As I descend from the ICA offices to the lobby, I can hear the buzz of voices as the elevator passes the second floor—the Sagmeister buzz. Designer Stefan Sagmeister is giving a lecture at 6:30, and 300 people have signed up to hear him. Designers, font inventors, art educators, enthusiasts: for an hour they have been checking in, getting their hands stamped, and hurrying upstairs to claim a seat. There are far too many people to fit in ICA’s auditorium. Luckily the upstairs shows closed on Sunday. We rushed deinstallation and set up rows of chairs and benches in the same gallery where ICA will present The Happy Show, a new installation by Sagmeister himself, in April.
Before the lecture starts, I ask the women sitting behind me why they’re here. “It’s Stefan Sagmeister!” they explain.
“What do you like about him?”
“He breaks all the rules,” one of them says.
Kenny Goldsmith, a conceptual poet who (in collaboration with ICA) is teaching a whole class on Sagmeister at Penn this year, comes by in his kilt and magenta sweater to say hello. I tell him I’m looking for an angle for the piece I want to write on Sagmeister.
“The man himself is the angle,” Kenny says.
“Design is the last thing on this mind.”
“What’s on his mind?”
“Film, performance, body art, language.” This afternoon, introducing Stefan at a lunchtime conversation with former ICA Director Claudia Gould at Kelly Writers House, Kenny said of the class, “We’ve studied everything from the Helvetica typeface to body art to the psychopharmacological exploits of the Romantic poets onwards…Sagmeister is a pedagogic dream.” A little later he added, “He’s an iconoclast, a boundary breaker, which makes him a perfect match for ICA.”
The Happy Show will certainly break boundaries, as Stefan’s lecture does tonight. Part personal narrative, part history of the psychological study of happiness (both positive psychology and cognitive therapy were, it turns out, invented here at Penn), Sagmeister showcases his own work only, it seems, incidentally. He does, of course, use good design to communicate his message. The guy makes great slides.
For ten years Sagmeister has been exploring happiness. Maxims, taken from his diaries (“Trying to look good limits my life,” “Obsessions make my life worse and my work better,” and so on) spelled out in spectacular, innovative, and often interactive typography will form the basis of the ICA show. In one interactive video installation, the words appear as spider webs, fragmented by the body of the viewer stepping in front of them, and then reforming. In another, a visitor can pedal a stationary bike to power lights that spell out alternating phrases. A magnetized wall that organizes iron filings into letters is a work in progress. It may or may not make the show.
The exhibition will also feature parts of The Happy Film, a personal project that follows Sagmeister as he explores three categories of mental intervention that may or may not affect happiness: meditation, cognitive therapy (the film crew is in the sessions with him, but he says he forgets about them after a few minutes), and finally drugs.
Sagmeister claims his work won’t affect people’s happiness: “It would be foolish to expect that the film will make anyone happier any more than watching a Jane Fonda workout video would make you skinnier.”
Still, there’s this. Toward the beginning of the lecture, Sagmeister asks the audience to raise their hands to show how happy they are. The lowest level is 0 (“I feel like shit”) and the highest is 10 (“I love life”). At the end of the lecture, he asks for another show of hands. This time, there are a lot more 8s and 10s.
After the applause, I ask some listeners (more designers) if they’re disappointed Sagmeister didn’t talk more about design tonight. They’re not. All the other designers lecture about design, they tell me. They are happy to hear about happiness instead.
The Happy Show opens at ICA on April 4.
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