“Hang on,” says Es Devlin before we start our interview, “I’ll just get some paper.” For two hours Devlin sketches, sketches, sketches while she speaks and we never once see a mobile phone in her hand or hear one ring in her studio. It is, nonetheless, a-bustle, staffed by six full-time designers talking, cutting and pasting, sat equally at screens and at tables with tools in hand. Always working from her Scotch-tape- and spray-can-stuffed studios in south London, Devlin has been the world’s pre-eminent set designer for more than a decade, making projects for London’s National Theatre, the Metropolitan Opera in New York and Austria’s Bregenzer Festspiele. She has also designed live shows for Beyoncé, U2, Adele and Kanye West, and runway shows for Louis Vuitton. This work, although in service to something else, is very clearly sculpture – art in its own right.
Devlin also makes solo projects and will show a new work, “Mask”, at Somerset House during the Photo London fair in May. In the work a film plays over a relief map, or sculpture of a miniature city. Hands tear at buildings that sometimes appear to be made of clay, other times paper, to reveal something beneath: another city, another grid of history.
When she was a child, Devlin’s family moved from a comfortable suburb of London to Rye, a picturesque town on the south coast of England. At six years old, mini-Devlin’s weekend job became touring her parents’ friends around the town’s “best tourist attraction”: a model version of Rye complete with twinkling lights and a scale miniature of her own new family home. Aside from a degree in English literature and fine-art foundation at St Martins, maybe it is this innocent yet poignant artefact that has most influenced the artist and designer of today. At the end of our interview she turns the paper and it is covered in words, hands and little houses.
Monocle: How do your projects start?
Es Devlin: Well, I’m sat here now talking to you while drawing on a piece of paper and it definitely feels familiar. But maybe I’m unusual. In 2011 I had a meeting with a musician who brought his whole retinue with him. I was talking to a tattoo artist and asked him if all the designs he drew were his own. He said, “The art classes of the future won’t be about drawing things, they’ll be about how to search for things.” I mean, he was probably 21 and he’d identified that the means of searching was everything. The distinction between origination and appropriation was something that he hadn’t even considered.
M: Did it change how you worked?
ED: Maybe not but it was a fascinating point of view. In 2009, when I was doing the set for a musician’s show, we were all sat around a table but nobody was looking at each other; they were all looking at their screens, even back then. I suggested that we rent a house in the south of Spain for a week, find some peace and quiet, and really craft this project. The response was basically, “How’s the internet down there?” “Well,” I said, “it’s perfect because there isn’t any.” And they looked at me like I was insane, as if I wanted to go without my brain.
M: Can you think without a pencil in your hand?
ED: Not really. To explain that this piece I’m making for Photo London is called “Mask” and it’s kind of a follow-up to another work called “Mirror Maze”, which was a film with a hole in it, and that now I am making a film to fill that hole – it is so much easier if I can draw it for you. See?
M: How far back in time do your influences go?
ED: I grew up in Rye and one of the things that the town is most proud of is its model city – there’s the church, this is the sea and it was lit by a sort of very clunky son et lumière. My parents had lots of friends who would come down and we’d have to show them the model village every weekend. My tour became a bit like a liturgy. So that’s why I’m obsessed with these model cities.
M: Does everything need a backstory to make sense?ED: No, I guess not. That often comes after the event, after the instinct to make the thing. Having the idea is a certain sort of chemical, physiological thing but making the idea – actually sitting down and sticking things together – that leaves a bit of space for analysis and so this stuff is often retrospective, I think. It all comes back to memory palaces, repositories of things, something physical. A drawing is a physical repository of a conversation. If you spend three years doing an English literature degree but the whole time you are searching for a way to make the words concrete, as I did, then this is what happens.
M: Your work is often celebrated for being unconventional – but do you agree that it is?
ED: Well, say in a play the instruction “There will be a door over here” makes you go, “A door? Fuck you! A door? I don’t do doors!” I have a will to resist the grip of that instruction. An opera has been done 50 times before and so no one any longer cares about the doors. In a rock concert there are certainly no doors and no instructions other than the lyrics – and what do the lyrics mean anyway? There has been a general unmooring where you get to the point that you don’t have any instruction, so you write your own instructions.
M: Do you have a favourite stage direction?
ED: The best one has just been reprised brilliantly at the end of Three Billboards... and it’s from Waiting for Godot, where Vladimir and Estragon say, “Come on let’s go”, and, of course, the stage direction is: “They do not move.” Samuel Beckett’s are the best.
M: Do you highlight things in people’s work that they hadn’t seen before?
ED: I would be overstating it if I said that U2 thought differently about what their songs meant after I came along but I’m sure it changed their view on what their music looked like. I grew up with Flood, the music producer, and he could always tell you what music looked like: a bass drum was a big black disc with a very thin fluorescent line around the edge. He was just clear about it. I think that for most musicians that idea of going from music to a word or something concrete is so antithetical to their process. They don’t ever have to make things into concrete, why would they? You can change music while you’re playing it, so I’m sort of like a medium.
M: How many different things can you work on at once?
ED: Well, I like to and I have to work on more than one thing at once. I’m much better at thinking across one thing to the next. Did you see those heads floating about in the studio? The masks? They’re for a singer. He’s going to be singing and we made a scan of his head, and he’s going to be projected on to it and it’s going to split apart. All of this came from a conversation between two objects in the studio that had no obvious correlation. They land on your retina and overlay like two sets of negatives.
M: How does it feel to take your work to pieces when the band has stopped playing, when the opera has finished its run?
ED: Well, it’s interesting. At the Broad Museum in LA as you walk down the stairs you peer into the art storage, so you see it un-deified; not as art on the wall but in racks. If you make a piece of art it might live like that, in storage, or it might be out on a wall for an amount of time and then it might go back into a stack again. My stuff has always been thrown away or recycled and I’m entering this world of making objects to go in gallery spaces. But then what happens to them? Rachel Whiteread: what happened to those doll’s houses? Where is Olafur Eliasson’s big beautiful sun?
M: You’re really making art for art’s sake, perhaps.
ED: Maybe I always have. My father once made a model of our old house but the cats destroyed it when we were out one day. I was slightly tempted to destroy it anyway but instead I baked him a cake of it and we all ended up eating it. So what does that mean?
You’ll rarely see the same thing twice with Devlin’s designs. From top: Adele’s world tour; Louis Vuitton’s cruise collection in Rio de Janeiro; Carmen at the Bregenzer Festspiele; Mirror Maze project, Peckham.