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Es Devlin: All the World’s a Stage

Few can claim a client roster quite like artist and stage designer Es Devlin, including museums, fashion brands, rock stars, theater companies, and the Olympics. On this episode, Dan speaks with the British talent on her first monographic museum retrospective.

February 14, 2024 By THE GRAND TOURIST
Photo: Andrea Mora


Few can claim a client roster quite like artist and stage designer Es Devlin, including museums, fashion brands, theater companies, and the Olympics, to a list of rock stars like U2, Adele, and Lady Gaga. On this episode, Dan speaks with the British talent on her first monographic museum retrospective, taking place at New York’s Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, how she transitioned her work from stage to stadium and back again, the impact of emerging technologies on her portfolio, and most importantly . . . What is Beyoncé like?

Listen to this episode


Es Devlin: What I feel when I arrive at a stadium or an arena is that music and culture are camping out at a sports environment, and the sports environment itself, the sport is camping out really an industrialized advertising environment I would say. So it’s a layer on a layer on a layer of feeling like you’re peripheral to what the building is really being used for, but that’s our craft is we have to really make ourselves felt for the time that we’re in the space.

Dan Rubinstein: Hi, I’m Dan Rubinstein and this is The Grand Tourist. I’ve been a design journalist for nearly 20 years, and this is my personalized guided tour through the worlds of fashion, art, architecture, food, and travel, all the elements of a well-lived life. My guest today synthesizes various disciplines of art and design, theater, sculpture, video, storytelling, fashion, and of course music into a visionary body of work that’s truly unique and unparalleled today, Es Devlin. To call the British Creative, Es means short for Esmeralda, by the way, a stage or a set designer would feel reductive, but in essence that’s what she is. Es started her career in theater, but a chance request to create something special for the band Wire in 2003, which we’ll speak about, set off her career into a new dimension of creativity. And a later request from Kanye West hurdled her studio onto a whole new level.

Since then, she’s worked with everyone from Dr. Dre, Adele, Miley Cyrus, Lady Gaga, and of course the Queen herself, Beyonce, while going back and forth between the realms of theater, opera and music. And she’s done projects on a global level one could say, like the Super Bowl halftime show and the closing ceremonies for the 2012 Summer Olympics. She’s created a considerable number of fashion runways, too. For Yves Saint Laurent’s Spring Summer Men’s Show, she presented a rotating ring of light that seemed to float on a pool of water. For Dior in 2022, she created a series of fantasy landscapes. One, a French garden of roses, the other, a desert landscape of oversized cacti. And she doesn’t shy away from technology either. Instead, she makes it central to her work. This September, she created the inaugural event for the much-hyped Sphere in Las Vegas for a U2 concert.

Instead of just plastering colors and photos of rock stars all over the place, she created a video installation that takes concert goers through a swirling vortex of illustrations of endangered species native to Nevada. If there’s a science to the art of spectacle, Es Devlin is the field’s Alberta Einstein. Her latest triumph elevates the solo exhibition. Now open at the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum in New York, an “Atlas of Es Devlin” is like an Alice of Wonderland experience where you seemingly enter her sketchbook and get a glimpse into her process, her maquettes, sketches, and even college era drawings. It’s her first monographic museum show to date.

And even if you can’t attend, the accompanying book by Thames and Hudson is a must-own. Itself a work of art with hundreds of pages of cutouts and other delightful publishing tricks. I caught up with the always engaging Es Devlin from her home in London to talk about her transition to theater design and later music, how she creates such incredibly inventive productions, and most importantly, what is Beyoncé like?


I’m such a huge admirer of your work. And the more that I look through the book and the more pieces that I see, the more questions that I have and the more stories that I want to hear. But I would love to start with your own personal story, going back to the beginning. I believe you’re from the south coast of England. And I was wondering what life was like growing up for you?

Well, actually, I was born in suburbia, deepest suburbia in a place called Kingston upon Thames in Surrey. It doesn’t get much more suburban than that. And my parents went on a romantic weekend break to a very cute little town on the south coast of England called Rye. And such is the nature of my parents’ imaginations that when they saw a house for sale on their little weekend break, they bought it and the finances had to catch up. It was hard to sell the house in suburbia, but they did. And we moved to this small Sussex town when I was six.


And it was by the sea, and we would go to the beach every day after school. There were four of us, two boys, two girls. I’m the second. And we would go to Camber Sands, which is Britain’s big stretch of sand beach on the south coast, and another beach called Winchelsea, which is pebbly. And that was our days in the summer through to the autumn. And the street we lived on was a hill, it was called Mermaid Street. And the house that we grew up in had been inhabited by a writer called Conrad Aiken, whose daughter Joan Aiken then lived in the house and wrote stories about the house. So we quite quickly got the idea that buildings could tell stories. And coupled with that was this model of our town, which was next door to our house in a small shack. And people would come and visit.

