Design icon Stefan Sagmeister is in pursuit of happiness.
The Austrian-born graphic designer – well-known for designing album covers for Lou Reed, Aerosmith and the Rolling Stones – won a Grammy Award back in 2005 for Art Direction for the Once in a Lifetime box set by Talking Heads and another for Best Recording Package for David Byrne’s and Brian Eno’s Everything That Happens Will Happen Today back in 2010.
He landed his first series of jobs designing for several magazines at a very young age, when he was only 14 or 15. He later developed an interest in music and played in a band. After working for different people in Hong Kong, he was inspired to set up his own design firm Sagmesiter Inc. in 1993, which specialized in graphic designs for the music industry.
“I wanted to combine my love for music and my love for design,” said the graduate of graphic design at the University of Applied Arts in Vienna, Austria; and a 1987 recipient of a Fulbright scholarship at the Pratt Institute in New York.
In 2012, his New York-based design company was renamed Sagmeister & Walsh to seal his collaboration with Jessica Walsh, an award-winning emerging artist and his partner. The company, which creates commercials, websites, apps, films and books – has a motto: “We will do anything for design” and they both proved this by posing nude for the launch.
His first encounter with Indonesia was in 2009 when he decided to live in Bali for about a year. After that, he returned to Bali again for another three months in 2011.
“I spent most of my visits [in Indonesia] in Bali. I live in a big city and I will not move to live in another big city. For me moving from New York City to Jakarta would be totally stupid,” said the designer, who was in Yogyakarta for the annual art festival Art|Jog 13.
At the festival, Sagmeister presented three works — Now is Better (Sagmeister & Walsh in collaboration with Matthew and Erik Huber), Be More Flexible (Sagmeister & Walsh in collaboration with Esteban Diacono) and If I do Not Ask I Won’t Get (Sagmeister & Walsh in collaboration with Steve Romano).
“The three are about things that I have gone [through] in my life so far,” he said, adding that these works were part of an ongoing series titled Things That Have Gone in My Life So Far.
He said Now is Better basically tells about how he believes in human evolution. For example, he believes that things have actually improved for the human race – living in the 21st century is better than in the 20th century.
Be More Flexible, on the other hand, reflects his ability to focus properly, which is not helped by the fact that once he starts to go down a particular avenue, it's very difficult for him to change direction.
“I have often stuck with a plan, telling myself that altering it now would be flaky and show a lack of character, when in reality I was just not being flexible enough,” He explained.
The series, he said, was sort of a reflection of what influenced his life in the past 10 years. But the three videos that were presented depicted his recent life. “They all come from this year,” he said.
The series was not exclusively comprised of videos. Some of them were billboards, some were flat pieces. There were 30 works in total.
For a long time, he said the series attracted a lot of interest, partly because they were considered true by many people and in creating them he wanted to convey something more personal through the language of design.
As a designer, he said he tried to see and use the language of design in a more personal way.
“It’s funny that some people in Bali saw these pieces and they said ‘You must be a Hindu’. Some people in Yogya said ‘You must be a Muslim’. But, I am not a Hindu and I am not a Muslim,” he says.
The response, he said, gave him a sign that he was very similar to other people – showing him that the things he learned were similar to those from people of different cultures and religions.
“This [response] gives me satisfaction,” Sagmeister says.
At the festival’s crowded venue, he found it unique that Indonesia did not experience the same global trends during the last decade.
“If you go to Paris or New York, this is not unique. What is unique here is that the current generation is fully interested in art,” said the 51-year-old designer, who also had a chance to meet with a group of young Indonesian designers at the ongoing art festival.
He said there seemed to be some problems with graphic design in Yogyakarta, as he observed numerous designs that copied the works from Europe or the US.
“I think there is a fantastic chance right now in Indonesia for designers to find their own voice and create works that are rooted in Indonesian culture. Hopefully, they will find more local inspiration,”
Currently, he is working on a documentary film, partly shot in Bali. Other parts were shot in Paris and New York.
“I will submit the film to a festival. We plan to exhibit the documentary in theaters, but there is a lot of competition. So, we will see.”
Sagmeister, who just returned from Bali for a couple more shots for the film, said the film centered on happiness and is a self-experimental one.
“I am following the advice of my favorite psychologist, a very famous one in the US who thinks that the most efficient way to improve your happiness would be [through] meditation, therapy and anti-depressants. I try out all three and will see what happens.”