Es Devlin is one of the world’s most sought-after set designers. The Central Saint Martins alumna has designed world arena tours for the likes of Beyoncé, Kanye West, Katy Perry, Rihanna, Adele, Lady Gaga and U2. She has received multiple accolades including three Oliviers and in 2015, an OBE for Services to Set and Stage Design. Having been awarded an Honorary Fellowship from Wimbledon and Camberwell Colleges of Art, she spoke to UAL and Joanne O’Connor (The Observer) about being a ‘helper’ to Kanye West, Olympic disasters, and the grit needed to do her job.
Q: What made you realise that you wanted to be a set designer?
A: It was one of the tutors at Central Saint Martins, who said, ‘theatre design, you know, you are intrigued by words, you love music, you respond to music and words, and form, why don’t you try that?’ And I said, well I don’t really like theatre, that’s the only problem – I found theatre a bit boring at the time, I just don’t think I’d seen the right theatre!… However, I walked into a room where there was a course called the Motley Stage Design Course, and I felt at home. I felt at home in this room with these people, I felt I’d found my kind, and my tribe, and I would advise anyone, if you find a room full of people who you feel are like you, then it’s worth hanging with them for a bit to see what happens. And that’s what I did, and I’ve hung out with them for twenty years.
Q: So how does it feel to be honoured by the University of the Arts London with this award?
A: I can certainly say with absolute, utter, wholeheartedness, that I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing if I hadn’t gone to Central Saint Martins and done that foundation… so it’s incredibly meaningful for me to be honoured in this way. And it’s one of those things, you know, you look at other people, and you go, ‘oh that might happen when I’m older’ and you suddenly go, ‘I’m here!’ I’m being recognised for what I’ve achieved, and it’s very, very moving.
Q: You’ve worked with some of the biggest names in music, people like Kanye West, Adele and Beyoncé – what is the typical process to working with these artists?
A: There’s not really a typical one because each of those people you mention, each of the people who are musicians and songwriters – music makers – they’re all to varying degrees visual artists as well, or not. So someone like Kanye went to art school, makes models, draws pictures, and is a visual artist himself. And thinks as much in terms of the visual as he does in terms of the music, actually. So with him it’s very much becoming a kind of helper… There is a degree of subliminal self-portraiture going on, you know, most of the people I work with, the musicians, they do write themselves into their music. They’re there in the lyrics and they want to be there, they want their sensibility and their personality and their story to be there in their environment as well… How overt or subsumed that portrait is a matter of gauging how comfortable that musician is with themselves. I mean, do they want a great big fun portrait around them that they can just play off – which is what Miley Cyrus was happy to do. I had a meeting with her, and in the first meeting I said, ‘why don’t we just do the whole show on your tongue,’ and she said, ‘Great!’
Q: Have you ever had any staging disasters?
The London 2012 Olympics, just a small disaster! I had been asked to make a Union Jack… So we spent a year printing this thing, you can imagine, every single pixel. But come the day, that show only had sixteen hours to get in. And there’s Thomas Heatherwick running around, looking to try out the cauldron, which has never been closed, because you can’t close it till you close it. And there’s me running around going ‘Look you know, we’ve gotta get this thing down.’ And at six o’clock, only seven-eighths of that big, exploded Union Jack by Damion Hirst were down. And the eighth was in the bin! Health and safety… Someone had thrown it away on purpose, because they were planning to throw the rest away as well, because it was a danger to the athletes who were going to run over it.
Q: What would you say are the key attributes or personality traits that you would need to be a stage designer?
Q: We have, in this country particularly, phenomenal stage designers, many of them coming from Central Saint Martins and from Wimbledon, from various places, and I think in the theatre and opera, the qualities needed are sensitivity, curiosity, fastidious attention to detail, stamina. The area that I’ve stepped into, where I’m also working with the brutalities of commercial rock and roll… that’s when [you need] other qualities that are hard to balance with integrity and fastidious attention to detail, because some of the qualities that are required to get a rock show up are not those. And if you stand there, and it’s very male dominated, it’s going to be a room full of three hundred crew, all men, because they have to be men, because they’ve got to lift the bloody show up and down, and you’re standing there going, ‘I don’t think the drape’s quite straight,’ you’re not going to come back.
Q: What do you think people would be most surprised to learn about the day to day reality of your job?
A: There’s an awful lot of technical grit to it all. And you know, the people who I need around me, who help me do what I do are generally either genius physician mathematician engineer level brain that I don’t have. Or they have such an extraordinary taste that they help guide me in my decisions as well, and are aware of things I don’t know about, but usually it’s that extreme combination between having an exceptionally keen eye for line and form and colour, and detail, combined with this mathematical grit of working out how to build these forms in three dimensions.
Q: And what surprises you about your job?
A: I’m constantly shocked when I stand in stadia and arena and I feel I’ve made a rather simple piece of work a lot of the time. I feel that my work is often a rather broad brushstroke in that field because there’s a brutality of touring mechanics that it has to ascribe to and often there’s a sort of direct broadness of the brushstroke that I find works in that environment. I often stand there thinking I’m gonna hate it, thinking oh god, I’ve done another one of these, it’s gonna be desperately disappointing. And then when I stand there and feel the audience around me responding, I go actually this was a valid piece of work. So I’m constantly surprised actually.