Stefan Sagmeister and Jessica Walsh have been thinking about beauty. This might seem unsurprising, as both are designers who occupy the upper echelons of the design hierarchy, and aesthetics, you’d imagine, would be an ongoing concern. “One part of what we are doing is aiming to eradicate the tired notion that beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” says Stefan with a laugh. “Because it’s not.” I’m sat at the control centre of the Stefan and Jessica show, an office just off Broadway in Manhattan. Outside the meeting room where we are sat, a small team is working away diligently.
The world that their company, Sagmeister & Walsh, occupies is one entirely of their own making. They are showmen in a world they have placed themselves firmly at the centre of, through the strength of their convictions and considerable design talent. There follows a cult of personality that divides opinion but never fails to get a reaction. The duo trade in sensation and together have built a business and following that has evolved in tandem with the accelerated pace with which design is produced and consumed.
The Stefan and Jessica show at the Sagmeister & Walsh office, which is under constant surveillance, live-streamed to its website. You can watch the pair and employees sat at work each day if you are so inclined. They are the masters of spectacle. From the office stationery they created that saw penis size data inscribed on the pencils and branded condoms, the naked office photos (the most recent of which is one of the top ten most-read articles in the history of It’s Nice That) and the staged robbery of their office with Barcelona-based studio Achos, to the shocking self-harm-portraits of Stefan earlier in his career – these stunts have helped carve its niche as an attention-demanding entity in an industry that thinks it is far more outrageous than it really is.
For all the award-winning client work with its pumped up aesthetics and zeitgeist-capturing nous, it is the personal projects of Sagmeister & Walsh that shine brightest. The Happy Show and 40 Days of Dating stand apart. Both were examinations of particularly current phenomena, exercised with either Sagmeister or Walsh as the principal protagonists. Now, together, their gaze has fallen on the idea of beauty and they are keen to work out just what it is.
Troublingly, for them, they found that beauty appeared to be dead. “Basically, the thesis of the project is the idea that throughout human history and culture, beauty had a role in the things that we make,” explains Sagmeister. “It literally started in the Stone Age and went all the way to the beginning of the 20th Century. And then it kind of stopped. And you have the last, roughly, 100 years, in this strange part of human development where, through very explainable and very clear historical circumstances, we got rid of beauty. Both Jessica and I think it is time to let it back in.” Sagmeister is referring to the advent of functionalism, when rational thought and purpose became the driving forces behind design. He stresses that it was possibly not what the radical thinkers and protagonists from the 1920s to the 1940s were intending, “But then, specifically in the ‘50s, ‘60s, ‘70s, ‘80s it was too late.”
“There are things that all humans find beautiful. That is very much part of it. Then there is just culture."
So The Beauty Project starts from a low bar. I put it to them that beauty might be a sociological construct, so where do they even start? “There are things that all humans find beautiful. That is very much part of it. Then there is just culture. This is what we are going to be talking about, explaining and breaking down,” explains Walsh. “There will be two parts of the project – a book and then a large exhibition that explains the history and breaks down these different things, how beauty is perceived, and parts that are universally understood using voting polls and the like.” It’s clear that the project is not going to be a treatise or manifesto on beauty, but an examination of the contemporary idea of beauty and how the idea prevails in its myriad forms. There is already an open forum on Stefan Sagmeister’s Instagram account where he is crowdsourcing images of beauty and inviting discussion in the comments. “It’s a project that appeals to the general public. We think of ourselves as somewhat experts in this field. But then, there are many other experts from the fields of design, architecture and art, also from the field of psychology and aesthetics and science,” explains Sagmeister.
In the course of their examinations they are finding consensus and conflict, running down blind alleys and coming back out of them. For Sagmeister, it is becoming clear that familiarity breeds fondness, rather than contempt. “As a rule of thumb, there are 25-50% of things where there is an agreement that it is beautiful. Then with the rest, it is to do with a familiarity,” he suggests. “And taste comes in there – of course, coupled with education. Then there is context, when you find something beautiful in a certain context that is very often connected with how secure we feel ourselves. If we feel very secure we find more usual things beautiful. If we are not secure, we want to really know what we find beautiful. We see this from clients all the time.”
