Stefan Sagmeister Gets Happy at the Institute of Contemporary Art

01 Apr 2012

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Stefan Sagmeister's The Happy Show, installation view, Institute of Contemporary Art, University of Pennsylvania, 2012. Image courtesy of the Institute of Contemporary Art.

Austrian-born and New York-based graphic designer Stefan Sagmeister wants to know what makes us happy. He wants to know what makes him happy, too—which is why he's embarked on a 10-year exploration of this major aspect of human experience. Sagmeister is well known for his award-winning album designs for influential musicians such as David Byrne, Lou Reed, and the Rolling Stones. He has also earned a reputation for provocative projects that straddle the line between art and design, often through vivid and eye-catching experimentations with typography. The Institute of Contemporary Art's (ICA) 2012 exhibition of Sagmeister's investigation into the nature of happiness, The Happy Show, was supported by The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage. The exhibition encompassed the entirety of the ICA's second-floor galleries and ramp space, and was filled with typographic depictions of maxims and interactive displays, meant to explore happiness and offer insight on how to achieve it. Oh, and to make visitors smile.

The Happy Show was Sagmeister's first U.S. museum show and the ICA's first exhibition dedicated to the work of a graphic designer in the institution's nearly 50-year history. In essence, the show was a prelude to Sagmeister's feature-length documentary, The Happy Film, in which he attempted to increase his own happiness through meditation, cognitive behavioral therapy, and psychotropic drugs. "The question I wanted was, could I train my mind to be happy, the same way one trains one's body?" Sagmeister said in a New York Times article. A 12-minute segment of the film was on view as part of the ICA's exhibition, alongside Sagmeister's playful and didactic displays and installations. Included in the show was a sculpture constructed from sugar cubes, a neon sign that lit up when visitors rode a stationary bike, and a wall from which outstretched hands offered samples of Sagmeister's favorite chocolates. A bank of gumball machines, each numbered according to a 1–10 scale of happiness, served as an infographic-in-progress, as visitors each procured a gumball according to self-assessments of happiness. The film and exhibit were contextualized by findings and studies from a team of psychologists, historians, and an anthropologist.

While The Happy Show held many examples of Sagmeister's striking approach to graphic design, it was also a serious exploration of the human condition and questions of self-improvement. We all pursue happiness, but who achieves it? And how? As we awaited The Happy Film, released in 2013, the exhibition served as a generous glimpse into Sagmeister's mind as he grappled with these questions. Former ICA Director Claudia Gould told the Times, "I went in thinking I was going to be doing a project with a graphic designer, and [...] I've realized I'm doing a project, really, with a writer and poet."

Watch a video of title shots from The Happy Film below: