The Education of Paul Sahre – Part IV


Sandwiched between Dunkin’ Donuts and a driving school, it’s dark in the winter, hot in the summer, and always smells of coffee. An old refrigerator rattles in the corner. A water cooler stands wanly nearby. Desks are elementary school surplus, a million names carved into the tops, a million wads of gum stuck beneath. One room is the office, the other is the silkscreen studio. It’s just Sahre, his Boston Terrier, Sid, and his intern, Joon Mo Kang, a former student. Indeed the space looks like a Sahre op-art piece about potential; just superimpose the words In Progress over it to complete the point.

PORTFOLIO* was a 2,600 square foot, 3-year retrospective of Sahre's portfolio class at SVA. Assistant curators (and former students) included Lindsay Ballant, Jennifer Lew, Abigail Smith, Joon Mo Kang, and Brian Ponto.

An exhibition at a lower west side gallery operated by SVA in Manhattan. PORTFOLIO* was a 2,600 square foot, 3-year retrospective of Sahre’s portfolio class at SVA. Assistant curators (and former students) included Lindsay Ballant, Jennifer Lew, Abigail Smith, Joon Mo Kang, and Brian Ponto.

And that is the point. Sahre is a work in progress. His education is a work in progress. His career is a work in progress. His journey has just begun. The Office Of Paul Sahre (O.O.P.S.) has been open just over five years, yet it somehow seems longer. To Sahre, it’s all coming together … or coming apart, depending upon one’s perspective. “I’m exhilarated by the diversity of the things I am doing, but I’m leery about being all over the map, too. Clients want to know what you are—‘he’s a book designer,’ ‘he’s an illustrator,’ ‘he’s a teacher,’ ‘he’s an author,’ ‘he’s a poster designer.’ I am many things … is that good or bad? I don’t know yet.”

But, by most sane measures, Sahre is successful, or at least very busy. Publication design remains his cash crop. He’s also a regular contributor of op art to The New York Times, Washington Post, and Esquire. SoHo Rep Theatre receives a lot of his time and energy, and he helps the AIDS Institute of the New York Department of Health with publications rife with charts and graphs—“a good information organization challenge,” he offers.

He’s currently jazzed about a project with Marvel Comics, designing a book called Maximum FF about the Fantastic Four. He’s also designing a poster for the University of Minnesota’s summer workshop series, Design Camp. Boredom is not an issue for Sahre. But it’s experimental work that stirs his passions most.

Sahre's senior portfolio class st SVA

Jeremy Diamond performing “What is Difficult to Endure is Empowering to Recall,” in Sahre’s senior portfolio class st SVA.

Whether it’s on a silkscreen poster or witnessing it among his students, Sahre is captivated by experiences that bring him closer to the sense of exhilaration he felt at Kent State. Before he had a “real job,” that experience that made him realize that design was a calling, not a career choice. Just as his concept theme approach forces students to keep after an idea until they have tried to exhaust every possible articulation of it, Sahre’s idea of fun is to get the most out of a thing, to distill it to its purest, simplest, most concentrated form. Strong brew—not everyone’s taste.

“I have tried to give my students a taste of what I experienced at Kent State. There, I was responsible for figuring out what I was studying, why I was studying it, and where I was going with it. I stayed up many, many nights running on adrenalin. I took photographs, designed typefaces, made posters, and designed books. It was so fun and challenging. Since then, I’ve tried to return to that ideal, but it seems that everything afterward, especially the jobs I had, were not it.”


He has found “it” again. The education of Paul Sahre has come full circle. As a student at Kent State, he discovered his calling. As a cubicle worker, he lost it. As a teacher and volunteer, he is rediscovering it daily. “At SVA, if I could create a class in which the kids got a taste of the exhilaration I once felt, I figured they’d know how good it could be at least once,” he says.

