There's nothing unclear about the name of Stefan Sagmeister's new show at Les Arts Décoratifs in Paris: Another Exhibit About Promotion and Sales Material. But the Austrian designer who rose to fame creating award-winning album covers for the Rolling Stones, Talking Heads, Brian Eno and David Byrne has a knack for nuance and, when opportune, subversive humour.
New York-based since 1993, his studio Sagmeister Inc. has produced striking campaigns and special projects in which message and medium are valued equally. Consider his maxim "Self-confidence produces fine results" and then consider that he expressed this as a wall of 10,000 variously ripe and unripe bananas (naturally, this one-time installation from 2008 decomposed into a uniform mass of overripe brown mush). Or the yellow school bus flipped and stacked on top of another school bus like a conjoined twin, masterminded (and driven around) to communicate the goal of doubling U.S. educational budgets. Most shocking, he has used his own body as a lecture poster, getting his intern to carve the event details into his skin (complete with the unrelated pensée "style = fart").
With carte blanche to install whatever he wished in the museum space, he focused on the past seven years (the amount of time he spends working between self-imposed year-long sabbaticals) and grouped the work into themes: selling culture, selling corporations, selling friends, selling myself. There's nothing radical; mostly it's an exploration of text as art aided by cool examples of a mind in motion; literally, he made a remote-controlled book on wheels for BMW to signal that "culture moves." He also shares his diary in a series of projections and confesses he's prone to taking credit for others' ideas if he forgets to their names down beside his sketches. Still, Sagmeister shows it is possible to sell himself without selling out – and that he's not just another talking head.
What's the purpose of this show?
In France, I have always felt that you either do cultural work or you do commercial work. And you don't do both at the same time; it's sort of seen in bad taste. So I wanted to show the mix. I've worked with some wonderful people in cultural institutions and wonderful people in commercial institutions and I've seen idiots in both. I don't quite see a gigantic difference. And even from a product or service point of view, I know corporations who do fantastic things and are, if you will, culturally much more important than many cultural institutions.
What is your personal definition of design?
I would say it's conceiving something that will have to work, with the idea to improve one's life.
Do you enjoy the process as much as the product?
Yes, absolutely. I mean, otherwise, I wouldn't enjoy my whole life. And we also, quite consciously, try to make that process more interesting by not being stuck at the computer all the time and not letting our tools dictate what we do, and by also venturing out – not just from behind our desks but also our from our comfort zones – for concept reasons or execution reasons. You see a range of executions here – from the digital to the wall of bananas.
Is album art still relevant?
No! I think it's gone. I think album art mattered when music was delivered in media that needed to be packaged – media that was tangible and scratchable. They needed to be protected. That's how album art came into being. The only reason Alex Steinweiss invented the album cover was because it was in a paper bag anyway, so he figured you might as well put something on it. Album covers were one of the few packages that weren't thrown away. They were part of your household. Now, they're a nostalgic medium.
For you, it seems any medium lends itself to a message. How did you arrive at this?
By and large, as a communication designer, I am in the situation of having to communicate something knowing that I only have the attention of the audience for a very short time. So you want to have surprise on your side. That surprise can come by how to deliver the message, on what you deliver the message, by the way that message is shaped or written or formed – there are all kinds of different ways to explore that.
You are currently working on a documentary about happiness and it has been the topic of at least one of your TED Talks. Why the pursuit?
I think it came out of a realization that basically everything I do is ultimately a reason to become happier. But I take an incredible amount of back and side roads to reach that goal. Initially, I wanted to explore the subject because I thought, wouldn't it make sense to pursue this more directly and see if leads anywhere. I reframed the question a couple times so now it's, "Is it possible to train my mind the same way it's possible to train my body?" I know that it's possible to train my body. And there are a good number of reasonable people out there that say the mind is trainable in a similar way. It's kind of odd that our cities are not filled with mind-training gyms the same way they're filled with body-training gyms.
Do you think that's because we're superficial?
My guess would be that it seems like a more doable task. And in this film that we have started – we're about a quarter into it – I am only trying out strategies that are doable.
What would be a message you would put in space?
I don't think space needs my messages right now.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
Another Show About Promotion and Sales Material continues in Paris until Feb. 19, 2012 (www.lesartsdecoratifs.fr).