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Sascha Mombartz: Office for Visual Affairs

by Pranav Joneja (ME ’18)

Meet Sascha Mombartz. Photo by Catalina Kulczar.
Meet Sascha Mombartz. Photos by Catalina Kulczar.

How did you find out about Cooper?

Well, I’m originally from Germany, but this story should start when I first moved to America after finishing high school in Egypt. My father was a diplomat for the German government and his job had us moving around a lot. I was born in Malta, I grew up in Ethiopia, Thailand, Germany, and then Egypt. So, it begins when I was around 18 and we were posted to Texas. 

I showed up in Denton, Texas and it was a completely different world—bit of a culture shock you could say. I had started attending the University of North Texas, which was a big college in a pretty small town. The graphic design program I was in had a very commercial focus—lots of advertising and things like that, which is what I thought at the time I wanted to do.

While I was there, I attended a photography show and the curator was from New York. He told me about this school in New York called “Cooper’s Union—or something like that. It’s free!” Of course, I didn’t believe him right away so when I got home, I looked it up and it was a real what-the-fuck moment. It was real! But I had just missed the application deadline!

So, I called the school and through those calls I got all the way to Dean Vidler, the dean of the art school at the time. I don’t even know why they let me talk to him! Anyways, despite all my explaining and pleading, he said that I would have to wait another year to apply.

Six months later, I went to a portfolio review and Day Gleeson (Professor in the School of Art) was there. You know you hear all those stories about people who go to portfolio reviews and are crying, so I was pretty nervous. I was also the only guy wearing a shirt, tie and a jacket—I don’t even know why. But somehow she took a liking to me.

Do you remember what you showed to Day Gleeson at your portfolio review?

That was another sort of weird thing. I had only brought my laptop and was showing her these websites and videos I had made. And I think some logos I had designed, too. This was before it was easy to make websites, so it was kind of weird and sorta new. Everyone else was lugging around these huge portfolios—like physical bags and boxes—while I just had my laptop only.

I was also the only guy wearing a
shirt, tie and a jacket—I don’t even know why.
But somehow she took a liking to me.

"See Something, Say Something." Concept by Sascha Mombartz.
“See Something, Say Something.” Concept by Sascha Mombartz.

What did you feel when you first got to Cooper?

Honestly, I had no idea what I was getting myself into. It’s difficult to judge from afar all these things without actually being there. I was very… confused? I had come from a place that was very structured, and even though Cooper had classes like Graphic Design, it wasn’t like Graphic Design at UNT. The whole studio idea was very open. You have to almost come up with your own assignments.

I took an advanced drawing class. The guy next to me was doing a sculpture, another person was doing a dance performance and I was sitting there like “I don’t understand, I’m in a drawing class!” It was such a contrast from where I had come from.

Cooper is also very heavily focused on the concept. Yes, there’s a component of technique involved, but I feel at Cooper it’s all about the idea or concept behind your project.

You might say that about any high-brow art school.

Sort of, yeah. But sometimes people value the craft of the work, or they look at the technique. I didn’t go to other schools, but at Cooper, more than anything else, it was about the concept. At least that’s what I think. I feel that your craft was treated like your own business and you got better at it on your own.

Stamp on money concept by Sascha Mombartz.
Fund Trust stamp series by Sascha Mombartz.

I found some work you made while you were at Cooper; you submitted it to The Pioneer. Do you remember this?

"Pull Yourself Together," Illustration by Sascha Mombartz. Originally printed in Volume 86, Issue 5.
“Pull Yourself Together” by Sascha Mombartz. Originally printed in Volume 86, Issue 5.

This one is called “Pull yourself together.”

It was part of a series of little word games I made for a screen printing class with Lorenzo [Clayton]. His big thing is to teach us to iterate. He doesn’t use the word ‘iterate’, but that’s what he teaches. He explains how you come up with an idea and then try it in lots of different ways and keep experimenting until you find a solution.

When you graduated, what was your path out of Cooper?

Well, I graduated in December 2008 because I was a transfer student. My father was very eager to have me supporting myself financially, but he agreed to help me out for one month after graduation. Basically, he would pay for January rent; after that I was on my own.

Now it was early 2009, you know, financial crisis and everything and here I was trying to find a job. My friend Louise—she had graduated just a little before me—was working at The New York Times. She told me they were looking for a graphic designer and she managed to arrange a job interview for me with Khoi Vinh, their design director. The interview went really well and I was looking forward to hearing from them soon.

At the same time, I was also interviewing at Pentagram. I felt really good after that interview and I thought that was going to turn out well for me. They offered me an internship that paid quite well and I was so happy! I mean it’s Pentagram!!

[Editor’s Note: Pentagram is a multidisciplinary design studio. J. Abbot Miller, a partner at Pentagram and also a Cooper alumnus, designed the signage and is behind the decision to use that typeface you see everywhere in the NAB—the one with the chamfered edges. It’s called Foundry Gridnik.]

“It’s all downhill from here.” Williamsburg Bridge, New York, 2012. By Sascha Mombartz.

