“The Happy Show” Goes International

Press a button and get a card that will tell you how to behave at the exhibit.

On January 8, Stefan Sagmeister’s “The Happy Show” opened at the Design Exchange in Toronto, where it will be on display until March 3. Toronto is the second venue for this exhibition, which The New York Times called “a virtual funhouse of didactic interactive displays.” It drew large crowds at the Institute for Contemporary Art in Philadelphia last summer. After Toronto, the show will travel to museums in Los Angeles, Chicago, and Paris, with a condensed version in New York City.

A principal of the design firm Sagmeister & Walsh, Sagmeister works with dozens of collaborators to create the interactive, video, and art pieces, oversees the installation of each show, gives press conferences and media tours, and is present at the openings. All of which, to me, is exhilarating as well as exhausting to contemplate. I caught up with him last week to discuss the project.

Q: In August 2011, Imprint reported on The Happy Film, your documentary movie project about happiness. Where has your research about happiness taken you since then?

A: This exhibit is a sister project to the film. Both are glimpses into my continuing research into the strategies serious psychologists recommend to improve well-being, which include meditation, cognitive therapy, and psychotropic drugs. I try them all out and report back on the results.

Q: How is the film going after the untimely death of your filmmaker partner, Hillman Curtis, last April? 

A: We continued with the film. But we are working in a completely different fashion without Hillman. We miss him a lot. A lot. We started editing about two months ago and hope to have a film by fall 2013.

Designers Jessica Walsh (left) and Stefan Sagmeister (who supplied the captions) with Shauna Levy, the president of the Design Exchange

At the opening on January 8. Mini Canada displayed a new Mini Paceman car in the museum lobby, which is hosting a separate installation, “DXperience,” described as “a culture-meets-commerce experience for show sponsors.”

Sagmeister gets interviewed by CTV

Q: Interactivity with the audience is a hallmark of your work. What are some of the ways visitors get involved in “The Happy Show”?

A: We have a site where people can submit their photos, videos, and thoughts about happiness. At the show itself, there are many opportunities, including a push button that dispenses a card with instructions on how to behave during the visit. The messages are things like, “Walk through the exhibit and pretend you are the artist” and “Carry whoever you are with on your back throughout the exhibit.” There are gumball machines that survey visitors’ overall mood levels. There’s an interactive spider web that sees the viewer and reacts to him or her. There is type that gets colorful when you smile. And a bike that makes a neon sign light up when you pedal it.

Visitors can pick the gumball machine that corresponds to how happy they feel — 1 through 10, “the highest level of happiness.”

“No smiley faces allowed.” Visitors draw their symbols of happiness.

The exercise bike powers a large neon type installation that reads: “ACTUALLY DOING THE THINGS I SET OUT TO DO INCREASES MY OVERALL LEVEL OF SATISFACTION.”

Q: Can any visitor ride the bike?

A: Yes, absolutely anybody who is tall enough to reach the pedals. The first words light up after a couple of seconds of pedaling. In order to see the entire sentence, about a minute of vigorous pedaling is necessary. There is a bonus message for the very determined rider.

For the extra-hardy biker, a bonus message lights up: “SEEK DISCOMFORT.”

Q: What are other popular parts of the exhibit?

A: Obviously, different elements are popular for different people. I myself hear a lot of favorable feedback about our suggested donation box of 25 cents. The visitors’ quarters drop into the box, roll right out of it onto a transparent track that continues outside the museum, and drop into a box labeled, “Take Some Money.”

Sagmeister’s favorite Jin-Jin ginger candy from Indonesia is on offer.

Q: Who are some of the collaborators who should be credited?

A: Jessica Walsh, for sure. And many others. Collaborators for interactive works include Kevin O’Callahan, Ralph Ammer, Daniel Scheibel, Zander Brimijoin, Christopher Fung, and Simon Egli. Videographers, in addition to Hillman, were Karim Zariffa, Dorian West, Ben Nabors, and Ben Wolf. And other artists, graphic designers, and photographers worked with me on prints, sculpture, and components like the infographics wall. Too many to name here . . .

Q: A huge team. Is this pro-bono work for them?

A: Everybody worked as cheap as possible, either free or for very small honorariums.

Q: How many square feet is the exhibit in total? How much does it cost to design, build, transport, and mount? And how do you get sponsors?

A: The show is different scale in different venues. It was about 5,000 square feet in Philadelphia. It is slightly smaller in Toronto and will be much bigger in Paris. The various places get their own sponsors. The show in Philadelphia was made possible by a generous grant from the PEI foundation. The Toronto show is sponsored by Sharpie and Mini Canada.

Q: Are you shy about talking about money, dollar amounts?

A: It is absolutely amazing to me how much such exhibits cost, even with everybody working for peanuts. The initial build-up at the ICA was about $250,000. This is not a fancy show.

Q: How do you do all this and still get your client work done?

A: By working with a wonderful team in the studio. Because we always stayed small—after almost 20 years in business we still are only four designers and two interns—we actually are rather efficient and do get a comparatively large amount of work done in a timely manner.

Q: How would you encourage graphic designers to broaden themselves beyond client-commissioned print/web design and do more self-generated projects? 

A: I don’t necessarily encourage graphic designers to do self-generated projects. I have the biggest respect for designers who are able to do good and exciting work for their clients and their audiences.

Q: What do you most want people to get out of the show? A feeling of happiness when they’re there, a better understanding of what will bring them happier lives, or . . . ?

A: Yes, both, and possibly an encouragement to try out themselves some of the bigger and more work-intensive strategies like meditation, cognitive therapy, or drugs.

Q: Which drugs bring about the most happiness? Please let me know right away so I can try them.

A: Well, of the illegal ones, surely MDMA. Of the legal ones, I tried Lexapro, which worked surprisingly well.

These doors, Sagmeister says, make a satisfying noise when closing. The inside of the doors read, “There is no moral reason to have children.”

Handwritten type covers most surfaces in the Design Exchange, including bathrooms and ceilings.

Q: You have been very candid about your past personal struggles with unhappiness, your potentially addictive personality, and how much cognitive therapy helped you. Are you hoping that what you’re doing here is more than entertaining people—that if they’re unhappy and depressed, your film and show might help them figure out how to get better?

A: Yes, the show might be able to nudge visitors into trying one of the main strategies out themselves.

Note: After Toronto, “The Happy Show” will be on view at the Pacific Design Center in Los Angeles from March 23 through June 9; the Chicago Cultural Center from June 29 to September 23; and the Gaite Lyrique in Paris from October 15 to December 31. The Jewish Museum in New York City will mount a smaller version in the Artist Project Room from March 15 through August 4.

Located in the original Toronto Stock Exchange building, the Design Exchange (DX) is one of the few museums in the world dedicated to design excellence and heritage. DX exhibits cover multiple disciplines: furniture and architecture to graphics and fashion, reflecting contemporary popular culture.

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