Sagmeister on beauty

After his investigations into happiness, Stefan Sagmeister’s new obsession is beauty, on which subject his studio is creating a major exhibition (see statement below). In contrast to the rationalism of Modernism, beauty can be seen as indulgent or decadent but, Sagmeister argued in a talk at the D&AD Festival, the formal can also be functional. CR’s Patrick Burgoyne interviewed Sagmeister on the topic following his talk. What follows is a transcript of their discussion

“Throughout most of the 20th and the 21st century beauty has gotten a bad reputation: Many respectable designers claim not be interested in it, the contemporary art world has almost completely abandoned it and one can leaf through stacks of architecture books without seeing the term mentioned once. Sagmeister&Walsh will put a large, engaging exhibition together demonstrating through a wide variety of media why this is so utterly stupid and what we can do to reverse it. The goal is to prove to the visitor that beauty is no mere surface strategy but a central part of what it means to be human.”

PB: Can you explain when your interest in beauty began and what prompted you to investigate it as a theme?

SS: From a studio level, we came to beauty through function. We discovered that whenever we took form seriously, it just seemed to work much better – the goal of the client was achieved and the part that was formal played a big role in that. Then I just started to investigate further. A few years ago I did a short talk about it in India that was sloppy and didn’t get much traction at all. Then I resurrected it once our studio projects began to seem to prove the idea.

One project that I find interesting was for a cloud computing company that makes very sophisticated software to put large bulks of data onto the cloud. Their customer is normally a Chief Technology Officer and, in that space, if you go to a trade show where CTOs mingle it’s very visually unsophisticated, everything’s about security locks and big type with metal bars in front of it.

We proposed something very different and the client, who really supported it, reaped the rewards. We had one of the smallest booths at a major trade show but it was by far the most popular booth and it had something to do with going down a formal direction that no-one else went down.

When the project was published on design blogs apparently it was well reviewed but there were also designers who said ‘yeah, yeah, this shit is just for Sagmeister & Walsh’s portfolio. In real life this never works.’ Unbeknownst to us, the CEO of our client inserted himself into the discussion and said ‘you guys don’t get it – this is a purely functional piece. Yes it’s pretty but it really functions through its prettiness.’ And I’m a big believer in that.

PB: If you are saying that there’s a lack of experimentation in form, or a lack of confidence, does that come from fear? The stripped-back pseudo-Modernism that we see so much is presumably a safer approach?

SS: Yes, absolutely. If you design a gallery the safest thing to do is a white box and if you design an art book the safest thing to do is put everything on white pages. The chances that you are going to fuck up are somehow lower. But so much of that stuff that works in meetings because everyone can agree to it never works in real life.

An easy example would be the airline safety exit cards. Until maybe four years ago, all airline cards looked the same. They were built that way for purely functional reasons. I’m on a plane once a week and I have never seen a single person take that card out of the pocket and look at it. So very clearly, from a functional point of view this doesn’t work. If airplane designers would be as dull and stupid as graphic designers are we would still fly in a plane from the Wright Brothers.

I feel the same about classic Modernist layouts – yes it works in a meeting because you can read it, but it doesn’t mean that somebody actually reads it [in real life]. There are whole categories like this – the architecture book that by its design is already not readable. Are you going to sit at a coffee table and read long text? It’s a kind of faux intellectualism.

In 2013 Sagmeister&Walsh were commissioned by the Dumbo Improvement District in partnership with Two Trees Management Co and the NYCDOT Urban Art Program to paint two 80 foot-long murals on the walls of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway underpass in New York. They collaborated with Japanese illustrator Yuko Shimizu to bring beauty to an otherwise unloved space.

PB: Doesn’t the rationale in that case come from a worry about the design competing with the work on show?

SS: Yes, I remember having very excited arguments about this with a UK critic who was very much a champion of the classic format for the design of an art book, but my opinion is that a design book should feel like [the work of] that designer. Not just a white box that features some of their work but that the whole thing should feel like the work of the subject. And it seems like books that are designed holistically are doing much better now – other designers are more interested in them.

In 2013 Sagmeister&Walsh were commissioned by the Dumbo Improvement District in partnership with Two Trees Management Co and the NYCDOT Urban Art Program to paint two 80 foot-long murals on the walls of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway underpass in New York. They collaborated with Japanese illustrator Yuko Shimizu to bring beauty to an otherwise unloved space.

PB: Many designers like to be able to portray what they do as a solution to a problem, the endpoint to a logical process of research and analysis. In that logical world, if you start to introduce something ephemeral or subjective…. 

