Q&A with Stefan Sagmeister for Design Bureau Magazine | By Saundra Marcel

Tracking Happy

Superstar graphic designer Stefan Sagmeister has never made a film before, but the fact that he's making one now about finding happiness isn't surprising at all. The Happy Film, due out next Fall, is an obvious iteration of a theme he's been tracking for a while.

But Sagmeister and his film crew must continue their film and quest for happiness under a very sad circumstance. Hillman Curtis, an award-winning filmmaker who gained prominence for his groundbreaking work in new media and Sagmeister's co-director on the film, passed away at just 51 years old after a long battle with colon cancer. Design Bureau writer Saundra Marcel hung out with Sagmeister at his New York City office to find out more about this latest hunt for happy.

Saundra Marcel: Sadly, your co-director Hillman Curtis passed away in April. How will this change the outcome of The Happy Film?

Stefan Sagmeister: Gigantically, I'm sure. He was very instrumental to the film. He worked very hard on it, even until the very end. He wanted to work on it until his last moments, even at his weakest. He set a tone for the film, and we will try to continue it, but it won't be the same. At the very end, we did interviews about it for the camera, about the strangeness of working on this film about happiness while he's dying. I don't know if that will become a part of it or not.

SM: Were you both cognizant during production that he might not be able to see it to completion?

SS: Not in the beginning. But yes, for a long while we knew this was coming. His goal was to make it to his daughter's birthday in June. Which makes it even more surprising that he wanted to keep working on it, when it became clear that wasn't going to happen.

SM: Were any of the experiments been particularly difficult for you?

SS: Yes. The beginning of the drug experiment. It took all my energy away before it clicked on. And also when I did one week of silent meditation in Bali. It was long periods of sitting, and I had the most incredible backaches. It was seriously the most painful thing I've ever experienced.

SM: When you decided to do this film, you were on sabbatical from your studio, working in Indonesia and wondering if making chairs was the most productive use of your time. But isn't that the whole point of a sabbatical: to take a break from productivity?

SS: The point of a sabbatical is not about taking a break. I would not say it's a holiday--it's not fun for me to go on holiday for a whole year. The point is to try out projects you wouldn't have tried otherwise. To be meaningful. In the past, these projects were for myself, for the studio. But is that much time well spent to have better furniture in the studio?

SM: Do we need another chair?

SS: I have nothing against chairs, but...There's a wonderful line from Alain de Botton, he said, "When does a job feel meaningful? When it delights other people, and when it helps other people." My hope and expectation is for the film is that more than just a few people can benefit from it. It's still totally possible to make a shitty film. But six weeks ago we did a preview show in Philadelphia, and the reception has been wonderful. I think by now I can distinguish between flattery and sincerity. I've been getting so many positive e-mails from people who have found out about this film online or seen the show, and they are sincere.

SM: How much of the film is done at this point, and how much is left to go?

SS: We're not in any particular hurry, but I don't want it to become a never-ending project. Obviously this is my first feature-length film, but my experience doing other longer projects has taught me that the limitation of deadlines can be very helpful. We handled books the same way. We didn't rush, but when we told the publisher a date, we stuck to it. My own opinion is that we're 70% done shooting and 20% done editing. Some other people think we're farther along than that.

SM: You've been keeping "daily happiness grades." What are those, and what's your grade right now?

SS: It's a scale of one to ten, and unbelievably fantastic right now, because I've fallen in love. I've been, I would say in the last month, the happiest ever of my life.

SM: Did you say life? Wow, that's a strong statement.

SS: Yes. In August, I will be turning 50. Of every month of every one of my 50 years, I can say that this one has been the happiest I've ever felt. I mean, the months of years one through seven I can't say much about. But since I've had a memory, I've never felt happier.

SM: Now I have to know. Who is she?

SS: Her name is Veza...V-E-Z-A. She's German, and strangely enough, we met when she came to my apartment to set up an interview. She arrives here tomorrow from Germany, and I can't wait.

Sagmeister's movie-making venture isn't his only big recent news. In June came the rather shocking announcement that he's taking on a partner, 25-year old designer Jessica Walsh who's been working at the studio for two-plus years. Sagmeister is no stranger to taking his clothes off to get noticed, so fittingly, the pair marked the occasion with a nudie photo of themselves.

SM: How do you manage running a studio here, working on this project, and giving so many talks and lectures? Do you find it difficult to carve out time for the things you want to be doing most?

SS: I'm from Austria, only 4 or 5 miles from the German border--which means I'm a very good planner. And, the people I work with are very good. That's one of the reasons why Jessica became a partner; while I'm out shooting somewhere, she's here.

SM: Would you say that Jessica becoming a partner was something that felt natural and inevitable, or was there something specific that instigated this decision?

SS: It was probably both. She's been doing a fantastic job here. But like with anything in life, there's never just one reason. There's always like 10 or 12 reasons. As you can see, we're a very plain studio, we're in a fourth-floor walkup. I was sheepish for a long time about bringing clients here, and actually, I was looking for a fancier studio. And I found one. I was about to sign the lease and I thought, "Do I really want to do this?" Low overhead has served us well in the past. And at about the same time I was meeting with one of our "fancier" clients and he asked me "Why have I never seen your studio?" I said, "Because it's shitty!" And he liked that. He liked the fact that we spent the money on the work, not on the digs. All of this made me think more about the way the company should be.

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