Friday, October 23, 2009

Interview - Paul Fuog on his experience working with Stefan Sagmeister in Bali!

Paul Fuog in Bali whilst assisting Stefan Sagmeister on his recent sabbatical year

Paul and Karim Zariffa work in Sagmeister's Ubud studio (top), and on location shooting an animation (for a sneak peek at the resulting little film, watch the TED movie below!)

Stefan's temporary studio in Sayan, Ubud

This is an amazing story.

Paul Fuog is a super-talented young graphic designer, who runs a boutique graphic design studio in Melbourne called Co-öp with his lovely wife Dan Honey. They work out of offices in Melbourne's beautiful Curtin House... and actually, Paul was one of the first people I ever interviewed on this site early last year.

For three months earlier this year, Paul found himself in Ubud, Bali, with none other than Stefan Sagmeister, assisting him during his client-free sabbatical year! (deep breaths!)

Is this not AMAZING!? When Paul first mentioned this to me in passing a few month ago, I could not quite believe it! What an incredible experience...! Of course, I was instantly enthused and so curious about the whole idea of a creative client-free 'sabbatical'! Lucky for us, Paul has answered all my nosy questions in great detail, giving a fantastic insight into this once-in-a-lifetime experience!

Please read on to learn a little more about Paul's incredible 3 months in Bali - the projects he worked on, his impressions of Stefan, and the influence this unique experience has had on his own work and creative practise!

You should also definitely watch Stefan's recent TED talk about his time in Bali... truly inspiring.

Stefan talks to an eager TED audience about his time in Bali and the concept behind the creative sabbatical.

How did you come to work with Stefan Sagmeister on his recent sabbatical year in Bali?

My adventures in Bali came about because I was planning a trip to New York in early February of this year. I had a meeting scheduled with another great New York studio called 2x4 and I decided to email Stefan to see if he would be available to catch up while I was there. Joe Shouldice, the designer looking after Sagmeister Inc in Stefan's absence replied.

"I'm sorry, Paul but Stefan is actually conducting his 2nd client-free sabbatical in Bali, Indonesia and will not return until September 2009".

I responded,

"Thank you Joe, sounds like an amazing adventure. I look forward to seeing the fruits of Stefan's 2nd sabbatical".

The next day I received an email from Stefan,

"Hello Paul,

Thank you for your mail.

I arrived exactly three months ago in Indonesia and have already nicely settled in. I am in an beautiful house in Sayan, a tiny village close to Ubud, the spiritual, crafts and artistic center in Bali's jungle-like interior. As far as I can tell now, the ceremony culture is incredibly active and alive, the craft intricate and varied – there are entire villages of woodcarvers, stone masons, wig makers, textile weavers and silversmiths close by – and all the art is crap.

My desire to conduct this experimental year in a place that's the opposite of New York seems to become very true, I get up every morning at 5:00am awaken by roosters who I then encounter later in the day again while they get their thighs massaged in preparation for the cockfights
complementing most temple ceremonies".

After this small introduction he then asked if I would be interested in joining him for 3 months, from April to July, to work on some truly interesting non client focussed projects".

I replied,

"For sure!!!!"

What were some favorite projects you worked on with Stefan?

The main project I was working on, along with a number of daily experiments was the 'Darwin Chair'. The chair is a stainless steel structure featuring 230 printed sheets of paper as its cushion. Each sheet has a unique detailed print that is relevant to the evolution process. From the big bang right through to the digital age. The idea of the chair is that the owner can change its appearance simply by tearing off a sheet. So in a sense you control the life span of the chair. You're in charge of the rate of evolution.

Graphics and work-in-progress for the Darwin Chair

My most favourite projects or exercises were the ones that involved a collaboration with the other designers. The team was very cross disciplinary. I worked with Philipp Gmeiner, an architect from Austria, Karim Zariffa, a motion designer from Montreal and Benjamin Bryant an industrial designer from Brooklyn. We worked and lived together so we were constantly trading ideas. These were definitely the most rewarding times and in returning home I've found that I really miss this dynamic.

How is your time structured whilst on Sabbatical? Is it very regimented, or very flexible? How do you know when a project is finished, and when it's time to start something new?

We generally operated in a logical and ordered manner. We had weekly production and progress meetings much the same as a typical design studio. But, of course, the projects and environment made it anything but typical. Here is a fairly ordinary working day in Sayan, Ubud.