SS: Specifically in the regular press I’ve seen many interviews with designers where the journalist asks ‘so you make things look good?’ And invariably the designer replies ‘no, no no. That’s not what we are about at all. We are all about the concept, or solving problems’ or whatever it is. My feeling about that is that most of the people who are saying this would not know how to make something look good.

I find it’s actually incredibly difficult to make something look good. To come up with something that is aesthetically pleasing in a 21st century way is incredibly difficult.

Max Bill actually wrote about this and his stance was that it’s basically a given that it has to work but you have to have beauty as a goal to do anything proper, anything that actually works.

If you take a chair, of course its main function is to be sat on but it can have many side functions. One might be that if that chair is truly gorgeous, it can expand its longevity. People might get it repaired as opposed to an ugly chair that you throw out. So beauty might have an environmental effect. I’ve been walking around with a leather bag that I love for 25 years. I’ve had it repaired many times because I think it’s beautiful.

PB: But aren’t you equating beauty with ornament?

SS: No, not at all. I think that the easiest way I could say it comes from the idea that we find beauty in things done well. This can be completely minimalistic. I just spent a night in James Turrell’s House of Light [an art installation in Japan]. This thing couldn’t be more minimal. There’s a square hole in the ceiling and there was almost overwhelming beauty. I went with a friend who is not in the art world and she was completely transformed by it. There’s not an ornament to be seen anywhere there. It’s not about ornament but ‘did the maker put a lot of love, care and attention into this thing?’

I find it curious that in many online applications, there is quite an absence of beauty as a goal. Even if we look at Apple, there is clear delight in the products, particularly when they are new. I find much less of that on the Apple website. It has somewhat of a similar aesthetic but it doesn’t have that same amount of thought or sense of sacrifice that goes into it as the products do.

PB: How much is that due to the impact of UI/UX doctrine? Online we are very much encouraged to do what users ask us to do, to get out of the way. There’s a collision of an engineering mindset and a design mindset there.

SS: I fall into this trap all the time, a good example would be charity work. When we take on a charity we do it because we think we can help it. Beauty goes out of the window. I have talked to the chief designer of a very large online platform about at least testing if a more beautiful version would work better, but they never even considered it. They never ran a version that was more form-based next to one that is Modernist and grid-based to see if there’s a difference.

PB: You are on one of your periodic sabbaticals at the moment – you started in Mexico City and have moved on to Tokyo. How have those experiences changed your idea of beauty? Whose beauty do you mean?

SS: There is a common denominator of beauty that we all agree on worldwide, then there are other parts. Experience, familiarity plays a part – we all know this from the song that doesn’t sound so great first time we hear it and then we really get to love it, and then context makes a big difference. So there are ideas of beauty that are specific to Mexico City and to Tokyo, but are extremely different to each other.

In Japan, the more ephemeral an object is, the more love and attention has gone into it. So let’s say the little paper band that keeps chopsticks together? The most gorgeous thing you’ve ever seen in your life. The table setting in the restaurant – fantastic. The restaurant itself – you could see it somewhere else, but still pretty good. The building that restaurant is in – mediocre; the street – quite bad; city planning – terrible. I was told that this is because ultimately it’s a Buddhist culture so the ephemeral is taken very seriously, also people don’t quite care about the common areas [as much as in other countries] but take personal space very seriously.

PB: Instagram and Pinterest – how are they affecting our notion of what beauty, or maybe taste, is? Are they leading us toward homogeneity?

SS: I haven’t made up my mind yet. On the one hand you see things like Instagram having a serious impact on fashion – and not always a positive one because it pushes the colourful and the flashy over the well-made and the subtle. But then I have numerous friends who live in Tokyo and make a fine living freelancing for foreign clients – that is 100% made possible by Instagram. It’s great that a 26 year-old can move to Tokyo and do her own thing without having to be attached to a studio. On the negative side, we have more difficulty keeping good designers because they know that too. For the same money we pay them they can be freelancers and work three days a week. For everything I like about it there’s a darker side to it.

I’ve been using Instagram to do little surveys on beauty – it’s been absolutely fascinating. Who would have known that out of six forms – one being a sphere, one a roundy wiggly shape, one a spiky wiggly shape, one a cube and one rectangular – that the sphere would win by a gigantic amount? Or that the rectangular shape would come in at 2%, so by far the last? I find it interesting that the most unpopular shape is the one that 99% of all new buildings look like.

Almost all ugliness doesn’t come from somebody who wants to make something ugly on purpose, it comes from being indifferent to [whether something is beautiful or not]. Just by placing beauty as a goal in a project, that we would like something to be good-looking, that already will make it more so.

See a video of Sagmeister’s talk at

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