Stefan Sagmeister has a thing for self-exposure. When he launched his firm 20 years ago, clients received a postcard of the designer wearing dress socks and nothing else. (A black bar kept him from running afoul of the Comstock Act.) It became his personal brand. Last May, when he changed the name of his studio from Sagmeister Inc. to Sagmeister & Walsh, he and his new partner, Jessica Walsh, visually quoted the postcard by posing completely naked for the e-mail announcement.
When the photos hit inboxes, attention mostly centered on Walsh, who was then 25, half Sagmeister’s age. (She is also an alumna of this magazine’s art department and a recipient, two years ago, of our annual New Visual Artist awards.) There were some plaudits and a bit of paternalistic hand-wringing, but the default reaction was a prolonged leer. Internet commenters wondered if the partners were sleeping together, or simply assumed that they were.
Last Thursday, Sagmeister & Walsh unveiled a new website and identity system. The partners again disrobed, this time joined by the rest of their staff, interns included. At one point, the site was getting more than 700 new visitors per second. It is the identity, though—stationery, pencils, business cards, CDs, condoms—that has drawn the most reaction.
The CDs use the visual language of pictograms to tell a crude story of debasement: A woman performs oral sex on a man and, still kneeling, vomits into a toilet. It’s Neurath with terrible gender politics.
The pencils purport to show the average lengths of African-American, Caucasian, and Asian penises, in descending order. Printed on the reverse, alongside “Sagmeister & Walsh,” are the words “Source: British Medical Journal,” giving a well-worn stereotype the cover of scientific credibility. (Also: “Asian”? Do all men east of the Bosphorus and south of Siberia have basically the same dicks?)
It’s hard to see the pencils as anything other than racism repackaged as edginess. (Or edginess rebranded as racism.) But the pictograms are open to a more generous interpretration. Could Walsh be forcing the anonymous letches to confront the ugliness of their innuendos? Is she asserting her right to take risks with her body and control of her career, however she sees fit? As Christopher King, the art director of Melville House, wrote on the Brooklyn-based publisher’s blog, “Amid the wave of predictable publicity, we’re left to wonder: is it an elaborate act of irony? Or is it just an empty provocation?”
If the identity is more than a publicity stunt, the partners aren’t letting on. “It is not very deep,” Sagmeister told me via e-mail. “It’s our own thing, so we do what we want.” Walsh allowed that the reaction to last spring’s announcement was on their minds when they developed the new identity, but she didn’t elaborate beyond that. “Not everyone likes it,” she said, “but you can’t please everybody.” As for the pencils, Sagmeister said, “We visualized research by the respected British Medical Journal.”
But the issue, of course, is not scientific research (research that, in any event, appears to be a hoax: no such penis-size chart can be found on the BMJ’s website, though a doctored one has been floating around the Internet for years). It’s the racially charged context in which certain selectively cited “facts” have been placed. Or to put it another way: for the sake of self-promotion, two prominent white designers have created an identity that trades in ugly racial clichés, in a field where very few nonwhite designers occupy positions of power. Surely, Sagmeister and Walsh are too savvy not to realize the problem with that.
Referring to the nude photo from last June, Walsh told me, “As a piece of design, it was very functional. The goal was to announce the partnership, and it clearly worked.” It’s possible the new identity will produce a similar attention-into-clients alchemy. Or perhaps its flirtation with grotesque stereotypes will scare clients away. After all, exposing yourself doesn’t work that well when the audience doesn’t like what’s revealed.
(All images copyright Sagmeister & Walsh)