s University of Applied Arts and attended Pratt Institute in New York. After a stint with boundary-pushing firm M&Co. he founded his own company, Sagmeister Inc., in 1993.
Sagmeister established his reputation as an innovative music industry designer in 1995, with his Grammy-nominated concept for HP Zinker’s Mountains of Madness CD. He won Grammys for the Talking Heads’ Once in a Lifetime boxset (2003) and David Byrne and Brian Eno’s album Everything That Happens Will Happen Today (2008).
He turned from commercial design to art exhibitions with “The Happy Show,” an investigation of the visual language behind happiness that premiered in 2012 and toured to five countries. “Beauty,” which began touring in 2018, considers the beauty of the human-created world.
If graphic design is a language, then Stefan Sagmeister is quite a poet. Though he, rather modestly, claims only basic fluency.
Stefan Sagmeister: Graphic design is a very, very living language, that expands on a constant basis.
Sagmeister’s portfolio is vast. Amidst a steady stream of high-profile commercial jobs, he also makes more personal projects. For example, his 2008 Things I Have Learned In My Life So Far, a book of aphorisms compiled from a lifetime’s supply diary entries. Most of the images were not finished on a computer, but in the real world.
Born and raised in Bregenz, Austria, Sagmeister decided to pursue a life in graphic design as a teenager, in the hope that one day he would create album art for his favorite bands. The young Stefan reasoned that with little musical talent of his own, design would give him the best chance of rubbing shoulders with his heroes. And it all worked out. He would eventually design albums for The Rolling Stones, Brian Eno, and David Byrne among many others. But his big break came when he was nominated for a Grammy, for his design of a far lesser-known artist’s album, H.P. Zinker’s Mountains of Madness.
Sagmeister: And I think from then on that made the difference between record companies telling us they’re gonna give us jobs, and them actually coming along.
AJC: And how much interaction, I know that you and David Byrne have stood in the same room, have you stood in the same room with Aerosmith and The Rolling Stones, and everyone else?
Sagmeister: Oh sure, absolutely, yes.
AJC: They really wanna be hands on?
Sagmeister: Yes, oh totally. It’s, and not for all bands, but let’s say for bands like The Stones, the cover is of incredible importance, also financially. Some of these bands make, actually, significantly more money from the cover than they do from the music.
AJC: How so?
Sagmeister: Because the cover is giving the direction for merchandise, and specifically for time-set merchandise. Now in the case of The Stones, I think that there were 800 merchandise items made from our cover.
AJC: That was “Bridges to Babylon”?
Sagmeister: Yes, yes.
AJC: I mean, this is a work for hire. You’re not getting a commission on any of this?
Sagmeister: I’m not getting any commissions, I’m not getting points on this. And I think rightfully so, because ultimately the reason this merchandise sells is not because my lion is so beautiful, but it’s because it says, “Rolling Stones Bridges to Babylon” on it. So, I think, I never really had a problem with that.
Stefan Sagmeister’s outlook on life has always been fairly upbeat. But it wasn’t until 2009 that he began to wonder why. He discovered that about half of his sunny disposition was innate. A biological gift. He then began to explore just how happy he might become with just a little more effort. And, thus, was born “The Happiness Project”.
Sagmeister: I was not depressed, far from it. I felt that, maybe a little greedy, you can always get happier. It’s, you know, the same way, I don’t know, like if you were born with a particular efficiency to be good in the high jump, let’s say. That doesn’t mean that you don’t wanna train the high jump and don’t wanna become better at it. And so, I felt very similarly about happiness, and I felt that the whole thing, the whole question, like is it something that’s trainable? Like, can I train my mind in the same way that I can train my body, was ultimately an interesting question.
Sagmeister tried meditation, medication, and talk therapy. It didn’t ultimately make him much happier, but after seven years he had created a documentary film and an art exhibition on the subject. Of late, Sagmeister has shifted his focus to another massive subject, beauty. In late 2018, he and designer Jessica Walsh created a book exploring the philosophical, scientific, and historical roots of beauty, and how it influences the way we feel and behave. Sagmeister believes that beauty is functional, and a very much underrated tool for sustainability. It’s something he carries with him every day.
Sagmeister: Let me quickly get up from here.
Sagmeister: And, look I’ve had.
AJC: That’s beautiful.
Sagmeister: I’ve had this bag for 29 years.
AJC: Right, and this is.
Sagmeister: And it’s a—
AJC: This is American West, I’m thinking.
Sagmeister: It’s a bag from Texas. I’ve always liked it. I’ve got hundreds, maybe thousands of compliments about it. I get it repaired every two or three years because I think it’s beautiful. Now, this is perfect sustainability. Because in the last 29 years I didn’t need a new bag. I just stayed with this one. So, it’s better than anything that is recyclable. It’s, beauty just takes care of it. And that is true for the Pantheon, that’s been standing for 2,000 years, and has been used for 2,000 years, because it was unbelievably beautiful. And people, different cultures, well different areas of Rome appreciated it enough that nobody’s, that everybody’s said, “No, let’s keep that thing standing, it’s just so good.”
Going forward, self-directed creative projects like the beauty book will be the only ones Stefan Sagmeister takes on. At 57 years old he is now embarking on a new phase, and one he hopes that will be beautiful.