“That’s him summing up yesterday’s client meeting,” interjects Walsh. The pair laugh. But Sagmeister is on to something and continues to assert his ideas. “The antithesis of beauty is not ugliness, it is carelessness,” he opines. “It is true of everywhere in the world, the stuff that is ugly is normally never the stuff that someone wanted to make ugly, it is always the stuff that someone didn’t give a shit about. And so we actually enjoy particularly ugly things. They can be fantastic. But I think when we really talk about beauty, we talk about formal intent. So we can even include the ugly. It is never about minimalism or baroque, its always about the ultimate decision – was it done with love and care or did nobody give a shit? The ‘nobody gave a shit’ world is huge…”
“The antithesis of beauty is not ugliness, it is carelessness.”
The Beauty Project launched in Vienna and will travel the world. The duo are actively looking for venues to host the show, the latest self-initiated project that will make waves when it opens, and then, they will also use this opportunity to tell their story at conferences and events around the world. They are the masters of the mega-self-initiated project. “Self-initiated projects are so big. At conferences they are the centre of people’s talks,” says Walsh. “People are carving out their time to do socially minded or charitable works. They don’t have client restrictions, they can explore things and put their own voice to something.”
It’s sometimes easy to forget that Sagmeister & Walsh has clients, that there are projects going on in the background to their more performative endeavours – something that Sagmeister thinks is easily explained: “There has always been this strange separation between the commercial and the personal or even the artistic and the commercial, which is an odd separation in any way that you look at it. As a person, you and I might do something commercial every day. You might go to the supermarket and buy milk. While at the supermarket I might take a phone call, so while doing something commercial i might do something personal and I might talk with that person about something cultural. These things in our lives are completely meshed together and no-one thinks anything of it. But when it comes to our professional lives it’s like: ‘This is an artistic endeavour, it needs to be personal.’ We find that all these experiences, personal or commercial, really influence each other. Our personal projects are largely informed by the commercial. Quite often we do a personal project and a client sees it and says, ‘Oh, we would want to do something like this’. We have got so many.”
This rationale would imply there is a separation in the mindset of the creatives when developing a project, but they acknowledge that it’s impossible to separate the two kinds of project that get labelled with the studio’s name. Which, given the notoriety and popularity of their work, can’t be a bad thing. “Things like 40 Days of Dating led to clients asking us to do similar work and vice versa,” says Walsh. “There are things like The Happy Film – we wouldn’t have done that without our commercial experience.” It’s this balance that keeps Sagmeister & Walsh in check. The commercial work in which the outrageousness is toned down, and the more thought-provoking and sensational work that is self-initiated is a source of endless curiosity for the pair. This is down to the level of control they have, something that is reflected in the tiny size of the studio and their willingness to broadcast its day-to-day goings on. “This is as big as we want to become,” says Jessica. “Otherwise we might lose control or there will be layers. I think we both like the fact that anyone who comes through the door, even if it is an intern, if they have a great idea, their voice can be heard. We can make projects actually happen; if it grew beyond this, that might get hard.”
Sagmeister is even more convinced that good work comes from the effective efforts of a small team. “If you look at the big brands of this world, Apple, AT&T, their main visual signifier was done by a single person or a tiny team. Like, literally. Those really big ones were done by some corporate international branding agency. I think that is not a coincidence. It’s to do with the focus needed to drive that idea,” he explains. “We opened the studio 25 years ago and there has been plenty of opportunity at almost every step of the way to make this into a 50, 100, 150 person outfit. We had the client offers and the people who could do it. The main reason to not do it was, first, the quality.” Sagmeister & Walsh: being small while thinking big.