Wiener Schnitzel for the Soul

THINGS I HAVE LEARNED IN MY LIFE SO FAR
By Stefan Sagmeister
Essays by Steven Heller, Daniel Nettle,
and Nancy Spector
Harry N. Abrams, New York
15 unbound signatures in a die-cut slipcase, $40

Things I Have Learned in My Life So Far is a beautiful collection of Jenny Holzer–like truisms written, converted, and art directed into captivating photos, objects, and images by the New York graphic designer Stefan Sagmeister. Approaching the book (actually a boxed collection of signatures, packaged so that different images appear through the die-cut slipcase depending on their order) with no other knowledge of what’s going on, you might say to yourself, “Man, this work is really fucking cool.”

And then you read a bit further and your impressions morph. Sagmeister begins to add anecdotes from his own life, which are quirky and koan-like and add a nice sugar dusting to his enigmatic images.

And then he starts to discuss the methodology behind how the truisms were constructed and, more often than not, photographed. Interesting: Laundry on the roof spells words, and so does toilet paper wrapped around trees; what appear to be electron microscope images of viruses are, in fact, words. It’s beautifully executed with the help of other highly talented designers, and it makes you wish you could open more books or boxes and have the same gee-whiz experience.
And then things maybe morph too far…

Everybody [always] thinks they are right.
Assuming is stifling.
Everybody who is honest is interesting.
Worrying solves nothing.

The truisms pile up. There are 20 in all, and you can’t help but notice that something’s missing from the statements…darkness, maybe. While the art direction is flawless, the sentiments behind the words feel a bit like Forrest Gump goes to RISD. Okay, that was crabby, but then Sagmeister was born in 1962 (thank you, Wikipedia), and when you’re 45, if nothing else, it’s the scary shit in life that helps other human souls.

Over time I get used to everything and
start taking it for granted.
Trying to look good limits my life.
Starting a charity is surprisingly easy.
Helping other people helps me.

I’d never specifically registered Stefan Sagmeister as a celebrity before I.D. asked if I’d review the book, which says more about me living in the middle of nowhere than it does about Sagmeister. Halfway through it, I did the Google check everyone does on everyone and quickly found out that he’s the Austrian guy who did the carved-skin poster for a lecture at Cranbrook. Okay. That helps place him a tiny bit in the design-star cosmology.

Where did Sagmeister’s mildly toothless bromides come from? A few years back, he made the admirable decision to take a year off from designing, a year spent on what our elementary-school teachers used to call professional development. What’s interesting is that instead of having a depressing Sprockets-like enlightenment, Sagmeister emerged from his walkabout year indoctrinated by American-style therapeutic pepspeak. I’d really like to get some Jägermeister into this guy and then have him turn dark on the world: First you die and then you die again and then love dies—something in that vein would at least add balance to Sagmeister’s relentless un-European cheeriness.

Again, I’m just being crabby here, and besides, writing a review of this book feels odd because I could just as well type in the contents of the White Pages; all that matters is that I.D.’s art director put samples of the book’s images on this page, which is really all you need. It’s a good book and you ought to get it.

I might add, though, that at the end of this book, Sagmeister thanks hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of people, most of them people in the New York art and design scene—dangerous, because if you thank 447 people, guaranteed, number 448 is out there wondering, “Why the fuck wasn’t I thanked?” and you’re left with a new enemy. As well, seeing a list of hundreds and hundreds of people being thanked was chilling for me because it really made me wonder if Sagmeister is some sort of superconnected hub-monster—one of those beloved sacred Manhattan people like Chip Kidd or Laurie Anderson of whom nothing bad can be said—and should you not pay proper homage, you will be crushed like a bug. I’m kidding and I’m not kidding. I kind of wonder…one bad word about this guy, and whammo!—you’re online requesting a job application for a part-time design staff position in one of those Midwest states that is actually losing population. One can almost see the New Yorker cartoon in one’s head: Gerald thought he’d make it big as a designer in New York, but he pissed off Stefan Sagmeister. Now he’s teaching a course on sans serifs in Joplin, Missouri.

Here are some more Sagmeisterisms:

Kittens are fluffy and cute.
Helping people makes you a better citizen.
Recycling makes me pure.

Okay, I made up these final three, but you get the point. Come on, Stefan—you’re European; you’re supposed to rescue Americans from themselves, not get lost inside their dream! Your book is beautiful but there’s a yin missing to the yang. There’s something you’re just not telling us and we expect that to be in your next book, where both lightness and darkness get equal billing.

Douglas Coupland is a Canadian novelist and visual artist based out of Vancouver, British Columbia.

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