Design for life: Stefan Sagmeister’s ’The Happy Show’ arrives at MAK, Vienna

Large, white monkey with a sign saying "EVERYBODY ALWAYS THINKS"
Stefan Sagmeister's 'The Happy Show' – currently on view at MAK, Vienna – is a sprawling multimedia exhibition exploring the fundamental sources of personal happiness. Pictured: Everybody Always Thinks They Are Right, 2007. In collaboration with Monika Aichele, Matthias Ernstberger, and Sportogo.
(Image credit: Courtesy MAK/Aslan Kudrnofsky)

What makes us happy? That's the – sprawling, existentially crushing – question posited by design maven Stefan Sagmeister in his new show at Vienna's MAK (opens in new tab). (Actually, he asks what makes us 'at least happier' – the man's a realist, clearly.)

The result of a full decade of ongoing investigation into the nebulous notion of happiness, the show – which has already been staged in North America and in Paris – is a multifaceted sensory treat, reflecting the playful approach to the work that Sagmeister also creates as half of Sagmeister & Walsh (opens in new tab), the New York-based, multimedia design practice he runs with Jessica Walsh.

The show has its roots in a lecture, 'Design and Happiness' that Sagmeister started giving ten years ago. This led to the conceiving of a film on the topic, for which the designer developed the 'invasive' research methods – engaging in medication and cognitive therapy, as well as taking the antidepressant Lexapro for three months – that form the basis of the research behind 'The Happy Show'. (Funding for the film was completed via Kickstarter (opens in new tab) earlier this year.)

Sagmeister has staged interventions throughout the museum – through the main hall, Design Lab, across the permanent collection of contemporary art and around the institution's stairwells, corridors and elevators. These are accompanied by texts written by the artist, explaining the work, and offering personal insights and ruminations on their conception.

Towering over the entrance hall are two monolithic inflatable apes, holding placards that together read 'EVERYBODY ALWAYS THINKS / THEY ARE RIGHT'. 'This is as true for all the little crap fights in my life, as it is for all the big conflicts in the world,' Sagmeister writes of the sentiment. 'I – and I suspect everybody else, too – was born a giant egoist.'

Elsewhere, a bicycle is set up in front of a neon wall installation encouraging the public to follow through on the things they think they should do or try throughout their lives (the installation various flashes the statements 'Actually doing the things / I set out to do increases / My overall level of satisfaction' and 'Seek discomfort'). A note of guidance on the bike states the rider should 'Pedal slow and steady. Do not go crazy' – salient advice in anyone's book.

A series of numbered gum ball dispensers require the observer to take a sweet in accordance with how happy they are on a scale of one to ten, while a plethora of arms sticking out from a wall offer Indonesian ginger candies (no task here – they're just Sagmeister's favourites). A technicolour interactive projection reading 'Step up to it' is derived from advice from the artist's therapist on his avoidance of confrontation, and a sound and light sculpture called 'Feel other feel' recommends maintaining a level of sympathetic empathy with those around us. It's all overwhelmingly positive stuff, but never cloying.

Record cover designs for Lou Reed and David Byrne are also on display; representing the creative development of Sagmeister's design career, lest we forget that this is a show based around his personal conceptions of happiness.

'Above all,' he explained to MAK/ZINE, the museum's own art and design journal, of his experiences researching the concept, 'I learned that happiness cannot be pursued; it has to come about on its own.' The exploded aphorisms that comprise the exhibition's collected works could, in the hands of less intuitive artist, come across as twee or patronising. In Sagmeister's hands, they just read like good advice.

Ten glass tubes numbered 1-10 and filled with small yellow balls

The result of a full decade of ongoing investigation into the nebulous notion of happiness, the show – which has already been staged in North America and in Paris – is a multifaceted sensory treat, reflecting the playful approach to the work that Sagmeister also creates as half of Sagmeister & Walsh. Pictured: How happy are you? 

(Image credit: Courtesy: MAK/Aslan Kudrnofsky)

Looking up a staircase in yellow, with black wording. A monkey structure is overhanging a balcony with a sign reading "THEY ARE RIGHT"

The show has its roots in a lecture, 'Design and Happiness' that Sagmeister started giving ten years ago. Pictured: Don’t expect people to change.

