The art of packaging

Graphic designer to speak Jan. 19 at the Silverbow

Posted: Thursday, January 13, 2005

In 1993, graphic designer Stefan Sagmeister opened his own studio in New York City, hoping to design packaging for albums and compact discs.

Record companies promised him work, but none came through. His big break finally came when he designed the cover for fellow Austrian Hans Platzgumer's art rock band H.P. Zinker.

Their 1994 album "Mountains of Madness" spelled the end of the band, but earned Sagmeister a Grammy nomination for best cover art. Soon after, the job offers came pouring in.

Now in his early 40s, Sagmeister still runs his own New York studio with a staff small enough so he doesn't have to manage.

His clients include Lou Reed, The Rolling Stones, The Talking Heads, the Israel-Palestine social change advocates One Voice and AIGA, the professional association for communication design. To see some his work, check out

Sagmeister will speak in Juneau at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 19, at the Silverbow, as part of the Alaska Design Forum's monthly speaker series. Sagmeister is also visiting Anchorage and Fairbanks.

"There is probably a larger premium placed on practicality in the U.S., and a larger premium placed on cultural benefits in Austria," Sagmeister said. "I have a couple of Austrian clients and their first demand would be, it has to be something, 'good.' It has to be something that is not visual pollution. Otherwise they have no interest in being associated with it. In the U.S., the first and foremost principle is it has to sell, it has to work."

Sagmeister was born in 1962 in Austria, where his parents owned a fashion retailing business. He earned his master's degree in fine arts from the University of Applied Arts in Vienna and moved to New York in 1987 to study at the Pratt Institute as a Fulbright Scholar.

He went back to Austria in 1990 for his compulsory military service, but spent his time in a refugee center as a conscientious objector. In 1991, he moved to Hong Kong to work for the Leo Burnett ad agency. He drew up a design for the 1992 4As advertising awards featuring four naked male bottoms and a traditional Cantonese image. It created an uproar and he returned to New York in 1993.

He grew up playing in four "terrible" art-rock bands, influenced mainly by King Crimson and Pink Floyd. And so his goal at Sagmeister Inc. was to combine his two passions: music and design.

Including the H.P. Zinker nomination, he's been nominated for four Grammys and many international awards. He's had solo shows in Zurich, New York, Vienna and Cologne, and a best-selling monograph, "Sagmeister, Made You Look," was released in 2001.

Four years ago, Sagmeister Inc. evolved into a broader concentration - music, visual art for museums and galleries, design for social causes and corporate graphics.

"The entire notion of packaging music or the CD cover is very much an idea whose time is coming to an end," Sagmeister said. "I could foresee a future where visuals don't package the music. So many people listen to music as files, and there are different attempts on how to package a visual or an animation with the file. But the entire idea of the visual design of music came out of the idea that vinyl was scratchable and needed to be packaged."

Sagmeister's last biggest music project was the Talking Heads' box set, "Once in a Lifetime," a three-CD, one-DVD set with 100 rare photographs and cover paintings by Russian contemporary artists Vladimir Dubossarsky and Alexander Vinogradov. The set has been nominated for the 2005 Grammy Awards.

Sagmeister has been working with Talking Heads co-founder David Byrne since designing the "Afropea" compilation album in 1995.

"(Byrne) is one of the rare musicians that is very sophisticated visually, which is a big exception, because I found that many professional musicians basically spend their youth rehearsing," Sagmeister said. "He might be the only musician that I know who does serious work in quality visual art."

Sagmeister recently designed the catalog for the Guggenheim Museum. He also has begun working with One Voice, a social change group focused on the political situation in Israel and Palestine. He designed their logos, worn by their speakers, and their surveys. The group is currently canvassing thousands of homes in the area, asking what residents will accept for a peace accord.

"It's a group that I very much believe in, and it's also a group that earned a big boost by Abbas being elected in Palestine," Sagmeister said. "They basically want to push the mainstream forward and drive a wench in between the radicals and the mainstream. They think most people in Palestine and most people in Israel want peace, and that it's only a small group of extremists that keep the much larger groups from being at peace."

• Korry Keeker can be reached at

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