Artist and designer Es Devlin is known for creating innovative kinetic sculptures meshed with light and film, and experimenting with new technologies for a variety of genres.
She began her career in small experimental theaters in London but has expanded her practice over the last 20 years seeing her take over bigger venues like the National Theatre and the Royal Opera House, and more unexpected territories like the O2 Arena and Wembley Stadium. She has collaborated with an array of A-list names including Kanye West, Lady Gaga, U2, the Weeknd and the Pet Shop Boys to create mind-blowingly beautiful installations, stage designs, and light shows. Beyond the aesthetic appeal though, the real beauty in Devlin’s practice is the way her work transcends categorization, allowing her to explore her ideas in unpredictable ways.
“I haven't developed a kind of ‘Es Devlin style’ of work on which hangs my identity,” explains Devlin. “The good thing about 20 years of making very different types of work is that the identity is to be found in the process and the collaboration, the strains of continuity, and thought found in everything”.
Here we speak to the multidisciplinary designer to get an insight into her creative process, how the industry has evolved during her career, and the art of turning mistakes into successes.
In what ways do you feel your skills as an artist, designer and stage sculptor come together to create something that feels personal to you?
In general what I haven't done as a maker is go out of my way to be autobiographical, and yet, so many of the choices I’ve made were ingrained in me as a child. When I was six years old for example, there was a model of my hometown Rye and we used to go and look at it a lot. This model was a replica of the entire town, each house was built to scale and in a very low-fi way they would light up each part and a voice would tell the folklore of the town.
Something lodged in my head at that time in relation to narrative and storytelling, and scale and architecture. Later on when I started working, it wasn't something I had to cook up because it was hardwired in there. The attraction to working in theater at the beginning was very much because the day-to-day prep of a theater designer is to make models, and I think that's what I was most attracted to. Although I've constantly been engaged with the stories told by others, I think I've been weaving the threads of my own story through this and you only start to recognize this when you look back over 20 years.
Because you only get one life, my work's always been for me. In my experience it’s about finding common requirement, so I have to find a balance, meaning whoever I’m working with gets what they need but it overlaps with stuff that I'm interested in. If I was ever just serving what someone else asked me to do, it wouldn’t be very good.
How do your ideas come to you? What's your creative process?
The ideas generally have been growing for many years and more and more the way a project begins is an invitation from a gallery to make a piece, or the other kind of brief I get is 'here's a play about this, what environment will you use to tell it', or 'here's a collection of songs, what environment do you want to present them in'.
Once I get a brief what generally happens first is I sleep on it and then gather around the table with my team in my studio to talk. Also it’s important to keep working on everything else, because what tends to happen is a train of thought that's already going on in the studio can be the seed for the next thing. One of the other things I do is keep pieces of old models and sketches around as reference points, I like to keep threading stuff back to earlier trains of thought.
Once the seed happens, the next step is always drawing and sometimes there will be looking up reference images. Usually at the end of a session of sketching and research with the studio there'll be the beginnings of an idea. Then I really do rely on my team to start to iterate and they'll start taking the ideas further, modelling very quickly in 3D. They create various sculptural studies that relate to the sketches I've done, and then we just keep checking in with each other.
I can't use the software myself so they print it off for me and I sketch over it. I'm still very old school, I use computers less and less actually and they use them more and more. I just have a better day if I haven't spent all my time looking at a screen so if I want to communicate visually, it's hand drawn. When it becomes clear what's going to work, we start to involve a lot of teams outside the studio to bring the work into being.
One of the features of your most recent project, Please Feed The Lions, is that it's very accessible. In terms of your work in general is that an element that manifests itself in other projects?
One of the great teachers in my career has been my own humiliation. I remember early on I was making a student production, I sat next to my mum and she leaned over and said: "what's that hazy fuzzy thing meant to be?" – it was a projection that wasn't working very well. I won’t forget that feeling of sitting among a group of people not getting it, it not landing. It's a good, meaty bit of humiliation that.
To a degree every project I do still has an element of that, because there's always going to be parts that are more successful than others. I think constantly being in touch with one's own memory of the last humiliation is a great driver for clarity. I want to communicate and I want to be clear.
How do you feel about making mistakes in your work? Do you relish them?
Mistakes are pretty much things that don't work aren’t they? We're always making prototypes and there's never any guarantee that any of it will work, you just have a hunch, and what I tend to do is I'm very flexible as I go. If something isn't working, I change it. It's a process of learning from the material.
It's like working in one language and then translating it to another when you realise, for whatever reason, the version you're making won’t be compelling. As long as the thinking behind it is well rooted, you don't have to start again, just remember what you're trying to say, and try to say it in a different language with different stuff. I'm often very ready to change the material and the aesthetic of a work, as long as it communicates the same gesture.
When a mistake is happening, that’s when you're treading water. If ever I create a work and I feel that a piece didn't really take my thinking forward, it was a sort of side step or running on the spot. Each project should be taking the thought process further, otherwise those are the mistakes.
Do you ever compare yourself to other artists working today?
I admire a lot of artists. I have heroes, like architect Elizabeth Diller is a huge hero to me. I was really interested to learn that she started as a conceptual artist, then a theater practitioner, and finally made the decision to go into architecture. What she liked about the architecture class was this contract with the materials and the solidity of it. That echoes one of the reasons why I went into stage design rather than sticking with fine art at the beginning. It was needing that concrete engagement with materials.
Is there anyone working now you feel is doing things differently? How has the industry evolved during your career?
There's a really interesting thing happening right now, and it’s because the way people view work is often through a stream of images scrolling in their hand on their telephone, there's no categorisation as you go. It doesn't suddenly say, ‘here's an art work’, ‘here's a design work’ or ‘here's a piece of architecture’. It's all work. So I think there's a really beneficial lack of segregation and categorisation in people's practices. It's actually becoming more and more usual for example for Thomas Heatherwick to make a chair and a hotel, or Olafur Elisasson to make a light artwork and a huge piece of architecture, Virgil to make a t-shirt and have an entire art exhibition. These things are really becoming ordinary.
You've been looking back on the last 20 years, but have you given any thought to the next 20 and what you might hope to do?
Architecture is becoming interesting. It's sort of crept up on me by stealth. I built up my new studio a year ago. I put an ad out and 500 people responded and I'd never done that before. When I made that shift to building a permanent studio, I took the time to interview 30 people and really scrutinised and read between the lines of people's portfolios and cover letters, and understand who these people were. My criteria was that these people needed to have all the skills, but I wanted a room full of people that I would like to have great conversations with everyday and exchange ideas.
It turns out, the skill set I need in order to make the work comes from an architectural training background. The people I work with now are all trained architects who've worked in different areas like music, fashion, and film. So I've been developing an interest in making buildings and spaces that become inhabited. I can't imagine it would be a great attraction doing a block of flats, but the idea of making spaces that are the meeting point between sculpture and building has become interesting.
Reflecting on your career, what do you feel when you look back on the work you've created over the last 20 years?
Well I always feel exhausted when I look back, because there's a lot! Sometimes I look back and go: "I actually did that?!" and I feel a bit overwhelmed, there's so many decisions made per minute to get any of these things off the ground, which really is just the nature of time. The bit of time you're living and the pace feels just about manageable, so it’s when you look back without the foreshortening of all those projects layered up on each other that you see the work.
The usefulness of seeing the projects all laid out is finding the threads, the trains of thought. That's reassuring, because to look back and feel I just scatter-gunned for 20 years would've been a bit demoralizing, but mercifully I see the threads and the dropped breadcrumbs through the forest. Those are the bits that are the most rewarding to gather, where everything connects.