Rachel Pastan
July 1, 2011

The Happiest Moment

“People who make things with wood are the happiest people,” Stefan Sagmeister says. “You see what you’ve accomplished every evening. And the wood smells good.”

Paul, an artist who is also a professional art crate builder and ICA’s head preparator, affirms that he is happy; he does a lot of wood working. I say I have heard that orchestra musicians, when surveyed, turn out to be quite unhappy, and we speculate as to why this might be. Happiness is a slippery creature, which may be partly why Stefan is so interested in it. A well-known and influential graphic designer (you might know his album covers for the Talking Heads, Lou Reed, and the Rolling Stones even if you don’t recognize his name), Stefan has been making a personal and professional study of happiness for the last decade. You can see him talk about it in some great TED videos, and he is currently at work on a documentary called The Happy Film. The reason he’s here at ICA on this sunny June Monday, along with two designers, Jessica and Michael, who work for him, is that he’s making a show at ICA next spring:The Happy Show.

Miranda: Peeking into ICA

It’s not exactly clear yet what will be in The Happy Show. Organized by ICA Director Claudia Gould, it will partly showcase Stefan’s work and partly be a new installation he’s dreaming up. So far, Stefan is conceiving a series of encounters, experiences, experiments, and sets of instructions that not only explore and embody happiness, but are intended to make visitors happier as they move through the space. There may be therapy sessions, meditation classes, music. There may be chocolate, ladders, windows with views, tickling machines, instructions for taking cell phone pictures with a stranger with your eyelids touching. There will undoubtedly be good design.

Today we’re touring the space, giving Stefan a sense of the container he has to work with. We take a peek inside ICA’s wood shop, behind a locked door in one of the galleries, filled with saws and ladders, sheet goods and lumber, screws and nails, and a hammer drill.

“It looks like it’s fun to work in here, no?” Stefan says. He is a tall man in a light blue shirt, his Austrian accent lilting through the air.

“It’s great,” Paul says.

“Maybe we keep the door open and put some Plexi here,” Stefan says. “If we do this woodworking thing.”

“I thought Stefan would like it,” Claudia says.

Miranda: Sag-on-roofA-RC

We wander out into the main upstairs gallery where One is the loneliest number, a show exploring artistic collaborations, is on view. Michael and Jessica take pictures of all the angles with their phones. Claudia talks about other exhibitions that have been presented in this space in the past: Trisha Donnelly’s paintings lined up tightly along one wall, the work of Dutch designers Hella Jongerius and Jurgen Bey, Damián Ortega’s disassembled VW bug. “He paid someone in Mexico City to take it apart,” Claudia says. “We hung it here, and then MOCA bought it. There’s a big history in this space.”

We look at the Ramp, a long V-shaped corridor with windows on 36th Street, discussing the challenges of lighting and what to do about a tree that has filled out, partly blocking the view. We talk about which entrance people will use to get into the show, which museum walls are permanent and which can be removed. Stefan says something about building super complicated things, and Paul smiles. “We love a challenge,” he says.

We look at the mezzanine, the lobby, the staff kitchen. “What parts of the museum are up for grabs?” Stefan asks.

“Everything is possible,” Claudia says.

The June sun shines through the glass onto the mezzanine, and traces of exhibitions past seem to hang in the air. You can almost see the ideas beginning to spin in Stefan’s head. Good weather, inspirational history, no immediate pressure, and an expansive vision as yet uncompromised by logisitics or budgets: this may be the happiest moment in the creation of any work of art.

The Happy Show will open at ICA in April 2012.

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