The perils of getting naked with Sagmeister

When Sagmeister Inc chose to announce that it had become Sagmeister & Walsh, it must have seemed like a fun and appropriate idea to update the studio’s original naked mailer with a new nude shot featuring both partners. But will it have as positive an effect on the career of Jessica Walsh as it did on that of the studio’s founder?

When Sagmeister Inc chose to announce that it had become Sagmeister & Walsh, it must have seemed like a fun and appropriate idea to update the studio’s original naked mailer with a new nude shot featuring both partners together. But will the decision have as positive an effect on the career of Jessica Walsh as it did on that of the studio’s founder?

Stefan Sagmeister has always understood the power of getting naked. He first made his mark with a poster for the Hong Kong chapter of the 4As advertising organisation featuring four bare backsides (shown above, 1992). It was a funny, clever, daring idea which generated both attention and controversy – values that have propelled Sagmeister’s career ever since.

 

Witness also the 1999 poster for an AIGA lecture in Cranbrook for which Sagmeister had the event’s details carved into his naked torso. Or his Sagmeister On A Binge poster for a show in Japan featuring the before and after effects of junk food on the designer’s body.

When Stefan Sagmeister wanted to announce that he was setting up his own studio in New York in 1994 he sent out a card featuring himself naked. Despite fears that it would lose him the only client he had at the time, the mailer had the opposite effect.

 

Now Sagmeister has made a major change in his business (reported here), with Jessica Walsh joining as a partner and the studio being renamed Sagmeister & Walsh. Time, then, to re-do that card, perhaps.

Sagmeister says he was “sheepish” about the idea of having both partners naked and initially suggested that Walsh could provide a contrast by being dressed ultra conservatively. Walsh, though, was having none of it: “Why should I be the conservative one?” she argued.

 

 

The result is an announcement in which both partners appear stark naked, save for, on Sagmeister’s part, the addition of a pair of black socks, as in the original. It’s a way of saying ‘we’re equal partners here’ (Walsh is even posed on top of a pile of books to equalise their heights), both the same. Except they are not.

As a society, we view an image of a naked middle-aged man very differently to the way in which we react to a naked young woman. Logic dictates that we shouldn’t, but we do.

A 50 year-old Sagmeister in his black socks is humorous and self-deprecatory as well as honest, open and daring. The original card suggested that here was a risk-taker who knew what it took to get himself, and by extension his clients, talked about. Will Walsh be judged as generously?

 

Levi’s billboard by Sagmeister Inc. Design: Jessica Walsh


My first reaction on seeing the card was one informed less by my position as editor of CR and more by the fact that I’m a parent. It was: Does she know what she’s getting herself into here? Sagmeister’s original card went to a fairly exclusive audience: this new version has been distributed to millions worldwide. Speaking to Walsh yesterday, she admitted to being nervous about reaction to the card and seemed well aware that some may draw unintended implications from it. I hope she hasn’t read the comments over at the design forum site QBN, as some of them will no doubt confirm her worst fears. Misogyny and jealousy are an ugly combination.

 



EDP identity: art direction by Jessica Walsh


Sagmeister has used his body, literally, to advance his career. He has used nakedness as a way of conveying a promise of daring, wit, bravery and commitment. It is to be hoped that those same qualities now attach themselves to Walsh but the risk is that her talent as a designer becomes overshadowed by this image and the attendant innuendo it has provoked. It is unjust and it is unreasonable but women are judged by different criteria to men and the tactics employed so successfully by Sagmeister may not work so well for Walsh.

Surely, the big news here is not that Jessica Walsh is naked but that, at age 25, she has been made a partner of one of the most famous and highly regarded design studios in the world. That is a fantastic achievement. In her dotage, will she look back with fondness at a moment of youthful daring that visually expressed the fact that she had become the equal of one of the best designers in the business or, in her nakedness, is her most remarkable feature in danger of being obscured?

 

 

 

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