And the model, which had been made by a retired engineer and a school teacher, was a perfect scale model replica with each little building speaking. So this further accentuated the idea in our minds because when you’re six years old, you are drawing conclusions in your world about what things do and how things work. And to us, it was obvious that buildings spoke and they told stories because a little [inaudible 00:06:06] would happen and we’d go visit it very regularly because at the time my parents were inviting their friends down from London to the countryside for the weekend. And they would always say, “Come and look at the 20-minute [inaudible 00:06:19].” We’d all go down. So I got into a ritual of that and there was church going. We would go to church on Sunday, Catholic church. Me and my sister were the altar girls. We had these two little bells and we would have to go ping on a certain queue, so we got the rhythm of queues at the theater.

Were you good at it?

Oh, we were bang on. It was all in Latin, it was all Kyrie Eleison, Credo In Unum Deum, but we didn’t really know what it meant except we slightly did because it was in red and black on the paper. So even though we couldn’t speak Latin, we could see the red text and the black text and so we had that from an early age. And then we had a tension because my mom, who came from a Welsh Methodist church, always thought the singing in the Catholic church was crap. So we’d have this rather serious ceremony, but with my mom go, “Oh, that’s rubbish.” So it was quite a fun tension. And then that part of Sussex also harbors some quite pagan ritual.

There’s a big Guy Fawkes nights done in a very pagan way, a big burning of a boat happens down on some [inaudible 00:07:26] planes there. And there are big mayday festivals, which are pre-Christian May times spring celebrations where people dress up as green trees and paint their faces with leaves.

Oh, wow.

So it was a quite potent combination of fire festival, spring festival, and a lot of countryside. We would go on lots of walks around the countryside surrounding this small town and a lot of beach time and yeah, read books from the library. We did a lot of making things, we made a lot of gifts. We would never really buy presents, we would make them. We would buy things in jumble sales. We didn’t have a ton of money and we didn’t travel, we only went to our grandparents’ house. I think I left England twice, once when I was 11 on a wind band trip with my clarinet on a boat to Holland.

And once when I was about 10 on a day trip to France and that was it. I didn’t get on an airplane until I was 16 when I met a boyfriend who took me on one, never with my family. And there was no TV. TV started at 4:00 in the afternoon, there were children’s programs. The TV didn’t exist before then. There certainly was no internet. So there was a lot of going around the house in the summer holidays saying, “We’re bored, what can we do?” And of course our parents saying, “Well, if you’re bored it’s because you’re boring. So think of something to do.” And we did, we concocted things. They knew the Pet Shop Boys song before they wrote it. We concocted things. We would make stuff out of cardboard boxes and use ourselves, had to use our imagination a lot.

And when you went off to university, studied literature first, and I’m wondering, did you read a lot when you got bored? Were you a bookworm?

I was less. My sister was a big reader. I would always borrow the same book from the library, I would renew it each week. She would be plowing through fiction, whereas I would keep borrowing the same books and they were books of how to make things. So they were like Gyles Brandreth Guide to Making Optical Illusions or how to make the most complicated run for your hamster and gerbil or something. So my books were always the ones that had dotted lines and pairs of scissors on them. And because I wasn’t allowed to cut up the library book, I would trace over them and cut it up myself. I started reading obviously a lot more when I was in the sixth form at school. We had a very impressive English teacher, very impressioning I should say. And we learned a lot. We really started reading then I would say, I did. And then I went to college and read intensely for three years then.

And at some point you shifted to theater design in your studies. And what spurred that and how did that happen?

I think it was people’s frustration at me not fitting in a bit in that I’d done my three years studying English literature. While I was studying, I was painting a lot, mainly the walls of my rented apartment, which didn’t go down very well.

Where was the apartment?

It was in Bristol where I lived, and I ripped up the carpets and painted the floors, painted the walls. I thought the landlord would be happy, but I had to paint over it all at fast expense when I left. Then I went and studied fine art foundation course, which is what most people do when they’re 18. So I went as a mature student at 21 and started to paint, draw. It was a beautiful course at Central Saint Martins. It’s a diagnostic course for young kids really to find out where you fit. And I did the diagnostic course like a week of photography, a week of fashion, a week of theater, a week of painting, lots of live drawing. And by the end, the last term, you’re meant to set on what you want to do, but I was still doing everything. And the teachers there said, “You really should look at theater design because you love text, you love music, you love art. All of these things could coalesce.”

