You may not know Stefan Sagmeister’s name, but you’ll likely recognize his firm’s lion design for the Rolling Stones’ 1997 album Bridges to Babylon, as well as album covers for Lou Reed, Talking Heads, and Aerosmith. Design geeks bow before the 45-year-old Austrian-born, New York–based designer’s witty topographical experiments and bad-ass stunts — a poster for a talk he gave in 1999 was a photo of all the event info carved into his chest. His new book, Things I Have Learned in My Life So Far (Abrams), collects a series of billboards, magazine spreads, and short videos in which musings from his diary — “drugs are fun in the beginning but become a drag later on,” “trying to look good limits my life,” “assuming is stifling” — were spelled out in flowers, yellow “caution” tape, drink glasses at a party, and chopped-up hotdogs.
What was it like to work with Talking Heads, the Rolling Stones, Lou Reed, and Aerosmith?
All completely different. Aerosmith was by far the most difficult. The worst job I’ve ever done in my life. It had nothing to do with the band. It was much involved with the management at the label. The one-sentence version would be: I’d rather do another 10 posters where I have to cut my breast up than do another Aerosmith CD.
Which band were you most intimidated to work with?
Definitely the Stones. Mick Jagger is very very much in charge of these things. He was very marketing oriented. Surprisingly. He talks very much like a CEO, you know, there was “synergy.” He actually didn’t care that much about the CD cover itself, he much more cared that a symbol would be created on that cover that would look good on baseball hats. Because the Stones actually are — and it’s been written many times, but I never quite believed it — it’s truly a corporation. They also make much much much more money, in magnitudes, selling merchandise than in selling music.
Tell me about cutting the balls off the Stones' Bridges to Babylon lion.
We presented to Jagger a lion that was not specified, but it had no balls. And he suggested why don’t we put a big pair of balls on there. And I in my unbelievable stupidity, and just coming out of the Aerosmith disaster, where we had to paint little bathing suits on tiny snake creatures that were on page 12 of the booklet because Wal-Mart wouldn’t take them if they had itsy bitsy nipples showing. But we’re talking about things you could only see with a loupe. I said to Jagger, well, the record company’s only going to make us cut them off anyway, why even go through the trouble? And he understood that. But I, of course, could have slapped myself. Because that’s exactly the way bad work is made. You have one bad experience and you think that’s how it’s going to be.
Tell me about the self-mutilation poster for your 1999 American Institute of Graphic Arts talk.
It was for a lecture of mine. So it was talking to a pure design audience. And at the time the buzzword in design was “process.” And I tried to figure out a piece of work that would tell the making of it, the process of it in one clean picture.
Your work moves between handmade design and tech stuff.
I think that in general because modernism was so dominating over the last 80 years so much of the work became so unbelievably cold that a regular person, my mom or your mom, doesn’t even know that there is a person behind that doing this. If you ask my mom, how is the New York Times designed? She probably thinks it’s a machine. You know she’s aware of the writer, but she wouldn’t be aware that there was actually somebody who makes these decisions, who really designs the entire paper. I think bringing a human element, a clearly hand-crafted element, can engage an audience again.
In the past you've wondered whether it's possible to touch somebody's heart with design. Can you give me an example of your work that touched somebody's heart?
The one that I know for sure was a target audience of one, my friend Reini. My friend Reini came to visit [New York from Austria] and he was a little scared that nobody would go out with him. And all the sophisticated New York women would ignore him. So I printed up this poster for him that said, “Dear Girls! Please Be Nice to Reini.” And he got a girlfriend out of it.