Stefan Sagmeister is undoubtedly a pop star of the design scene. He illustrated for famous magazines like Print and Japanese idea and created album covers for the Rolling Stones and Lou Reed. With his exhibition at the MAK, “The Happy Show”, which has been to Paris and New York, the Austrian Designer is now back in Vienna and poses an existential question to visitors: When are you happy?
Spencer Ferguson Silver from San Antonio, Texas, had a plan. In 1969 the graduated chemist was supposed to develop a new and extra strong glue for his company. After some months of work he created a sticky paste, which was easy to unstick from every surface.
A glue that doesn’t glue. He sold the promising patent, and some years later his colleague Art Fry re-established the invention. With the aid of Silver’s glue, Art Fry developed a little sticky note, which became a global success: the Post-it.
What is happiness? How do we define it?
No other term is as present in everyone’s daily life as the pursuit of happiness. But despite all the definitions, it is a concept that is difficult to designate. Is it a good idea at the right time? A steady job? A committed relationship? The jackpot in the lottery? And besides: When are you happy? When you can catch the last parking spot? Or just when some stranger sends a good joke to your phone?
When entering the exhibition at the Austrian Museum of Applied Arts the first thing that comes to your eyes is this red button right next to the giant white monkey. When you press it, the connected machine throws a small card in your hands with instructions. Happiness needs to be spread:
“Let your zipper-fly of your jeans open during the visit!”
“Send a joke to the following number: …”
Sagmeister printed his own number on the card. Even a much-noticed Designer needs cheering up sometimes.
In 1993 Sagmeister founded his design studio Sagmeister Inc. in New York City. In 2012 he brought in the young designer Jessica Walsh as partner. Since then the agency runs under the name of Sagmeister & Walsh. In the press release of the collaboration, both showed themselves without any clothing, stark naked. It came along with the slogan: “We will do anything for design”. Sagmeister likes to surprise and to provoke. And he tries to not reduce the term design only to advertising and selling:
“I have nothing against selling – both of my parents were salespeople – but I felt there must be a personal way to interact with an audience.”
That’s why the rooms of the MAK look like a playground full of trivia and details, in which the creative could riot with his childish sobriety. A power box is painted with a small speech bubble that says: “I’m so excited, I just can’t hide it.”
The playful exhibition has a lot of interactive moments for the visitor: on a fixed bicycle, at a gumball machine or at the painting table (“Draw an animal which you believe is happy!”). But the exhibit could have also been called “The Sagmeister Show”, as the artist constantly processes his own biographical experiences and arguments about personal and collective happiness, selling himself and his profession. But this inconsistency isn’t hard to forgive during this entertaining and fascinating sight on his very own story of happiness.
Sagmeister holds up the happy-mirror to every visitor and makes use of expressive statistics: According to a survey someone with a regular income of 85,000 dollars per year is that happy and worriless that no additional dollar earned makes a difference in their sense of wellbeing. So it doesn’t matter if the bank account shows 100,000 or 10 million dollars.
As far as his personal wellbeing, Sagmeister finds it every seven years. In a septennial rotation he lays down every project and goes on a 12-month sabbatical. Next year it is that time again.
The interactive and highly self-reflective exhibition leads to the bold and simple insight: Happiness is what you make of it. And maybe also what you can afford.
Who wants to see Stefan Sagmeister live, he is a guest speaker at the Forward Festival Vienna on Friday, April 7 at 20:15.
Text: Simon Weyer, Bruketa&Zinic OM Wien
Photos: © MAK/ Aslan Kudrnofsky and Simon Weyer