“The Office of Paul Sahre or (O.O.P.S.) occupies the 3rd floor of a run down four story walk up on 6th avenue and 14th street in Manhattan. The office is in a busy, nondescript seam between Chelsea and the West Village. Belonging to neither. This is not an area you would expect to find a graphic design studio. It is an area you would expect to find a Dunkin’ Donuts location, which is on the first floor of our building.
I found the space thru fellow designer Hjalti Karlsson in late 2000. His studio, karlssonwilker, was looking to vacate the third floor and move to the second (opting for a few more square feet and an existing bar area for a slightly higher rent).
The building itself was built in the 1900’s, and has not been properly cared for since. The interior is a jumble of crappy cosmetic and structural changes, mixed with original details like largely intact tin ceilings. I am aware of only four former occupants of the space. The aforementioned, karlssonwilker. Before that people were living here illegally as this building is zoned commercial. We also know that at some point in the recent past, this place was a brothel. There is still the occasional late night ring at the buzzer, with an ‘old regular’ at the door. No words are exchanged. They give a knowing wink, we shake our heads and they politely leave.
Peter Ahlberg (who rents a desk at the studio) recently found a 1930’s photograph of the building on-line. Incredibly, it already looks run down. This building used to be the home of Babyland! (baby coaches-toys at factory prices) The windows on the third floor read: JOKERS. NOVELTIES. MAGIC.
Frank DeRose—who started his career working downstairs at KW—just recently opened his own studio, “Zut Alores!” upstairs on the 4th floor after the driving school moved out. So now we are donuts and then graphic design all the way up.”
Graphic designer, illustrator, lecturer, educator and author Paul Sahre established his New York studio in 1997. While consciously maintaining a small office, Sahre has nevertheless built a large presence in American graphic design. The balance he strikes between commercial and personal projects is evident in the physical layout of his workspace: part design studio, part silkscreen lab, part classroom. In one room he designs and prints posters (some of which are in the permanent collection at the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum) for various off-off Broadway theaters, while in the other room he is busy designing book covers for authors such as Rick Moody, Chuck Klosterman, Ben Marcus and Ernest Hemingway. Sahre is also a frequent visual contributor to The New York Times. Sahre received his BFA and MFA from Kent State and teaches graphic design at the School of Visual Arts. He lectures extensively all over the world. He is a member of Alliance Graphique Internationale. (above left photo: Pascal Béjean)
FROM YOUR DESKS: Thanks for not cleaning your workspace. What goes on in the “Office of Paul Sahre?”
PAUL SAHRE: Well, we do graphic design here of course, but there is quite a bit of illustration going on as well. Also some silkscreen, writing/authoring, drawing and stratego playing. The office also serves as a classroom every Monday morning for my School of Visual Arts seniors. The office has kind of turned into a hub of sorts for friends, and former interns/employees/students. People are always stopping in.
FYD: This isn’t the most kind employment world to graduating seniors. Do you enjoy teaching and what is your advice to students?
PS: Teaching is absolutely essential for my design practice and vice versa. They feed off each other. Advice? Just care deeply and commit fully to what you are doing and everything else will take care of itself.
FYD: Is life a continuing education?
PS: There is a lot of stuff to look at in the office but I guess I would have to say my Nike Hercules surface-to-air missile nose cone. I found it at a scrap yard in Baltimore years ago. Apparently the government is just tossing this stuff out. I have it in the studio to intimidate clients.
FYD: You work above a Duncan Donuts. Do you drink their coffee?
PS: Yes, I like to say that the office ‘coffee maker’ is on the first floor. Although lately I end up waiting on long lines while people order all kinds of stuff down there. It used to be just coffee and donuts, now they offer a number of seeming random food items. Pizza, DD sells pizza. I do love that when I get to the head of the line they know what I want before I ask (small, black).
FYD: So, we won’t find you at a Starbucks or McDonalds?
PS: Starbucks occasionally, McDonald’s never.
I was five when Apollo 11 landed on the moon. The Sahre family watched it like it was church.
FYD: Before O.O.P.S., you spent some time in a cubicle. How did you make the most of a boring time and apply that knowledge to your work?
PS: My early work experiences may have been frustrating and soul-sapping, but they weren’t boring. I fought and pleaded and kicked and scratched for my work at those early jobs, but I also made sure I had outside projects as well. I learned a lot from those situations and apply the lessons learned pretty much every day in my own design practice. Even if it’s mostly how not to do it.
My studio space today is a kind of alternate reality to my early office environments. It’s like the episode Mirror, Mirror from Star Trek (original series) where members of the crew are unintentionally beamed onto another Enterprise. One that exists in a parallel universe. Things are the same but altered. The uniforms are different, every crewmember carries an ‘agonizer’ and Spock has a beard. Likewise my office has phones, file cabinets, desks, chairs, work stations and a water cooler—only my chairs have the head of atom ant painted on them.