In Sahre’s mind, that memory would be a place where they could return. The recollection would offer a refuge after other experiences—money, clients, disappointments, compromises, ethical lapses, dumb-asses, and mean-spirited bosses—had drained them of their passion. What Sahre discovered through all this was that he needed both Kent State and a shitty string of cubicle jobs, both the pain of Baltimore and the triumphs of New York. He needed them for comparison. Like Adam and Eve. Heaven and hell. Dante and Virgil.

Some need a map. Others need a companion. Others travel on pure instinct. Sahre’s lucky to have all three: a roadmap of past experiences, a brilliant new wife (Emily Oberman), and the courage to follow his heart. And he now knows one thing for certain: If you remain in the School of Life, you’ll get smarter, eventually.

“When you stop learning, you die,” Sahre says. “Right now, it all seems new again. I‘m not exactly sure where I’m going, but I’m going to get there.”


The Education of Paul Sahre – Part III


Thanks to his work for Fells Point Corner Theatre, creative directors Michael Ian Kaye and John Gall began to call. “I didn’t so much move here [New York] as I got pulled here,” says Sahre. He left Baltimore in 1998. His life changed. His marriage ended. He began, but soon ended, a business partnership with friend Stephen Doyle (who still mispronounces Sahre’s name to demonstrate his lasting pain). Meanwhile, Sahre’s work for book publishers grew, and he began his long relationship with the SoHo Rep Theatre, which continues today.

Minnesota Design Institute at which Sahre participated as an instructor.

Poster announcing a series of hands-on design workshops for high-school students offered by the University of Minnesota Design Institute at which Sahre participated as an instructor. CO-DESIGNER: Joon Mo Kang.

Most importantly, Sahre returned to the classroom—as an instructor at the School of Visual Arts (SVA). In this enriched atmosphere —surrounded by agile, young people with fresh ideas and a gift for experimentation—Sahre regained his creative impetus.

“I give credit to Richard Wilde [director of the design school at SVA]. He gives me the freedom to design the class in the way I want and to audit the students who take my class.” When Sahre says “audit,” he means his class functions like a classic atelier. Students act as apprentices: Those that “get” him will perform well under his direction. If the fit does not exist, students are not forced to stay nor punished if they leave. Those who remain want to be there. His senior portfolio class is always full.

Sahre revels in it: “I think I get more out of being in class than the students. I am surrounded by young people who get me and want to work through my [unorthodox] approach,” he explains. “And because those in the portfolio class have proven that they really want to be a part of it, I end up giving still more one-on-one time outside of class. It is a tremendous commitment of time.”

Sahre has an established approach to the class. It begins with each student creating a single “conceptual theme” to be used throughout the year. Everything they do filters through it. For example, one student chose the concept “what is difficult to endure is empowering to recall” as his theme. The approach is both liberating and maddeningly restrictive. By requiring students to focus on a central theme, their thoughts could not wander to, say, hypothetical vodka packaging or CD covers for their favorite band. They are forced to return to the concept again and again, squeezing every bit of meaning through every possible application of the idea to a routine design assignment.


Some requirements are routine: a book, a symbol, a poster, etc. Others less so: a performance piece enacted in front of a live audience. The student with the “what is difficult to endure is empowering to recall” concept demonstrated his theme by ingesting capsules containing printed phrases that spelled out his theme. He then self-induced vomiting, coughing up each capsule, opening them and revealing the message on a wall. Whether the audience felt empowered after enduring the smell of vomit is unclear, but there you have it.

Sahre silkscreened an edition

This poster announced a lecture Sahre gave at the Maryland Institute College of Art in April 2000.

Yes, Sahre realizes that some may see this exercise as, um, gratuitous, but his point is larger than one student’s nauseating performance. “My point with the exercises and the repetitive use of one central concept is to train students to think like graphic designers, not office cubicle workers. Graphic design is more than just a job with an in- and out-box and a gray desk. It is about expression and communication.”

In March 2005, Sahre curated a student show at a gallery in Chelsea. The show featured the work of every former Sahre student willing to participate, meticulously hung and annotated. Sahre commissioned Jason Fulford to produce life-size four-color photographs of him and a few students to help illustrate the profundity of the teacher-student relationship, tongue firmly pressed in cheek. The show stood for two weeks and involved a great deal of work. Typically, Sahre did not make a penny on it.