And I said, “Well, that’s cool, but I don’t really like the theater. I get really bored. I find it a bit embarrassing.” I’d been to the Pantomime and I’d been to some very cool Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals, but I didn’t really think that would be my interest. My boyfriend was a record producer, I was into music. I just thought theater wasn’t very cool, to be honest. At that time in the mid ‘90s, I was into art, I was into music, but I went and visited this course. Oddly, I had accepted a place to do another three-year degree because that’s what the foundation course does. It sets you up to do a degree. So I was all set to do another three years, was going to be in photography and printmaking, and there was this beautiful white studio. And really the way it works on an art degree is what it did then is it’s less prescriptive.

You would just go in and form the architecture of your day and of your practice. And when I visited the other course I’d been recommended, it was a one-year post-grad in set design, and I felt immediately at home. It was a red room, not white. It was red, it was really messy, full of stuff. It was full of 10 students who seemed to me like they were sleeping there. They were definitely eating pot noodles, I definitely saw a mouse. It was somewhat feral, slightly funky in its aroma. And they were listening to opera, they were reading, they were putting pictures all over the wall, making little model theaters.

And the lady in charge, Alison Chitty, had just made a film with Mike Leigh called Naked, which was an extraordinary film, as well as doing opera. And I thought, “Okay, there’s a lot going on in this room. It’s not what I thought theater was. It’s film, it’s art, it’s music, and I think we can maybe make theater what we want it to be.” It felt collective, it felt like a community. And it was where I wanted to be then and where I have been very happy for 30 years, pretty much inversions of that room really.

And in an article that I read about your career, it basically encapsulated you and essentially saying that you elevated stage design from a supporting actor to a lead role, which I think is obviously a lovely compliment. But I was wondering, in school and right after school in theater design, can you paint a picture for what design and theater design and sonography meant to you? What was that outlook like? What was that field like at the time and what you thought of it?

It was interesting because the only experience I had was the Pantomime, which we still go to every year with my mom. And the Pantomime was obviously same as it is now, magical, simple and magical. And then we would go occasionally to see West End musicals in the ‘90s and the late ‘80s. And they were generally directed by Trevor Nunn, written by Andrew Lloyd Webber, designed by John Napier. And these are now three people I know and I admire and they’ve become my friends, but it was actually a real flowering of that strand of musical theater. So Jesus Christ Superstar, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, Song and Dance, Cats, Starlight Express, all of those things were happening. So we saw all of those.

And that was for us a real excitement because we didn’t come to London that often. We had godparents who could afford the tickets, who would buy the tickets for us and bring us up on the train. We would stay in their apartment in London, which was very exciting for us coming from the country and a small town. And so there was a real flourishing of, and I think John Napier is a real artist and he was probably a big influence on me. He played a lot. The set design for Cats was a giant trash yard seen from the scale of a cat. So it was like a giant yogurt pot, a huge cornflakes packet or something. So it was really magical.

So there was that element. And then beyond that, we didn’t see much. I didn’t see much. And by the time I emerged from training in the mid ‘90s, there was another strand just beginning, I guess of British theater design, a lot of it was quite filmic I might say. You would walk in and there’d be quite a naturalistic environment. It would be what had been written in the text, there’d be a room with a door or whatever. And actually some of the very exciting things were happening in Europe and in German theater, and the German government has massively supported the arts. So regional theaters and opera houses in Germany and around Europe have been really well-supported financially. And they have a real following, even with young people. So you might find a British opera audience might be generally quite old, certainly at that time.

Whereas you’d go to the opera in Dresden or somewhere and it would be a load of teenagers going. It’s much cheaper to go as well. So I think some British set designers, particularly in opera, had started to go and work in Europe and had brought the ideas back. So there was a really exciting amount of work going on. It was called the powerhouse years at the English National Opera. And we used to visit that, my mum would take me as I got a bit older and I was studying theater design in my late teens as well. She would take me and my sister to see the opera. And she could afford, if she bought a group ticket and she bought the whole season, she could afford the front row of the gods. They were like five pounds each. And that we didn’t always understand the opera, but we loved that, going those.

And that’s where we saw designers like Nigel Lowery and Tom Cairns. Alison Chitty was working there, my teacher, and Ralph Koltai, a bunch of really extraordinary designers who were working in Europe and picking up those ideas of designer directors like Ruth Berghaus, Eric [inaudible 00:18:08]. It was a whole strand of design. And they were beginning actually in Europe to attribute the designs, talking about the hierarchy. There was a few where it would just list the names and not present a hierarchy. It was just conductor, director, designer listed, choreographer listed. And that felt very inspiring and positive at the time.

