The designers Stefan Sagmeister and Jessica Walsh are known for their experimental typography and striking visual imagery. Six Things: Sagmeister & Walsh, on view at The Jewish Museum from March 15 through August 4, 2013, marks the first exhibition of their newly minted design firm Sagmeister & Walsh. For the last ten years, Sagmeister has researched the nature of happiness, asking, "Is it possible to train my mind in the same way I can train my body?" In five short films and a sculpture, the studio investigates six things, culled from Sagmeister's diary, that he believes have increased his personal happiness such as: "Now Is Better" and "If I Don't Ask I Won't Get." In addition, intrigued by a recent nationwide survey in which Jews reported the highest levels of well-being of all religious groups, Sagmeister & Walsh are placing a text in the gallery that connects this scientific data to his personal exploration of happiness.
Before this partnership, Stefan Sagmeister was already taking an unusual approach to design. He has created signature album covers for Lou Reed, Talking Heads, the Rolling Stones, and OK Go, and others, and executed indelible ad campaigns for major companies such as HBO and Levi's. In an iconic 1999 poster for the American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA), he incised type into the skin of his naked torso like a tattoo. At the contemporary art gallery Deitch Projects in 2008 he stacked 10,000 bananas against a wall. Unripe green bananas among the yellow ones spelled out the rallying sentence, "Self-confidence produces fine results." The legibility of the text fluctuated as the fruit turned from green to yellow to black over the course of the exhibition.
To stimulate his own creativity Sagmeister has gone on regular sabbaticals since 2000, traveling and investigating ideas. Over the last decade he has delved into the nature of happiness. Inspired by the psychologist Jonathan Haidt, whose research connects spiritual wisdom with modern science, Sagmeister developed an intensive regimen of meditation, cognitive therapy, and mood-altering drugs as an experiment in self-discovery. From this emerged a forthcoming documentary entitled The Happy Film and from that The Happy Show, a traveling exhibition and its accompanying publications, organized by the Institute of Contemporary Art, Philadelphia.
Six Things is a continuation of this project on happiness, in which Jessica Walsh has been an integral partner. In five compelling short videos and a sound-activated sculpture, Sagmeister & Walsh examines six things culled from Sagmeister's diary that he believes have increased his personal happiness:
If I Don't Ask I Won't Get
Keeping a Diary Supports Personal Development
Be More Flexible
It's Pretty Much Impossible to Please Everyone
Now Is Better
Feel Others Feel
Sugar cubes, bubbles, and water balloons are just some of the materials used to spell out the phrases. The ambiguous connections between the six epigrams and the objects of which they are composed are left for visitors to decipher, a provocative game based in the pleasure of looking.
A text in the Six Things exhibition gallery connects this scientific data to the personal exploration of happiness. It notes: "According to a recent nationwide survey, Jewish Americans report higher levels of happiness than all other major faith groups in the country. This finding is based on more than 676,000 interviews conducted in 2010-11 for the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index. Within each faith surveyed, very religious members are happier than their nonreligious counterparts. For example, observant Jews are generally happier than secular Jews. But a higher proportion of practicing members does not predict greater well-being for the faith. Interestingly, though Jews are among the least religious faith groups in America, with only 16.9% identifying themselves as very religious and 53.5% as secular, they still appear to be the happiest. The Well-Being Index does not definitively say that religious observance leads to greater happiness. It does note that belief in a higher power, prayer, acts of charity, and neighborly love can promote a sense of belonging; alleviate stress and depression; and lead to a positive outlook on life."