The Education of Paul Sahre – Full Circle Part I

Paul Sahre’s (pronounced “say-er”) story should be widely known by now. He is often a design show judge and lecturer. He is widely respected as a designer, with notable posters for New York’s SoHo Rep Theatre, plus numerous book covers, op-art pieces in The New York Times, as well as recent efforts as an author of books. But he remains an enigma—or at least hard to characterize. My first encounter with Sahre left me curious. It was during an interview for STEP’s 2004 Design 100 Annual, in which Sahre served as one of five judges.

Paul Sahre’s story

Paul Sahre’s (pronounced “say-er”) story

STEP obliges its Design 100 judges to make one “top pick.” Most select a thing they find especially well designed and well produced. Sahre selected something that bothered him, something that reminded him of what he considers the unpleasant choices designers face between commerce and art. He called attention to a logo for a state Lotto, juxtaposing it with a silkscreened poster for the arts he liked that was created by the same design team.

Sahre intended his comparison to make a larger point, that even the best designers face difficult choices: Work they love for clients they love and work they need to make ends meet that sometimes originates from clients with whom they may feel conflicted.

Sahre said then, “On the [one] hand, I know things like this [are sometimes] necessary to keep things afloat and to allow you to do work you love. But where and when do you draw the line? I’ve faced my own difficult choices in my career. The thing about thresholds is sometimes they move depending upon your economic circumstances.”


The Education of Paul Sahre II

In calling attention to the ethical decisions of others, Sahre begs that the same questions be asked of him. If you’re willing to speak out on such topics, you’d better be free of sin or freely admit your own sins. Sahre chose Kent State University near Akron, Ohio for college. He was attracted to the school’s place in American progressive thinking and leftist political history. He liked it enough to continue there for grad school. An exciting time in his life, he discovered design was not a “job” but more like “religion.”

Paul Sahre designs

Designed by Paul SAHRE

After grad school, Sahre and his first wife moved to Baltimore. She worked as a fashion designer for Merry-Go-Round, an ’80s retailer, and he began a series of mind-numbing jobs that made the exhilaration of grad school a mere hallucination. Reality, as it turned out, was disappointing.

Still, Sahre bought in deeply to the American Dream. He settled down, got married, bought a house, assumed a mortgage, and took on a series of dull jobs to pay for it. To escape the displeasure he found with his paying work, he set up a low-tech silkscreen print shop in his basement and began doing jobs for little or for free. His main client, Fells Point Corner Theatre, gave him free reign. Sahre only charged them for expenses, usually less than $150 including paper and ink. The theater “sniped” the posters across Baltimore. They got noticed. They got stolen. They brought Sahre a small degree of notoriety and a great deal of pleasure.

Sahre created this illustration for the New York Times’

Sahre created this illustration for the New York Times’ op-ed page. Two computer hard drives full of weapon secrets disappeared from the Los Alamose nuclear labs. The energy department said there was “no proof” that the drives had fallen into the wrong hands and that they had been merely “misplaced.” CO-DESIGNER: Brian Rear

And still, Sahre continued to work for others, paying the bills, plodding along, weighing his options. He took a job with GKV Advertising as director of an in-house design group. Working on a brochure for a company that serviced attack helicopters, Sahre realized he hated his job. It was making him hate his life. One day, without forethought, he called a staff meeting. He recalls the moment: “I said to [the designers], ‘Why are you here? Why are you wasting your best years here? What are you doing? Does any of this have any meaning to you? Because it means nothing to me.’” The pep talk worked: A few months later, the agency closed the design group, releasing them to seek their Zen. “It was a mercy killing,” Sahre says, looking back. “We were euthanized.”

The only worse thing than a scold is a hypocritical scold. What kind of guy was this Sahre? One year later, I had the opportunity to find out.