So you could find it, you could really find role models. But equally if you didn’t knock on the right door, you could sit in a lot of theater design that was less extraordinary. And also, the way we were taught at Motley, the particular teachers we had was reacting against the big Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals. They were saying, oh, they were very much of the mind that the text was in charge and that the design should very much serve the text, which is of course my firm belief as well. But I think I had a suspicion that one could express and serve and frame and hold the text and still be true to one’s own sense of wanting to make a work of art that expressed your own batch of poems as well. That’s what I began to intuit.


Beyoncé’s Renaissance World Stadium Tour, 2023. Photo: Courtesy Es Devlin

And you worked in theater mostly until a British band called Wire asked you to create a set, and it seemed to mark a turning point in your career. And I’m wondering how did that happen, and if you could paint a little picture for what that production was like.

It’s funny how it happened. Often in the book, I actually mentioned that this interweaving of what was going on in technology versus what was going on in my practice, and they have interwoven those two parallel stories in a way in that in 2003, the first camera phone came out. It was the catchily entitled Nokia 7350 or something, and it was the first phone, the little slidey phone with a camera. And it was also a very early piece of experiential marketing or branded content. And a magazine that’s now defunct, that was called The Independent on Sunday, it was a rather nice Sunday newspaper with a magazine.

They were doing an early piece of branded content where Nokia and Orange, who were a phone provider at the time, had clearly paid for a magazine and it looked like a normal Sunday supplement magazine. But clearly, every advert in it was for this phone, with the Orange phone supplier and the Nokia phone. And as the content, none of us knew the word content back then, by the way, but looking at back at it, it surely was content. They had invited myself and various other young architects, young pop star Tyler Brule from Wallpaper Magazine, a whole bunch of people who were considered up and coming had been given this phone for the weekend and told to take photographs with it. And there would be an article on each of our practices with photographs of our work and the photograph we’d taken on the phone, and it was a way of demonstrating how great this phone was going to be for people in the arts.

And the adverts for the mobile phone are hilarious because it shows how much we always view the new technology through the lens of the old technology like a horseless carriage. So all of those adverts were pictures of people’s faces holding the camera phone going, “Oh wow, now you can see that she’s really happy. Now you can see that he’s not really in the pub. And now you can see that she has gone to bed.” It was just like all of these visual tricks seen through the lens of a gadget, all of us only conceived as something [inaudible 00:23:54]. It was very interesting. Anyway, that magazine happened to land in the lap of a man called Paul Smith, who was the manager of a band called Wire. He took one look at it and thought that could be interesting. He showed it to a man called Alex Poots, who had already seen some of my theater work and was running a festival called Only Connect at The Barbican.

They were cooking up a performance with Wire. So they contacted me and the agent I had at the time was a classical theatrical agent. She didn’t really know what to make of this, so she batted it off and I never saw it. Then some weeks later I get an email direct to me, and this is the time when you couldn’t just pick up email. You had to go to an internet cafe to get your email. I was doing a dance piece in Sweden and I was in an internet cafe and this person says, “Are you sure you can’t do this thing? We really want you to do it.” I’m like, “Who are you? What is this? I don’t know anything about this.” “And oh, let me explain it to you, da di da. I’m in Stockholm at the moment, so I can’t come over. But when can I come and visit?”

And I said, “Well, funnily enough, I’m in Stockholm.” And it turned out that this manager and the band were about to play in the bar next door to the internet cafe. So I said, “Okay, well, this is too fortuitous to overlook.” So I went, listened to the band play and then did that show. And then of course, it goes on because my friend then said, “I’ll make you a website” and the only thing I really had to put on it, I had a few things to put on it, but one of the few things was this picture of these four boxes of this band Wire. And a few weeks later, Kanye was firing his set designer and a friend of mine happened to be in the vicinity and said, “Look at this website.” And Kanye said, “Oh, I’d like to do something like that.” So that chain of events led pretty much to very much the work that followed actually.

