Designer Jessica Walsh’s adventurous work has received a great deal of attention in recent years. Her mold-breaking photo illustrations and type experiments had already won her awards when, in 2012, she became the first and only partner in the studio of Stefan Sagmeister. A world-renowned graphic designer, Sagmeister’s work is part of the Guggenheim’s own design legacy: he has created catalogs for the institution in the past, and participated as a juror for the 2010 exhibition YouTube Play. His had been the only name on the studio since its 1994 inception, and the partnership with Walsh was momentous in the design world.
In July of last year, Walsh’s name became known even beyond design-world circles when she and fellow designer Timothy Goodman launched their intimate online project “40 Days of Dating.” The two friends used an innovative and addictive combination of text, design, and video to tell the story of their experiment in building a romantic relationship with each other; in a matter of weeks, they drew thousands of Tweets and emails, national media coverage, and a movie deal.
Walsh, 27, brings the same aesthetic rigor and inventiveness that characterized “40 Days” to her work as part of Sagmeister & Walsh. The designer, who was raised in the New York City satellite of Ridgefield, Connecticut, is handling redesign commissions for New York’s Jewish Museum and the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum in Connecticut, and continues to blend handcraft, photography, and digital wizardry in perception-bending campaigns for clients such as Levi’s and Beirut-based department store Aizone.
The designer has long been passionate about fine art, and her sense of humor and pleasure in experimentation echoes the ethos of the artists she admires. In this, the first of an occasional series of conversations with creative people we’ll be featuring here on Checklist, Walsh talks about her process, the artwork that inspires her, and why being playful matters.
Did you visit museums and galleries when you were growing up outside New York City?
Yes, my parents were big on exposing us to a lot of culture, so [they] brought us to plays and a lot of the museums in New York. And actually, the town where I grew up had a good contemporary art museum—the Aldrich, which I happen to be rebranding right now.
Now that you live and work in the city, do you often go to galleries and other art spaces to see what’s new?
Yeah, I do. I try to go every few months and do the rounds in the galleries. It’s not that there are specific ones that I’ll set out for. It’s more just, you know, on a beautiful Saturday I’ll pop around the different spaces. You can spend all day in Chelsea and never end with the amount of awesome stuff you’ll stumble upon.
Which artists appeal to you most?
I like a lot of the Surrealists: Dalí, Magritte, Ernst. And contemporary artists: James Turrell, Maurizio Cattelan, Do Ho Suh, Jenny Holzer.
Do any of those artists influence your work?
The play on words, like what you find in Jenny Holzer or Barbara Kruger’s work—those sentences, they have an impact on you, they make you feel. That’s what a lot of my favorite work and my favorite artists do for me: they create some sort of emotional connection, or they’re provocative in some way. That feeling, more than anything, is what inspires me, because I want to do that with the work I’m creating. Like Cattelan or Ai Weiwei—I want to start a conversation. Or move people, like some of the James Turrell pieces.
Did you see the James Turrell and Maurizo Cattelan: All exhibitions at the Guggenheim?
I did! I went to see James Turrell when I was falling madly in love with my now-fiancé. He took me to the museum and brought two sets of headphones with rainforest sounds, and we just lay and stared up at it. It was such an amazing experience. I mean, I’ve seen a lot of Turrell pieces, but that one was particularly moving.
I also really liked the Cattelan exhibition. I thought it was pretty powerful to walk around and see all these pieces from so many different angles. And it was just a bold thing to do—hang all your artwork out to dry. I love Toilet Paper, [Cattelan’s] magazine, too. Those images—it’s shock after shock as you turn the pages, but in an awesome, twisted, and beautiful way.
You’re known for your photo illustrations—graphic and imaginative scenes that you build in “real life” and then photograph. Can you tell me how you came to that approach?
I think it started when I went to RISD [the Rhode Island School of Design]; the first year, you’re entering all sorts of fine arts classes, but you can’t go into your main field. So I was doing a lot of photography and building things in the wood shop. When I went back into graphic design, I started using a lot of those things in my design work, mainly because I realized it was much more fun to do a variety of things versus just sitting at the computer. I get bored so easily, and the idea of pushing type around on the screen all day doesn’t seem nearly as exciting as trying something out [in the real world] and seeing how that looks. And oftentimes, [that produces] quicker results than trying to make something on the computer. I think people don’t get that—there’s a fear of leaving their comfort zone, among graphic designers, at least. But there are actually more combinations and ways to play in the real world and with your hands, versus on the computer, where you’re limited to the software and the specific tools built into them.
You know, another Guggenheim show that had a big influence on me was Gutai: Splendid Playground. I loved [the idea of trying] a random act of spontaneity and then seeing what happens. Or setting up these defined little experiments, like, “I’ll spend five minutes with my feet and paint and see what happens.” I think that’s a lot of my process and who I am as a designer—just constantly trying to play, really.
How much does collaboration—with Sagmeister or others—shape your work?
I do quite often just trust my gut. However, just because I like [something] doesn’t mean everyone else is going to like it, and I do sometimes get stuck. So I find it amazing to work with people whose opinion I trust and who may not have the exact same outlook or style as me. Stefan is definitely someone whose opinion I trust, and I admire his work and the way he thinks, even though the way we think is not always necessarily the same. I think it’s great to have that dialogue and feedback, and someone to sometimes challenge you and make you rethink things.
Do you have any new personal projects in the works? If so, how has “40 Days of Dating” affected the way you’re approaching them?
I think the success of “40 Days” kind of made me lose interest in my other [personal projects], because I realized the power of personal projects being personal: putting in your own personality and making work that’s more emotional. [After] “40 Days,” I’ve come up with a lot of other projects that I want to do in the future that are [more] in line with that.
It was just such a powerful thing that happened with “40 Days,” seeing how graphic design can affect people. I was at a point where I was feeling a little bit down about what design can do, and this project opened my eyes. We got thousands and thousands of messages from people [saying] that it had really made them approach life differently. So, work that makes people think, makes people question how they’re living—that’s the kind of stuff I want to do more of.
You’re currently working on redesigns for two museums. How does design for museums differ from the work you do for other clients?
Museums are an interesting one because it’s this fine line: what’s the museum’s voice, and how do you give them a brand and identity that’s unique and independent without it being something that is going to compete with the art? So, it’s its own unique challenge. And I love challenges.