FYD: Is it smart to have outside projects, especially as a creative?
PS: I don’t know if it was smart, but I absolutely had to have a few outside projects or I would have gone nuts. Since that last job, this distinction has evaporated. When you work for yourself, everything is an ‘outside project.’ How old are you?
FYD: 33. Why? Do I type like a kid?
PS: You don’t type like a kid, but you referred to me as ‘a creative’ you didn’t use the word ‘maker.’ I suspected you were over 30 because of it. I am kind of amazed at the retooling of verbiage as it relates to graphic design or whatever it is the kids are calling it these days.
FYD: I think of you as a creative and a maker. And a person. I detest labels. I suppose because I’m not in the graphic world, the “creative” vs “maker” might be a foreign concept.
PS: ‘Creative’ and ‘maker’ are in the same camp, both pretty new. ‘Maker’ is newer. It is funny to see how the new generation responds to ‘labels.’ I remember hating ‘graphic artist’ back in the 80’s (when I was in my 20’s), which was the one before graphic designer. Any of these are better that the one that popped up in the ’90’s: “visual communicator.”
While I do think that our work as designers needs to feel ‘of its time’ on some level, graphic design is not fashion design.
FYD: What is your advice to people — perhaps stuck in the same cubicle? You’re the general, tell the troops what to do.
PS: Every person and situation is different. Some designers thrive in those environments. It just wasn’t for me. I will say this: if you are miserable, wherever you are, quit. 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.
FYD: You strike me as a modern-day Don Draper (sans the philandering). You seem unafraid to stick to your creative guns. On a scale of one to ten, how would you agree with this assessment?
PS: I don’t watch much TV so I can’t really say. My wife Emily watches Mad Men and I think she once characterized Don Draper as a “poser, douche bag.” Thanks, Kate! All analogies aside, I do think that designers don’t say no enough. Does that help?
FYD: Perhaps you subscribe to free will. Maybe you are more of a Fox Mulder.
PS: Well then, thanks minus the sarcasm.
FYD: I was just visiting your “regrets” page. When do you argue your conceptual merits?
PS: Following up on your last question, designers shouldn’t always say no either. The back and forth with clients makes the world go round for a graphic designer. Our work is, by and large, collaborative; maybe it’s a matter of knowing when to say no.
PS: It seems like a trivial thing to petition. If the AIGA is discontinuing it, I am sure they have a good reason right? (I mean other than the PC explanation that was given). My guess is that the Internet, and social media are making design competitions like 50/50 an anachronism. Entries have to be way, way down. That and it may just be the most un-fashionable time in the last 4,000 years to be designing books. Of course all of this means it’s a perfect time to design books!
You might also get hit by a car tomorrow. Don’t go out miserable.
FYD: A lot of book jackets seem over-designed, fussy and super busy. Do you visit bookstores and think certain book cover trends should go?
PS: In terms of covers, it’s the editors and the marketing departments at the publishers that are ultimately responsible for whatever you see at the bookstores. I don’t know how much control designers actually have over what is on the shelves. Generally, the idea of trends and design seems antithetical to me. While I do think that our work as designers needs to feel ‘of its time’ on some level, graphic design is not fashion design. Why some designers look at what is out there and go out of their way to do same is beyond me.
PS: I think that this a complicated and nuanced issue, especially as it relates to graphic design. But I do know it’s always easier to copy something.
FYD: What is it like working under a New York Times deadline?
PS: I love the challenge of a quick New York Times deadline. I’ve done hundreds of them over the years, and for better or worse, they have changed the way I think and work. I treat it like the 2-minute drill in football: I have an editorial to respond to, I have a certain amount of time on the clock, I have a set size/format and no color. Sometimes I score and sometimes I throw an interception as time expires.
FYD: I’m a massive UFO-X File-The Truth is Out There-Trust No One-I Want To Believe fan. How did your science fiction interest come about?
PS: My father was an aerospace engineer so I can’t tell you how many airshows I’ve been to in my life. My childhood was dominated by air/spacecraft. I was five when Apollo 11 landed on the moon. The Sahre family watched it like it was church. This lead to my being obsessed with Star Trek and science fiction. I don’t know about you, but I have never seen anything unexplained in the sky, but I would love to. I used a project recently as an excuse to try to ‘see something’ or more specifically to get abducted by aliens. This involved collecting the necessary equipment: thought protection helmet, strobe light, Reese’s Pieces (bait) a spare probe (in case they forgot theirs) and a bunch of other stuff, including a change of underwear. It didn’t work, nothing happened.
FYD: Fox Mulder peppered his basement FBI office with a few posters, one of which famously read, “I Want To Believe.” What does your poster read?
PS: I really want to believe.
Follow Paul on Twitter @psahre