And that shift of going from having an agent who deals mostly with traditional theater and opera and then moving into music and fashion and runway and all of that, was that shift a challenge for you? Do you remember that as a time when you… Did it feel natural to you or did it feel like, were you nervous? Was it—

I think I was quite ready because I think by 2000s when this was happening, I had been doing theater. I’d started in 1997 and I had been fortunate in that things had moved quite quickly. I’d started working at the National Theater quite quickly. When I look back now doing the book at the pace of work, it was shocking because I didn’t have much assistance and I was running around. So I did a lot of work very quickly from ‘97, ‘96 until this 2003 moment, and I was just beginning to start doing opera in 2003. And to be honest with you, I think when I go through actually the archive, the chunk of work that I include least from is that period from 2000 to 2003. Some of the things I did were interesting, but I’d say some of them I was very much, people were asking me to do things because I had done interesting work, but I wasn’t probably always working with the right theater directors.

I was working with some who probably didn’t want really what I did, and I was trying to perhaps be the set designer who could deliver a doors and windows environment, which there are many other people who do so much better than I do, that beautiful observational recreation of a place, which is a skill, a real skill in itself. And to be honest, it’s not something I would say that I’ve ever devoted myself enough too to be really great at. So I guess I don’t think the work I was doing, it was beginning to become a little bit I guess repetitive I guess, or just I don’t know. I probably wasn’t in the right collaboration. So it actually felt really exciting to step into territory I didn’t understand. And I do think actually the work that I made and that lots of people make that I know when they’re somewhat destabilized from sets of rules is often some of their most interesting work. And I think that was true in my case that the work was interesting because I didn’t know the rules and I was questioning.

What were some of the rules that you questioned in that first I would say post-Kanye moment?

Yeah. I mean actually, when I first set foot in theater, I didn’t quite understand that you were meant to follow the stage directions or that you were meant to illustrate in any way. It seemed natural to me that you would offer a counterpoint, it would seem to me a little bit I felt it was a bit condescending towards an audience to assume that they needed illustration at any point. I thought that you could probably give them fewer cues and that they would be able to paint the picture themselves. So I already in theater had begun to trust the architecture that the human imagination in the audience would collectively create I think, looking at it in retrospect. And then when I got to pop, I had seen a lot of pop music or live music, rock music as well because my partner at the time was, he had been a sound engineer and a record producer. And at the time he was going through a stint of being an AR person, an artist and repertoire person.

So we would go to three gigs a night and we would turn up and he would sometimes, if he didn’t think the band was going to be much good, he’d keep the cab waiting and say, “I’ve just got to check out this band. I know they’re going to be rubbish. I’ve heard the demo, but I’ve got to check it out.” So we would go to a lot of gigs. So I saw a lot of music and I began, and I sat in the studio a lot because I was young. I mean, I was going out with this guy from 16 to 28, so I would sit for hours. He’d work in the studio, or no, I’d just come and have my dinner, sit in the studio, just listen, take it in, observe how music is, what is happening when people are making music. And it is one of the most challenging areas in which I practice, the music area because so much of it is about, it’s a very young art form.

And I think it only really began, the transmission of live music to a large audience, really with The Beatles you might say in Shea Stadium. And I think it happened because music reached an audience through the TV, which was as you can imagine, just beginning to become very popular in the ‘50s and ‘60s. So that intimacy that an audience could feel with a performer on the TV when they bought a ticket to a concert, they’re buying a ticket to that. So how do you translate what they can get from the TV? And it was the same in the ‘80s with MTV. There was all this investment in music videos in MTV, the first music television. And bands were making, there was a lot of money in the music industry from selling the records, there was a lot of money being made and it was getting poured into these incredibly expensive videos.

So if you could access that on your TV, what were you going to get when you went to the concert? And I guess the difficulty with a concert, of course, is what’s really happening is a load of gear and a load of men up ladders putting gear up. That’s what’s really happened. So if you walk into an arena or a stadium, what you can really smell is just the evaporating sweat of 300 men putting up the gear. It’s not really a church in sense, that’s what’s really just happened. And that’s the nature of the economy of the touring music industry, and it does feel quite industrialized. And I guess that’s what I picked up when I walked into it and what probably Kanye picked up and what he probably didn’t like about it was the industrial aspect. It felt more about gear, truss, lights, mechanics, industry.

And we know all those things are necessary from Shea Stadium when The Beatles didn’t have them because their sound wasn’t augmented enough, their visual wasn’t augmented enough and so they were not actually safe. It was a matter of safety. There was all these screaming people frustrated because they bought their ticket and they couldn’t see or hear what they’d come to see, and there wasn’t safety. So that’s only 60 years ago if you think operas had hundreds of years to develop, and the theater started with the Greeks. So big touring music in that industrial scale is quite young.