8.15 - 9.00 Jump on the flamingo pink scooter and head into the main street of Ubud to grab some breakfast, trying desperately to dodge the rabid Bali dogs.

9.15- 9.30 Arrive at the studio which is about a 2 minute ride from my apartment. Have a strong Balinese coffee on the patio overlooking the pool.

9.30-10.00 Stefan, Karim and Philipp arrive. We have a work in progress meeting which is a good chance to fill everyone in on where you are at and get some feedback / input.

10.00 -1.30 Head up to the studio and continue to work on some prints and concepts for the chair.

1.30 - 2.00 Nanga has served lunch so we head back down stairs for a banana smoothie and some Nasi Goreng. Yum!

2.00-2.30 Straight after lunch we work on some concepts for representing some statistical data for Stefan's upcoming documentary.

2.30-4.30 It is back upstairs to the studio to continue working on the Darwin Chair.

4.30-5.30 We jump on the scooters with a bag full of bananas and head to the Monkey Forest. When we arrive at the Monkey Forest, one of the little rascals sniffs out some Party Animals (lollies from home) that I have in my pocket and he practically rips my pants down in the middle of the forest. Once the guard rips him off, we arrange a typographic piece with the bananas and let the monkeys invade. The work will be used as a title treatment for one of the projects.

5.30 - 7.00 Work on some illustrations for a book.

7.00-8.00 Head downstairs again as Nanga has prepared a beautiful dinner.

8.30-10.00 Put together a pretty shonky tripod set-up to support my digital camera while it is suspended above the studio pool. Get Karim and Ben to assist me as I jump in the pool and drag a jellyfish sculpted recycled plastic bag back and forth through the water. I repeat this 1000 times until we finally get a decent shot. I hop out of the pool looking like a prune and head back to the apartment for a Bingtang.

Recycled plastic jellyfish

How would you describe working with Stefan?

Inspiring, a little daunting and very productive. Stefan has a very inclusive and positive approach to brainstorming and conceptual meetings.

He works extremely hard to realise his vision. Despite being in the game for so long, Stefan still has a relentless motivation and desire for excellence. He is just not interested in any aspect of mediocrity.

How do you feel this experience has influenced your own work and your creative process since arriving home?

Before I left I felt boring and predictable. The experience opened my mind up to what design could be and encouraged me to think big and believe in the possibilities. It was an extraordinary situation where I had so much time to think. I was separated from the mundane activities of my normal day to day and given the opportunity to reflect and project. I thought and created without distractions. Influences from the outside world were minimal, the internet was terrible, there were no bookshops, the galleries were boring but this turned out to be a blessing in disguise as it encouraged me to focus on what was truly important to me, not what I thought was important to others.

What is next for you and Coöp!? Have you been inspired to take a new creative direction or to start any new personal projects as a result of this unique experience?

Firstly I have learned to harness the power of positivity. Not in a hippy kind of way - I am interested in positivity in terms of generating ideas. For me, maintaining a completely positive frame of mind when creativity is being initiated is a major factor in my ability to generate good ideas. Stefan is brilliant at thinking pos.

Secondly, this adventure with Stefan reinforced to me the importance of speaking, even when not spoken too. It has made me realize the true benefits of personal work and graphic authorship. It helps you define your own unique voice, discover what you really want to say as a designer and also how you want to contribute to the world. As graphic designers we are employed to speak on behalf or through our clients and we seldom get the opportunity to explore our own voice when we are working to a client brief. At the moment I am continuing my exploration of recycled sculpture and working on some pop-referencing time-lapse videos.

Daily Experiments with the team in Bali

Huge thanks to Paul for this amazing insight into his time in Bali! Please do head over and visit the Co-öp website to see more of his fantastic work :)


  1. Stefan is a genius, you got to love his deadpan wit and just utter gorgeousness. Great combo post Lucy, thanks for the inspirational start to my day .

  2. Great post, and inspiring TED talk, makes me want to take my own sabbatical ... thanks Lucy

  3. This is so interesting Lucy! I'm so glad you were able to get this interview and share it.

  4. You always deliver with your interviews. Thanks you for them, they are great.

    This one was timely as I had watched Stefan's TED talk only a couple of weeks back. I was working out how to integrate sabbaticals in my life before the video finished!

    I can't wait to see the Happy Film....

  5. was lucky enough to see Sagmeister at agIdeas earlier this year. He is so honest and heartfelt which translates to his design work. Truly inspiring as this opportunity surely was.