Photo by John Madere

Photo by John Madere

Zoe Kors: What inspires you most?

Stefan Sagmeister: Being in a foreign place, preferably for the first time, having seen many things and collected new impressions, and returning to an empty hotel room with an hour or so to blow. That mix often yields fine results.

ZK: What makes you feel vulnerable?

SS: Entering a room full of people I dont know.

ZK: How do you process emotional pain?

SS: Working it off.

ZK: Tell me about your sabbaticals and the power of time off, in terms of the creative process and life in general.

SS: The original impulse for the first sabbatical had many fathers. Among them was the event of Ed Fella visiting the studio and bringing a number of his fantastic-type experiments executed into a sketchbook with a four-color ballpoint pen. When he self-mockingly called it “exit art,” I felt what a pity it is that one does this sort of stuff only with sixty—it would have had a much bigger impact on a working life when it would be interspersed regularly throughout ones life. Tibor Kalman’s early death played a role, as any death reminds us that our time here is finite, that we better use it a good as we can.

I did the first year when I was thirty-eight, the second with forty-six. I have only two more such years to go before the retirement age of sixty-five. I think it’s much more useful to take those years early, divided up throughout my working life rather than pinning them to the end of it. Ferran Adria, who is considered by many as the best chef in the world, closed his restaurant north of Barcelona for six months every year while keeping a full kitchen staff in order to experiment. That’s 50% of his time for experimentation, compared with my paltry 12.5%.

As mentioned, I myself am doing a full year of experiments every seven years, but I’m sure many other divisions are possible, depending on the field, the possibilities, and personal preferences. One hour a day or a day a week.

And: Everything that we designed and I still like in the seven years following the first sabbatical had its roots in thinking done during that sabbatical.

ZK: One of the things I love most of all about your work is the way you have been able to blur the lines between art, commerce, and consciousness. There is no better example of this than Things I’ve Learn in My LIfe So Far, in which you take statements of personal truth, create stunning environmental works of art, and have your corporate clients fund it all. Brilliant! What was your original vision for this project? What makes it so powerful? How did you get your clients to buy in?

SS: I actually had no original vision for this series. We started this when a couple of clients gave us an unusual amount of freedom. Only when the feedback from the audiences of these clients was excellent did it occur to me that there might be a whole series in this direction.

ZK: Many of the statements from Things I’ve Learned are simple. Some are more provocative. Can you elaborate on, “Trying to look good limits my life”?

SS: It is meant as, trying to always be the nice guy, to appear good, can be limiting. Avoiding confrontation has closed up a number of possibilities for me.

ZK: Another is, “Having guts always works out for me.” When has having guts best served you?

SS: Basically always. Whenever I do overcome my inherent fear, it turns out well. Knowing this now for over twenty years, it is surprising that I still need to talk myself into it. It does seem to get a tiny little bit easier though.

ZK: You’ve also said, “Keeping a diary supports my personal development.” Do you consistently keep a diary? I’d love to be locked in a room with your diary. What does it look like? Email me a snapshot.

SS: “Keeping a diary supports personal development” came from the realization that my diary entries allow me to keep track of all the things I would like to change about my life. I used to keep a handwritten diary, but changed many, many years ago into a digital one, mostly because I found it easier to reread, as my handwriting had deteriorated to illegibility when I was very excited (and these were always the most interesting bits).

ZK: What projects do you have coming up that you are excited about?

SS: Top and foremost, to work on and finish the Happy Film, to see if we actually made something that is worthwhile.

ZK: Tell me a little bit about the film.

SS: When I did research for this film and read many, many psychology books on happiness, I found that whenever a scientist talked about something that had actually happened to her, a personal experience, I took this much more seriously than when she wrote about a survey she conducted. So I changed the direction of the film from a general documentation on the subject to focus mainly on personal experiences, hoping that viewers would have the same reaction as I had. The film in itself will not make viewers happy (in the same way as watching Jane Fonda exercise wont make you lose weight), but I do hope that it might be the little kick in the ass to some viewers to explore these directions, like meditation or cognitive therapy. We plan to release it early 2014.

ZK: Love that Stefan, like teaching someone to fish. Thanks so much!

SS: Thank you, Zoe!

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