And I guess what we did with Kanye at that time together and then with other artists ever since has been to question and to try to mitigate, to find antidotes to the industrial reality of what’s actually happening and how do you bring… A lot of the artists I was working with and I still work with, their visual worlds are informed by art that they buy, art galleries they visit, houses and architects they work with. So they have access to these very refined aesthetics. And they spend, invest a lot of their own funds on these shows and yet the aesthetic they’re met with is very different and they want to know why.

So that’s really been the story of my practice within live music. And it’s still very dissatisfying because still the truth is, although we’ve come a long way in terms of the power that we use for the lights, we use LED instead of tungsten so that’s dramatically reduced the weight of the lights and the power. I think the weight of all the sound equipment has massively reduced, the video equipment has massively reduced in how much power it draws and how heavy it is, how many trucks it uses. I think there’s still a huge amount of work being done on how we electrify the trucks, how we minimize them, and how we can bring the aesthetic that artists, most of the musicians I work with I would say are visual artists as well. They tend to be sign aesthetic, they tend to see music. There’s very few that I work with that don’t see and have a very clear visual correlative to the music that they make.


Devlin’s sketches for the June 2003 production of Ernest Bloch’s opera of Macbeth at Theater an der Wien in Vienna, Austria. Photo: Courtesy Es Devlin

And it must take an army to create many of your designs, and obviously depending on the scale. And can you describe to the listener how your own studio is set up today? What is that working cadence like?

Yeah. We have a fluctuating number between six and eight full-time designers who work with me in the studio. It’s in my front room at the moment. We do have another studio that I’ve just acquired, which we will be moving out to quite soon. The reason it’s been in my front room is because I’m a mother, I have two children, 16 and 13. We used to have the studio outside the house. I found I just didn’t go very often to the studio just because I have these two children, I found I was often at home, in and out of meetings and I wouldn’t get to the studio because between children and meetings and travel. So we decided it was better to have the studio at home. And it’s worked quite well up until now. But right now, actually since I’ve been making the book and really over the past seven years of starting to make my own studio practice, William Kentridge is one of my big mentors. And he came to visit, I had visited his beautiful studio in Johannesburg.

He came to visit my studio and he said, “Look, this is all great, but you are going to need a room where no one else is.” So therefore, we’ve just acquired a new place for the studio to go so I can have my room where I can go in without a planned outcome and just walk in and be uninterrupted just in dreaming stuff up because I really at this point, having done the book, I’ll probably still continue making work that’s in that vein. There might be another volume, but I think it’s a bit of a roundup of this exploration. And now I want to see what happens when I’m not commissioned in such a clear way with a primary text, what happens if I just sit in my room and see what I come up with? It might be nothing. It might be rubbish, but I want to try.

And of course, you still do opera and work with opera and more traditional venues for set design. And I would love to speak about a specific work like Don Giovanni in 2014 that you did for the Royal Opera House where you created this rotating structure, like a little building where you projected sketches onto it. It was like a living journal of sorts. Can you tell me how this specific piece came about and how you feel about reinventing the wheel for things like opera or Shakespeare where things have just been told and retold and retold and retold and restaged so many times?

It’s interesting that you mentioned Don Giovanni because actually, it’s just been on in LA at the LA Opera just last month. And I was so busy running around, I didn’t have a chance to get there or to talk about it or post about it, which I should’ve done. And it’s going to go to Houston and I think to Toronto. It’s about to have a moment that piece, so look out for it. But yeah, that was a big collaboration with my video designer colleague Luke Halls, who I’ve worked with for nearly 18 years now. And he and I worked really closely together. And really with Don Giovanni, it’s an opera that really benefits from having been done a few times. It’s now the third time I’ve worked on it. The second time, I’ve fully staged it. But the thing about opera is you really have to devote time to listen to it and learning it.

You need to sit. There’s no real other way to learn an opera than just being in it, watching videos of it or going to productions. You have to experience it. You can’t have any opinion about it unless you’ve immersed yourself. And the first time I did it, I would say I thought it was more about hell and enlightenment and big sweeping ideas. And the director, Keith Warner, very brilliantly said to me that, “This is all great, but I can’t really stage the piece and these ideas. I need practical things”, like there’s a whole scene where people are looking for each other in the dark and hiding under things. And there’s often that dichotomy in opera or that paradox where you know you’re dealing with huge, big philosophical questions, but the stage directions really do go on and on. And not just the stage directions, but the libretto.

