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.