Designer Paul Sahre discusses the often hilarious highs and lows of his career, from the ultimate validation of landing his work on the refrigerator as a kid to doing battle with Steely Dan as an adult.
DESIGNER / ILLUSTRATOR / AUTHOR
GRAPHIC DESIGN / ART / ILLUSTRATION / BOOK COVERS / THEY MIGHT BE GIANTS / KENT STATE UNIVERSITY / J.CHARLES WALKER / ALLIANCE GRAPHIQUE INTERNATIONALE / CHUCK KLOSTERMAN / SIGN PAINTING / SVA / PAUL RAND / JACK KIRBY / WINONA RYDER / JAMES PATTERSON / STEELY DAN / DEMON EATING HUMAN FLESH
When it comes to work, life and the key to happiness, there are those who lead by taping up inspirational quotes around the office … before going back to their desks and quietly exorcising the last vestiges of their hair strand by strand. Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life!
And then there are those who lead by example. By mutiny.
Take Paul Sahre.
After graduating from Kent State with a master’s in design, Sahre battled his way to a job at a small studio in Baltimore, Barton-Gillet. As he recounts in his memoir, Two-Dimensional Man, he had gone to school at Kent State because he thought the institution had a spirit of rebellion, of the radical. He had looked to design as a means to change the world. And now here he was, immersed in the dry trappings of corporate design work. He was miserable. He was making a terrible salary. So he moved to an ad agency, where he became director of the design group … and his unhappiness soared. After emerging from a particularly frustrating meeting—and in the midst of a separation from his wife—he gathered his design staff, and let “years of existential angst loose.”
“What are we doing here?” he asked them, per The Great Discontent. “We’re just wasting our lives! We work all day on these shitty projects and then go home.”
Sahre lit the fires of a mini rebellion and not long after, one of the partners axed him. (“It was beautiful.”)
The main takeaway? Befitting of its own motivational poster, “If you are miserable, wherever you are, quit,” he has said. “Now. Work (as a creative person) is only worth doing if it doesn’t feel like work. You might also get hit by a car tomorrow. Don’t go out miserable.”
Sahre grew up in upstate New York alongside three siblings, and as a result, created art to try to stand out to his mother, an occupational therapist. He straddled the odd line of both athlete and artist, with the latter manifesting in such pieces as his “Demon Eating Human Flesh” painting (which his brother described as the best work he had done, and would ever do), followed by more detailed and realistic creations, and comic strips.
Sahre’s father, meanwhile, was an aerospace engineer, which led to a childhood dominated by air and spacecraft, from aviation shows to a Star Trek obsession to intense homemade rocketry (more on that later).
After heading off to Kent State to study illustration, Sahre eventually found his way to design. In Two-Dimensional Man, he recalls an epiphany that came when he was struggling with his master’s thesis. He was out hunting for ice. He was, admittedly, quite drunk. And then, beaming and seemingly heaven-sent before him, he found it: a Leer Model L40 Slant merchandiser. The trusty ice machine that never changes, that is always there for us, ubiquitous and affixed on the American landscape.
“I opened the aluminum door and reached into the cold and foggy interior, grabbing two bags of ice—one for each hand. But instead of paying for them and heading back, I just stood there, staring like a shit-faced Newton after getting beaned by the apple,” he writes. “By any objective standard, [the Leer’s] form is clunky and awkward, antiquated even. It looks like a big industrial freezer (which, of course, it is). Whoever designed it could make it any shape they wanted at this point. Yet it does not look like an Apple product. The typography is unconsidered: a nondescript sans-serif typeface with a drop shadow and a cartoon accumulation of snow on top. Pure kitsch. … It’s invisible. You don’t notice it until you actually need it, and then the thing you need is everywhere. There are ice merchandisers in front of every gas station, mini-mart and grocery store that go unseen until you are looking for ice. How the Leer looks and what it communicates is exactly what it is. It is appropriate and functional and familiar, and there is a beauty in that, even if it’s ugly.”
That was design.
Later, while unhappily working away at his aforementioned gigs in Baltimore, Sahre began creating pro-bono posters for the Fells Point Corner Theatre, and he liked the way they came out, so he submitted them to the industry’s annuals—and they got accepted. And that led to New York publishing houses and others contacting him for work. After getting canned by his advertising agency, Sahre was soon following his own path; he got a divorce, sold his house and moved to New York City, where he established his own studio in 1997, The Office of Paul Sahre (OOPS). He worked his ass off, exhaustively, gleefully, taking on projects with zeal and sleeping in a cot set up in the back of the studio.
In following his own path, he figured out his own way to make peace with design, work and life. He describes his approach as “reacting as a way of creating—I take situations not of my own making and make them my own.”
And that has led to a brilliant lifetime of work. There are his book jackets for the likes of everyone from Hemingway to Malcolm Gladwell to Patton Oswalt, not to mention his iconic designs for Chuck Klosterman that have led to the books being recognized as much for their content as their covers. There are the album covers, music videos and creative direction for his favorite band, They Might Be Giants, for whom he once famously built (and destroyed) a life-size day-glo pink monster truck hearse out of cardboard. There are posters, websites, illustration—and all of it tends to feel very Paul Sahre. Not in an expected or redundant way, but in there being some spark of delight, of wit, of operating not just outside the box, but of boxes bent and broken. The hallmark of the mutinist, retained.
And then there are his personal projects, which offer a deeper, more intimate look into the mind of the designer—such as Two-Dimensional Man, which was initially concepted as a monograph, and turned out to be an engaging visual memoir.
There’s Sahre’s thrilling and obsessive Kickstarter to relaunch his father’s Saturn V model rocket, which infamously blew up when he was a kid, revealing to Sahre his dad’s vulnerability for the very first time. (Said Sahre, “Who knows how my life would be been different if my dad’s launch in 1973 had succeeded. I might be a doctor or lawyer or even an aerospace engineer like my father instead of a graphic designer.”)
Thank god for failing model rocket mechanisms and their relation to judicial practice. For in looking at his work in a universe of motivational posters, one feels the world is better off because of it. Beyond prescriptive advice, he shows that by doing what you love, you can indeed find happiness—and you can do it in your own way.
That is perhaps the most thrilling and terrifying and energizing thing about Paul Sahre overall: He proves that in a culture of carefully curated identities, you really can just be yourself.
—Zachary Petit, Design Matters Media Editor-in-Chief
And remember, we can talk about making a difference, we can make a difference, or we can do both. — Debbie Millman