“Oh, I can’t find him, maybe he’s over here.” And it becomes quite annoying for an audience when somebody’s saying, “Where are you? Where are you?” When the people can clearly bloody see each other on the stage. It’s a little pedantic, but… So we stage it the first time in a hotel, which worked really well with corridors and doorways and a hierarchical class system that you could really use to express the hierarchies that it was challenging in some of its setups. And then the second time with the director, Kasper Holten, we really started by trying to say, “Well, what’s hell?” In the first edition, hell was infinite aging. And in the second edition, it was infinite life, infinite aging, Dorian Gray kind of inversion.

And in this version, it was solitude to be alone. That was what we decided to be unable to communicate or to share or to be in communion, to be stuck alone, that would be hell. So therefore, to set that up, we made what was a whole living world out of Don Giovanni’s notebook. It was his list. There’s a famous libretto, which is the list of every woman he’s ever slept with. And the world was his list of meetings and connections and communions and love affairs. And you could see this was his absolute ecstasy of communication, constantly communicating with women, living always in relation, always busy in relation to everything and that hell would be the abstraction of that. So it became this churning three-dimensionalized list. Everybody got embroiled in his list.

Oh. And a lot of your work includes, some of your work I should say in recent years, includes AI. And you worked in this project called POEMPORTRAITS that I believe you conceived with the curator, Hans Ulrich Obrist. And I was wondering what your take is on AI and the creative world. What is your outlook on utilizing AI and generative quality of sometimes visuals now, there’s a big piece up at MoMA that is computer self-generated in

The Refik Anadol.

Yeah. And sometimes it’s just words. I know some architects that have confided in me, they’re like, “Yeah, we do a proposal now. We just ask AI to write some of the copy. We don’t use writers anymore”, and things like that. What is your take on all of this? Because obviously, you’ve used it to great effect and in ways that were quite appreciated and lauded and all of that.

I mean, I think before I have opinions, I really try and inform myself. So I’ve been working with AI since 2016, firstly with the POEMPORTRAITS project with Hans Ulrich, which came about because he asked me to design a party. I was like, “I don’t do parties, I don’t know what this party business is.” And you have to pay for the party, that seems really weird. Why would you invite people to The Serpentine and tell them to pay? And they explained, they said, “No, it’s good because we raise money. It’s a gala, it means the art gallery can be free for the rest of the year. This is a good thing.”

I was like, okay. I was like, “Okay. Well, it seems it sits weirdly with me that you would ask people to pay to come for a party. So if you’re going to ask them to donate, I think you should dignify that request by asking people to donate a word as well to a collective poem and that they would all partake in it and they could have it. So it felt more fair”, is what I thought. And I guess I was intuitively picking up on the first piece I ever saw at The Serpentine, which was the great Felix Gonzalez-Torres piece, the pile of silver sweets. And his approach in 2000 to the art was take the art, take the sweets. And it was piles of prints. Just take them, which was extraordinary at the end of the ’90s to say, take the art.

Oh sure, now they have piles in museums and no one takes them.



So we made that work and I didn’t know anything about how to do it. I just said, “I want to make a collective poem. Can I make a poem where everybody gives a word?” And there was already a collaboration with Google Arts & Culture and they said, “Oh yes, we’ve got someone already working on a poetry algorithm.” And then that evolved through several projects finally into the UK Pavilion at the World Expo. And for that, we used, it’s a 22-meter-high building whose entire facade was made of words. And it wrote a poem. It could have written one every second, but we couldn’t read it that fast. So we slowed it down and said, “Please, just produce a new poem every 90 seconds because the humans can’t keep up.”

And we were using for that iteration an early version of CHATGPT 2 back in 2019. So we were already on all that stuff and we’re now updating actually into Bard, into the latest Google algorithms. So I guess my instinct from an early encounter was to have a respect for more than human intelligence, like I have a respect for mathematics. And I don’t think humans invented mathematics, I think they discovered it. I think mathematics is clearly… I read a book called Chaos by James Gleick, which describes the maths that governs the way our arteries divide in our veins. And of course, it’s the same maths that governs the way that branches divide on a tree or that rivulets of water just divide when they’re falling down your window screen, or that the way the stock market fluctuates or the way that sheep distribute themselves. That’s the same maths.

So I think humans discover more than human intelligences like maths. I think there’s so much intelligence that’s more than human that we just haven’t even looked at, like what about the 10,000 creatures inside your body and my body? But we don’t even know the design. We don’t know how they work, we don’t know how our brain works. So the idea of an inscrutable to us more than human intelligence seems to me to wildly predate AI, and it’s been around us all the time. So I’ve had an instinct about AI as I do about maths, to try and learn, to try and respect it, to have hopefully a appropriate fear of it and respect for it, but to recognize that it’s not brand new to have more than human intelligence that we’ve been perhaps midwife to. That’s probably the relationship between humans to AI. And then to further substantiate my hunch, I read and I read the latest book I would say on AI that I felt was very useful called The Coming Wave by Mustafa Suleyman, who was at Google, was a co-founder of DeepMind.

