Nourishment for the Soul

by Celia Sin-Tien Cheng
March 28, 2008

While Stefan Sagmeister’s new book, Things I Have Learned in My Life So Far, is not on gastronomy, it is in many ways more nourishing than the fancy foods that we love to consume. When I picked it up, I already knew I’d be wowed. The famed New York-based, Austrian graphic designer is always coming up with witty ideas, and his executions of them are original and often outrageous. The book “jacket,” for example, is actually a slipcase bearing a die-cut image of Sagmeister’s face. Inside the slipcase, fifteen separately bound signatures create different patterns for the author’s face depending on the order in which they are returned to the case. So naturally, I was immediately wonderstruck by the book’s design, but what I didn’t expect was for the writing itself to resonate so deeply with me.

Based on a list that Sagmeister compiled in his diary titled, “Things I Have Learned in My Life So Far,” the book is centered on twenty maxims that have guided his work and his life. Each maxim is illustrated by Sagmeister’s distinctive vision and accompanied by anecdotes that might tell the story behind the artwork or the lesson that inspired the maxim. Sagmeister’s work is that of a rock star (rock star designer, that is), but his words suggest a soul so grounded and genuine that when the work and words combine, they are gripping and dynamic. Sayings such as “Complaining is silly. Either act or forget,” or “Helping other people helps me,” encourage us to live life without regret and with consideration for others. We may think that this is all easier said than done, but the book motivates us to take action, and perhaps that’s why I am so enraptured by it; it summarizes our perennial pursuit of happiness.

Taking it one step further than keeping these as personal reminders, Sagmeister enlisted the support of his clients to transform the maxims into typographic art ranging from words spelled out with chopped up pieces of hot dog to larger-than-life inflatable monkeys holding banners on the streets of Scotland. The creativity is astounding, but what I admire most is his lack of inhibition in pursuing crazy ideas. In “Over Time I Get Used To Everything And Start Taking It For Granted,” Sagmeister wanted to spell the word “it” with real bees. So he drew the word on his chest with queen bee pheromone, honey and brown sugar, prompting half a hive of bees onto his chest. The bees should have been attracted to the pheromone, but they did not do what was expected of them, so the beekeeper thrust them on Sagmeister and then tried to brush them off with a broom. Instead of spelling “it” with bees, he ended up with seven bee stings. Though the project didn’t yield the anticipated results, it revealed that the creative process is sometimes more interesting than the outcome. And like any life lesson, the experience was not wasted; in the end, he had a very amusing story to tell.

Beautiful and thought-provoking, Sagmeister’s work speaks to me through its acumen and wit. Life’s too short not to have a sense of humor. I look forward to reading a maxim every night before going to bed. It makes me feel better, sleep well, and dream of bigger things to come.

Buy your copy of Things I Have Learned in My Life So Far now by clicking the Amazon link below.

Stefan Sagmeister kindly shares three of his cravings with Cravings:

Pear tart

Soup dumplings
Joe’s Shanghai

Sake black cod


Comments (1)

Bernard Uy

Mar 31, 01:16 PM

Hey Celia – I just picked up this “book” too and loved it. I had an opportunity to meet and speak with Stefan Sagmeister a few years ago and he was a really great speaker, a great listener and I got the impression that he really enjoyed life. Thanks for the review!

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