Then I heard back from The Times—they wanted to do a second interview. I was like, “Holy shit, this is huge!” I was very excited. But then I felt kinda bad because I was supposed to start at Pentagram the next week. I felt like I should let them know that I’m doing other interviews because… well it’s gonna suck for them! So, I called them up—see I thought this was a good idea when I did it—and I said:

“Hey, I’m doing an interview with The New York Times. I’m not sure what’s going to happen, but I thought you should know.”
And the lady was like: “—Oh cool, thanks. Uhh, I’ll call you back later.” *click*
And I thought to myself, “Oh shit, call me back later? Uhh.” But this was just before my interview at the Times, so I just refocused on that. When I got out of the interview, I had a voicemail. It was from Pentagram:

“Hey Sascha, thanks for letting us know! We found someone else to take your spot. Good luck with The Times. Bye.” *click* And I thought, “Hooooly shit, I went and fucked that up. I just lost that job.”

After that, I started getting anxious. I hadn’t heard from The Times in a while, so I called them. They said, “Hey, thanks for calling, you were second on our list, but we decided to go with someone else. Thanks so much.”

 I should have started at Pentagram, and then if I got the job at The Times, I should quit and go there instead. That’s okay to do. I’m not going to hurt Pentagram by doing that; they’re too big.

And then I just crumbled. I was such a moron; I should have just shut up and I would still have the Pentagram internship. Of course, now with hindsight, I would say my advice is you definitely need to look out for yourself because other people are not going to look out for you. I should have started at Pentagram, and then if I got the job at The Times, I should quit and go there instead. That’s okay to do. I’m not going to hurt Pentagram by doing that; they’re too big.

Anyways, I had ended up with nothing. Mega-bummer.

Two weeks later, I got a call from Khoi at The Times again. He said:

“Hey Sascha, are you still looking for a job? Would you be interested in working for us?”

I was excited all over again! I got the job! What had happened was the person they originally hired—she had her own design studio and had more experience than me—just did not fit in with the team. After an incident, she was let go and so I got the job!

That was my first job right out of Cooper. I was on the digital design team at The New York Times. We made all the minute details and features of the website and sidebar and translated that experience to all their mobile apps and stuff. It was such an amazing experience and I guess I did realize it at the time. You only realize how great the first job was when you’re at the fifth job and it’s not so amazing anymore.

Sounds a bit like dating.

Oh, yeah, 100%, everything is like dating.

What were the not-so-amazing places you ended at?

I don’t think I could tell you that on the record. 


“Black Hole.” 2008. Installation by Sascha Mombartz in his senior show.

Where has your career taken you after that?

Well, I tried a bunch of things. First I started a company with two of my friends. We made a lot of mistakes and things didn’t end so well between me and friends-turned-co-founders. After learning a lot from that I experience, I tried something else in the form of a new company I started on my own.

The idea came to me when I visited Walter De Maria’s The Broken Kilometer and The New York Earth Room. These are two mind-blowing installations in SoHo that I wanted to share with my friends. So, I started taking my friends there and that morphed into me looking up more about the history of SoHo. I already knew the history of Cooper Union, I knew things about McSorley’s story—I was so fascinated by the little bits of information that change the way you look at something.

Soon after that, I had a job giving walking tours of neighborhoods to random people. Yeah, like tourists and even local people who were curious. It was a lot of work to read up and learn enough about New York to answer any questions, but I was already interested in all of that and now I had a good reason. I charged $50 per person. And I had to do the tours whether it was raining or it was sunny, so it was pretty hard.

It made sense to me that this could be an app, so that’s what I started working on.

It was initially called ArtwalkNYC and now it’s called Float. It’s a guidebook-as-an-app that tells reveals the little bits of information that exists all around you. It helps you make your own tour of these neighborhoods.

Looking back at that now, I think I realize I picked something really difficult. Creating high quality, original content is super hard. And the travel business is also very crowded. There are literally 50 other guide apps—from like Lonely Planet and other guidebook companies going digital. I put in a lot of work and I felt it wasn’t really going anywhere, so it’s shelved for now.

[Editor’s Note: The app is still available as Float and features over 300 stories about places all over the five boroughs. One story about Cooper Union: “The statue of Peter Cooper in the park used to be cleaned by Jackson Pollock when he worked as a stone cutter at the Emergency Relief Bureau.”]

Urtak, one of Mombartz's first startups, was an online discussion platform. The concept was that each comment must be a question—and "Yes", "No", and "Don't Care" responses are collected from other readers. Mombartz produced the graphic above using data from an Urtak discussion on Cooper's decision to end free tuition in 2012.
Urtak, one of Mombartz’s first startups together with Aaron Gibraltar and Marc Lizoain, was an online discussion platform. The concept was that each comment must be a question—and “Yes”, “No”, and “Don’t Care” responses are collected from other readers. Mombartz produced the graphic above using data from an Urtak discussion on Cooper’s decision to end free tuition in 2012 (click to enlarge).

What do you do now?

I’m a freelance designer, so I pretty much work for myself. My studio is called the Office for Visual Affairs. It’s a little joke I have with my dad—he used to work for the Office for Foreign Affairs as a diplomat for the German government. I think he kinda gets it, but he’s never mentioned it since… I think it was the most hilarious thing. ◊

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