The Happy Show

By Emily Schroeder Willis

Several weeks ago my husband, Matt, and I were heading to a ceramic art opening at the Chicago Cultural Center downtown.  In a city like Chicago, it can be quite difficult to keep track of all of the events/exhibitions/openings/artist talks/slide talks/community events, so much so that my head spins.  Frequently I end up seeing a show card or hearing about something I am really interested in seeing, only after it has closed.

That said, at the first exhibition we discovered a second reception we wanted to attend that night and on the elevator to show #2, I saw a sign reading: “Stefan Sagmeister: The Happy Show”. I couldn’t believe my luck!  Sagmeister’s work really intrigues me and not only was it here in Chicago, but in the very building we were at!  I read the sign and saw that it closed that night. We raced up to the exhibition only to find the doors closed.  My heart sank. I then reread the sign.  I had gotten the dates switched around and the show would be open for another week.  I would get my moment. 

The Happy Show by Stefan Sagmeister

The Happy Show by Stefan Sagmeister

Many ceramics folk may not be familiar with Stefan Sagmeister.  He is an artist who primarily works within the traditional world of graphic design, but has in more recent years used typography and graphic design to talk about other things; generally a sort of narrative on altruisms and reframing certain dialogues on social issues.  While in graduate school I had purchased a book by him (Lessons I Have Learned, which I have on the OC Bookshelf page) and was interested in how he used text and “line” in an ephemeral manner and his interaction with his audience.


The following week, Matt and I came back to see The Happy Show, with his aunt in tow.  The exhibition was wonderful, and I love it when artists can make work that draws people in on so many levels.  Both my Aunt (who is a librarian) and Matt (who works in business and law) still discuss this show and how interesting and engaging it was for them.  I would like to say that the work itself was what I walked away from most inspired by, but I would be lying if I said that.  Sagmeister has given several TED talks and at the exhibition had two of his TED talks available for attendees to hear.  I put on the headphones and began to listen. 

During his talk he spoke about giving himself a “life sabbatical”. Sagmeister had a very good paying job doing traditional graphic design work but was feeling a bit stuck.  He felt time off from his traditional day to day job could lead him to trying new things and pushing the boundaries of his work. He began telling everyone he met how he was going to take a “sabbatical” the following year. He told everyone somewhat because he was excited about a year off, but more because if he told everyone, he couldn’t very well back out.  As the time approached, he began thinking he was crazy for doing this. For that following year he didn’t take any paid work, he just explored and tried and experimented.  Sagmeister now looks back at that year as the year that fueled the following 10 years. It was where the book “Things I Have Learned” was born.

"Uselessness Is Gorgeous" by Stefan Sagmeister

"Uselessness Is Gorgeous" by Stefan Sagmeister

One of my favorite works in the exhibition was his piece “Uselessness is Gorgeous”.  It was about a thirty foot installation made from thousands of cigarette papers pasted to the wall creating a script version of that phrase with fans gently blowing on the papers to make the phrase come alive.  At first the phrase seems a bit odd; uselessness is gorgeous?  

Then he explains how we need to spend more time doing things that don’t necessarily do ANYTHING.  Sit. Relax. Make a birthday cake because it’s Tuesday night and eat it yourself (not all in one sitting of course).  Take a long bike ride to a place you have never been for no reason.  Don’t always feel that everything you do has to have a purpose.  Enjoy life.

It made me realize wanting to do something in your heart isn’t always enough.  Maybe it’s giving yourself a bit of accountability to make sure things happen.  Really dedicating space and time for growth.  Not just crossing your fingers and hoping it happens while life whizzes by.