The Pursuit of Happiness

Interview with Stefan Sagmeister

Right at the beginning of his debut film The Happy Film Stefan Sagmeister clarifies: ‘This film will not make you happy.’ For a period of three months the renowned graphics designer from Vorarlberg who lives and works in New York tested different methods for becoming happier. Seven years after the shooting started The Happy Film was released in 2017 and was celebrated by critics and audience alike. In his interview with La Loupe Stefan Sagmeister spoke about what film and design have in common, personal happiness, and his relationship with Lech Zürs.

L.L. / Mr Sagmeister, on a scale of 1 to 10 (where ten is the best and 1 is the worst) – how happy are you right now? 

S.S. / Well, the last time I made daily notes on my happiness, I reached an average of 7.5/10, when I had started 6 years prior, it was at 6.8/10. I might not call this the key to happiness, but it does constitute a proper improvement. 

Stefan Sagmeister
Stefan Sagmeister

L.L. / Your debut film ‘The Happy Film’ is released this year. You worked on realising it for seven years. Why make an entire movie about happiness? What makes this topic so interesting?

S.S. / During our second sabbatical in Indonesia I was looking for something meaningful to design, and The Happy Film seemed to fit the bill: It forced me into doing a whole lot of research and experiments within this field. I also figured that whatever we do might have a chance to be of possible service to other people. It also allowed me to work in a challenging media, as I had never done a film before. Most things I do every day are somehow geared towards this goal, often just not in a very direct way. And it seemed more challenging to attempt to get a handle on the subject in film rather than print, trying out a new medium prevents me from becoming too complacent. When we started out, it was supposed to be a general film on happiness. This quickly proved impossible as the subject was just too large, so it became a film on my own happiness (as I’m an expert on it). 

L.L. / You are a renowned graphic designer; for ‘The Happy Film’ you went into filming and acting for the first time. Was it hard to switch industries like that? Are there parallels?

S.S. / Oh yes, I much overestimated the similarities between design and film making, which proved to be the root of a lot of trouble, mostly me not knowing what I was doing. Also, to work without limitations proved extremely difficult. I had written a script in the very beginning of the project, and we threw that out almost immediately, as we thought an open-ended approach would make a more interesting film.

So we wound up with no deadline, no pre-conceived ending and no clear structure. When we normally start a new design project, either the client or we ourselves create our own set of limitations, borders we have to adhere to throughout the project. Every novel has to work within its own set of rules, so does every movie and every Pop-song. If you can do absolutely anything, you might wind up with nothing. I knew this before we started and ignored it anyway. Much difficulty arose.

La Loupe Sagmeister Lech 2

L.L. / For three months you tested different methods for becoming happier: meditating in Bali, cognitive behavioural therapy in New York and medication/drugs. Did anything work in the end? Are you happier now?

S.S. / Yes, but surprisingly only about 8 months after the completion of the film. I had heard our scientific adviser Jonathan Haidt’s conclusion that happiness comes from in between countless times during the filming and editing process:  He thinks happiness can ensue if I manage to get the relationship to other people right, this includes far away acquaintances and close family, if I can get the relationship to my work right and the relationship to something that’s bigger than myself right. Only then happiness can rise from here and there from in between. When I started my current sabbatical in Mexico City and looked for a main subject to work on, it immediately became clear to me that it will need to be ‘Beauty’, as it will force me to be in close relationship with many people, it will force me to work with many new and old experts, artists, designers, and producers, and it will surely be bigger than me. The following months were among the happiest of my life.

L.L. / You dealt with the topic of happiness for a long time. Would you say there is a formula for being happy? Or does everyone have to find their own way?

S.S. / Originally, I wanted to find an answer to the question if it is possible to train my own mind in the same way it is possible to train my body. Can I – through various techniques that will include acts of meditation, cognitive therapy and drugs – increase my overall level of happiness? It turned out that these main strategies are of only limited effectiveness, and that it really is more about creating an environment that touches on my relationships, work, and something that’s bigger than myself where happiness can develop from in between. Working on the film allowed me to think about the bigger picture properly and more frequently.

L.L. / You are from Vorarlberg, originally, but you have been living and working in New York for more than 25 years. Is there anything you miss about your home?

S.S. / I do miss all my brothers and sisters, but in general, I’m not somebody who misses much. When I’m in Vorarlberg I love to enjoy ‘Kaesspaetzle' and ‘Flaedlesuppa', but while in NYC I don't really think about it much, I enjoy the things that are here. 

Jessica Walsh and Stefan Sagmeister
Jessica Walsh and Stefan Sagmeister

L.L. / Your family still lives in Vorarlberg. Your brother owns the renowned fashion store Sagmeister which also has shops in Lech. Do you have a thing for fashion? Or are you not interested in fashion design at all?

S.S. / I used to be not into fashion at all growing up: This was a typical rebellion against the parents and the fact that they always wanted us to be well dressed. Now I actually do enjoy men’s fashion and I'm a rather frequent customer at my brother’s store.  

L.L. / When you visit Lech and Zürs, what makes you particularly happy?

S.S. / Skiing, it goes without saying. I am otherwise not really engaged in the enjoyment of speed, I don't particularly enjoy driving a car or motorcycle fast, but truly do get a little high on skis. 

L.L. / Lech Zürs hosts numerous arts and culture exhibitions: Antony Gormley’s Horizon Field, the Philosophicum conference, the Green Ring and now the all-new Skyspace by James Turrell. What do you think about how art is staged in Lech Zürs and generally in the mountains? 

S.S. /  I do believe that nature and art go extremely well together and am so very much looking forward to the opening of the James Turrell space this winter. We will visit it a lot! 

"I truly do get a little high on skis." 

L.L. / And finally: What projects do you have coming up in the future? 

S.S. / We are working on a project about beauty. Most design centric professions, be it architecture, product or digital design don’t take beauty very seriously, with many practitioners seeing it as superfluous, while concentrating on function. I very strongly believe that the sole pursuit of functionality often leads to work that does not function at all, the public housing projects of the 50ies and 60ies being a prime example: The goal was to house as many people as effectively as possible, resulting in projects that were not fit for human habitation - they needed to be torn down again 20 years later. 

La Loupe Sagmeister Lech 13

Stefan Sagmeister's Wordrap

When I was a child I wanted to become ... a priest.

My design style in three words: Human, emotional and touching. 

Does success make us happy? Sadly, only momentarily. 

I recommend young designers to ... work very hard.

My role model: My sister Christine. She is strong and kind.

Form follows function? No, it does not. For a project to be good, beauty needs to play a role as a goal. 

My favourite cover: The Rolling Stones, Sticky Fingers.

Stefan Sagmeister

Stefan Sagmeister was born in Bregenz in 1962, he studied graphics and design in Vienna and New York. In 1993 he founded Sagmeister Inc, his first own agency in New York where he reached global fame for his CD cover designs for Lou Reed, The Rolling Stones, and Aerosmith. Today the Guggenheim Museum, TAIGA, and Time Warner are among his clients. Stefan Sagmeister won two Grammys and was nominated a total of six times. Since 2012 he has been leading his agency together with the designer Jessica Walsh under the name Sagmeister & Walsh. Presently the graphic designer is working on a project on Beauty.