(Image credit: Courtesy MAK/Aslan Kudrnofsky)

Looking down a short staircase painted black with white text reading "ANDERN SICH"

This led to the conceiving of a film on the topic, for which the designer developed the 'invasive' research methods that form the basis of the research behind the show. Pictured: Don’t expect people to change. 

(Image credit: Courtesy MAK/Aslan Kudrnofsky)

Stefan Sagmeister

Stefan Sagmeister, courtesy Sagmeister & Walsh

(Image credit: John Madere)

Pic 1 of 3 - man on a bicycle in front of a neon sign reading "ACTUALLY DOING THE THINGS"

Sagmeister has staged interventions throughout the museum. These are accompanied by texts written by the artist, explaining the work, and offering personal insights and ruminations on their conception. Pictured: Actually Doing the Things I Set Out to Do Increases My Overall Level of Satisfaction, 2012. Execution: Kevin O’Callahan. Courtesy MAK/Aslan Kudrnofsky

(Image credit: Courtesy MAK/Aslan Kudrnofsky)

Pic 2 of 3 - Man on a bicycle in front of a neon sign reading "I SET OUT TO DO INCREASES"

A bicycle is set up in front of a neon wall installation in the permanent collection halls, encouraging the public to follow through on the things they think they should do or try throughout their lives. Pictured: Actually Doing the Things I Set Out to Do Increases My Overall Level of Satisfaction, 2012. Execution: Kevin O’Callahan.

(Image credit: TBC)

Pic 3 of 3 - man on a bicycle in front of a neon sign reading "MY OVERALL LEVEL OF SATISFACTION"

Actually Doing the Things I Set Out to Do Increases My Overall Level of Satisfaction, 2012. Execution: Kevin O’Callahan.

(Image credit: TBC)

Man on a bicycle in front of a red neon sign reading "SEEK DISCOMFORT"

Actually Doing the Things I Set Out to Do Increases My Overall Level of Satisfaction, 2012. Execution: Kevin O’Callahan. 

(Image credit: Courtesy MAK/Aslan Kudrnofsky)

A woman waving in front of a large white screen with thin lines radiating outwards from the centre

'People who do not cheat are happier than people who do, and, surprisingly, the cheaters also do worse moneywise in the long run. The same is true for entire nations: the really corrupt ones always do terribly economically,' writes Sagmeister in the accompanying notes for the work Being Not Truthful Always Works Against Me, 2006, created in collaboration with Ralph Ammer. 

(Image credit: Courtesy MAK/Aslan Kudrnofsky)

A black wall with model arms sticking out holding candies. White descriptions and arrows point to the hands

A plethora of arms sticking out from a wall offer Indonesian ginger candies (Sagmeister's favourites). Pictured: MY favorite CANDIES ANYWHERE, JIN JIN GINGER CANDY from INDONESIA

(Image credit: Courtesy MAK/Aslan Kudrnofsky)

Designed to look like high-rise buildings, technicolour 3D letters spell out the words "STEP UP TO IT"

A technicolour interactive projection reading 'Step up to it' is derived from advice from the artist's therapist on his avoidance of confrontation. Pictured: Step Up to It, 2012. In collaboration with Daniel Scheibel and Zander Brimijoin (of Red Paper Heart), Christopher Fung and Simon Egli.

(Image credit: Courtesy MAK/Aslan Kudrnofsky)

A lift with a woman on one door and a man on the other, designed to join when the doors are closed

The works range from informative and sincere to knowingly irreverent. Pictured: There is no moral reason to have children

(Image credit: Courtesy: MAK/Aslan Kudrnofsky)

A man's face with words written over his skin

Record cover designs for Lou Reed and David Byrne are also on display; representing the creative development of Sagmeister's design career, lest we forget that this is a show based around his personal conceptions of happiness. Pictured: Lou Reed, Set the Twilight Reeling, 1996. 

(Image credit: Courtesy Stefan Sagmeister)

INFORMATION

'The Happy Show' is on view until 28 March 2016

ADDRESS

MAK – Austrian Museum of Applied Arts / Contemporary Art
Stubenring 5
1010 Vienna

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