"I’ve found that power really enjoys having truth spoken": stage designer Es Devlin shares decades of working wisdom


In another life, stage designer Es Devlin might have been a politician. Working alongside the world’s most high profile musicians to find ever more inventive ways to translate their ideas into staggering visual executions has to require monumental levels of tact. In recent years, Es Devlin has become if not a household name, certainly one which echoes far beyond the corners of her chosen industry. Once tightly tied to the artists she works with – Beyonce, Kanye West, Adele, Take That, Miley Cyrus – these days, Es has carved a distinct identity of her own: Es Devlin, visual artist.

When we meet in Cape Town at three-day design conference Design Indaba she asks me if we have met before – perhaps, she suggests, at Art Basel Miami Beach, where she turned all 7,000 square feet of the Miami Edition hotel into a maze. It’s just one in a string of projects Es has produced recently under her own steam, among them Mirror Maze for Chanel and a singing Christmas tree for the V&A. She even featured in the Netflix series Abstract: The Art of Design, from which she won a fan in Hackney reverend Al Gordon who went on to commission her to work on the £5 million renovation of St John at Hackney, a 226-year old church in east London.

For International Women’s Day, Es told us how she found her voice as an artist and how, through her work, she is creating a lasting legacy.

On finding her voice

I think it has come steadily over time. I’ve been quietly building it over 20 years. I think there’s a deepening of the voice and a finding of voice that happens  over time that people respond to. I think also that I am, to some degree, a conduit to understanding how others work that people admire. I can be very honest about that, I think. If I was still making theatre sets that not many people went to see I might instead be making more refined and more exquisite sculptures. But I wouldn’t be speaking here [at Design Indaba]. The reach has come by virtue of me working with voices that have that reach.

What I’ve been very encouraged by recently is that the sort of communication I am getting at the moment isn’t, “Ah you worked with Kanye.” It’s been really rewarding, with the work that I did in Peckham, Miami and the V&A, that the kind of requests I am getting at the moment are, “Can you make some work for Somerset House?”; “Can you make a new piece for 181 Strand?”; “Can you make a piece for a new art gallery in Ealing?”; “Can you make a piece for a new festival in America?” That really helps me realise that the resonating is my own voice and not some kind of weird surrogate for the voice of more famous people. 

On working collaboratively

My application process for each project I take on is the same thing, whether the voice in it will ultimately be mine or someone else’s: it’s not like I go, “I’m just doing this for Beyonce so I don’t really care.” The voices that I work with have such important stuff to say.

The work that appears less collaborative is still collaborative because I’m still working with the filmmaker that I collaborate with on everything and with the manufacturers. I don’t make a huge sculpture with my own hands, I won’t be building it. My intention comes through my fingertips, but then goes through the fingertips of six other people in my studio and through their computers. It then goes out to probably another 20 people in another studio who are going to build it – or in the case of Beyonce around 300 people – and so anything I make is still a collaboration. This is true for anyone who makes large-scale things. 

And on the pleasures of working for herself

In terms of the intention, I am really valuing not having to go through the collaborative process when refining the intent. I don’t have to say, “Oh does anyone like it?”, “Does the person that’s paying for it like it?”

It’s just about whether I like it and whether I want to make it and then I will find supporters who will pay for it. I don’t sell work which I am grateful about because I don’t have to produce multiples of things. There is no market. I’ve been mercifully spared that, I guess because I started in theatre where there was no client. There was a director who knew what they wanted and then there was me, but we were both working to make the same piece. 

On navigating ego

I’ve come across so many egos that I am now really unintimidated. Even by some quite fierce ones. The nature of standing in front of a crowd and in front of thousands of people, receiving their adoration, will physiologically have an effect on you as a character. And that ego will be fed, of course it will. But there’s nothing, I’ve found, that these people enjoy more than being able to engage on an equal footing. So one is obviously respectful and respects the hierarchy of voice. But if one speaks truthfully and speaks truth to power, I’ve found that power really enjoys having truth spoken. When I say speaking the truth, I mean observations. The more you level out the hierarchical relationships, the more the person who is at the top enjoys it.

And building a lasting legacy

If you look at theatre design work from even 15 years ago there is no documentation. You can’t really photograph the sets because if you don’t do it in the dress rehearsal (and you‘re normally too busy working), every night after that there’s an audience so you can’t photograph it. Now, certainly in the music environment, everything is being well-documented. I think the transient nature to it is in a way a relief. I made one piece for the V&A that the V&A acquired, a nice beautiful, two-foot cube that you peer into and it contains 20 years of my work. They loved it and it’s theirs but it keeps bloody breaking. Even yesterday I wanted to go to the V&A to fix it. When you’re making work that really is a constellation of departments, video, sound, light, it’s a vulnerable meeting point of many things. To keep it all in the air, to keep all that stuff together requires constant maintenance. 

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Bryony Stone

Bryony joined It's Nice That as Deputy Editor in August 2016, following roles at Mother, Secret Cinema, LAW, Rollacoaster and Wonderland. She later became Acting Editor at It's Nice That, before leaving in late 2018.

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