Jason Foumberg

The Happy Show, Stefan Sagmeister.

Graphic design superstar Stefan Sagmeister was in Chicago last week setting up his exhibit The Happy Show at the Chicago Cultural Center, and he brought his monkeys with him. Two giant white inflatable primates popped up in Millennium Park on Friday afternoon and antagonized passersby, as monkeys tend to do, with signs that read, “EVERYBODY THINKS THEY ARE RIGHT.” Two more monkeys fill the fourth-floor gallery of the Cultural Center, heralding Sagmeister’s exhibition on the topic of happiness, that ever elusive emotion. 

Sagmeister is beloved for his Ted Talks that blend optimistic and realistic observations on life, work, art, and design. Graphic designers will love the boundless hand drawn typography—Sagmeister’s signature style—that he has scrawled all over the exhibition’s walls, but Sagmeister insists that “the show has not been designed for designers,” but rather “for the general public.”

The interactive multimedia exhibition features sugar cubes that acquire a rainbow hue when you smile at them, gumball machines that measure the overall mood of Chicagoans, and a giant neon sign that emits maxims of happiness. (It's powered by a bicycle). Sagmeister personally researched the subject, interviewing psychologists and the like, before cherrypicking the most interesting results. 

The Happy Show has made stops in Philadelphia, Toronto, and Los Angeles. A new detail for Chicago is a wall of 32,000 folded cigarette papers that spell out the phrase, “Uselessness is gorgeous.” Several rotating fans activate the phrase with wind-like movement and sound. It took ten days for volunteers to create the piece, which was inspired by Sagmeister's year-long holiday in Bali, where he would go for joyrides on his scooter. “Functionlessness has always played a big role in human history,” Sagmeister told me. “It’s the difference between going for a walk in Millennium Park and commuting to work.”

The Happy Show runs through September 23 at the Chicago Cultural Center, 78 E Washington.