Stefan Sagmeister: An Artist Who Believes 'Now Is Better'

The legendary graphic designer juxtaposes 18th- and 19th-century paintings with visualizations of how much life has improved over the centuries.


Is the world getting better? Or is it on the verge of collapse?

Stefan Sagmeister emphatically believes that things are looking up, and his art exhibition "Now Is Better" showcases a bold new way to convince the world that he's right. He takes actual paintings from the 18th and 19th centuries, disassembles them, and creates new works by juxtaposing them with data visualizations of just how much things have improved since the good old days. 

Some works chart the incredible decline in deaths on the battlefield, from famine, and from natural disasters while others map how much cheaper food and lighting have become in real terms. One piece documents the explosion in the number of guitars per person on the planet—an indicator of growth in leisure and entertainment—while another charts the persistent belief that crime is always rising despite its well-documented decline.  

A heralded graphic designer who has designed album covers for Jay-Z, The Rolling Stones, and Lou Reed, Sagmeister has won two Grammy Awards, including one for his design of the Talking Heads' boxed set Once in a Lifetime. Born in Austria in 1962, he's called New York City home since the 1990s. He draws on sources such as Our World in Data, Human Progress, and the work of Steven Pinker, who has written the foreword to a book version of the "Now Is Better" series coming out later this year.

In a wide-ranging conversation, Sagmeister tells me why it's so important to acknowledge and defend material progress, why art and commerce aren't enemies, and what he loves about the New World he's adopted as his homeland and how that ties into the "Now Is Better" project.