Interestingly, he started in climate and working for the mayor’s office in London, but became a bit disillusioned with how slow the climate protocols were moving. So he shifted to tech, invented DeepMind with Demis Hassabis, and now has his own AI company and has written this book, which is somewhat of a warning about what’s about to hit us. He calls it The Coming Wave, he talks about the congruence of the advances in quantum computing, meaning much faster computing, and the advances in AI and how this is going to make the information revolutions we’ve experienced so far feel like nothing. This is huge. And really inviting governments to really think about containment, to prepare to plan. When I spoke recently at CogX, a big AI gathering, a conference, a lot of people came up to me afterwards and said, “Look, we’re making these brain chips. You really need to be afraid. There will be no more graphic designers, there’ll be no more this.”

So I have to listen to those who are much more deeply immersed in it than I am. But at the same time, my sense is that as artists, the best thing we can do at the moment is to work with. I have had a go at Midjourney and various of those generative. So far, they’re a bit like when we first had that phone with the camera and we didn’t know what to do with it, it was just, “Oh, this is crap. This is a gimmick.” We didn’t get it, we didn’t see the world changing in that little Nokia phone. And I say that a little bit is how it feels with the range of ability in that I can already see, I can see Tom Saraceno’s work in Midjourney, I can see [inaudible 00:49:46] work, I can see a bunch of… I can pick out my friend’s work in little fragments that have been collaged together.

So in a way, it feels like a high speed version of what students and people have been doing for a number of years since Pinterest, which is just standing on the shoulders of other artists to greater and lesser degrees of integrity, success, failure, beauty. It’s more tools. I mean, what I would say when people say, “Are you scared?” Is, well, I’m also scared of different technology. I’m scared of a newspaper. If you think about the fact that our newspapers are owned by very few people and our elections are governed by what people read in those newspapers, in Britain certainly, and I think the same is true in America.

So technology as simple as print on paper, newspaper or online newspapers can also be very dangerous. Interestingly, Mustafa Suleyman says, “We call it AI, we call it artificial intelligence until it works. And once it works, we just call it technology.” So I don’t know. I’ve proven myself of being very bad at predicting things so I’ll take Mustafa Suleyman’s word for it that this is going to change everything and we just need to be very alert and as creative as possible and as imaginative as possible and respectful, I would say.

Devlin’s designs for the Closing ceremony of the London Olympics in 2012. Photo: Nikolas Koenig

And with this show at the Cooper Hewitt, I was wondering, you’ve had such a body of work. And as people leave the exhibition, what do you want them to take away from it in terms of their understanding of who you are as an artist?

Well, when they arrive at the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, they will have hopefully wandered through the park or they’ve just come up from one block down, which is the Guggenheim. Maybe they’ll put this on the map, maybe they already know this America’s design museum, or maybe they don’t know it. Maybe they’ve not, they’ve been there before. And when they arrive, they walk in. It’s this beautiful mansion. It was Carnegie’s mansion, and it’s a very interesting building to research in itself. And they’ll come up to the top floor, and it’s a little bit like being the mad woman in the attic a bit in that we’ve totally taken over the top floor. And you get to the top floor and you will be invited into my studio. So I’ve made a replica of my London studio up there on the top floor in the attic. And you’ll be invited then in groups, a little bit like the Superblue piece in Miami.

And when you walk in, the door will close behind you. Hopefully, you’ll sit down. Around my desk, there’s all the objects as if I’ve just left the room, as if me and my studio have just left the room. And you’ll sit where we would be sitting in a Punchdrunk Felix Barrett, wonderful Punchdrunk theater way. And gradually, there are a series of books on the table and sketchbooks. And they’ll start to turn, the pages start to turn. My handwriting starts to appear on the pages and objects come to life on the table. The studio comes to life. And you hear my voice and I say, “I’ve always drawn on my books. I’ve always made a map of my reading so I can find my way back when I look again.” And I tell you a story as if it was me sitting with you in the studio.

And hopefully in that introduction, it’s just a two-minute, two-and-a-half-minute piece, but it’ll be enough. Hopefully, if you know nothing about my practice, if you were just walking in off the street or if you know a little bit or if you’re a kid, you don’t know anything about set design or me or anything, hopefully in that first two and a half minutes you’ll be introduced. And then there’s a line that I draw on the wall, and my hands are very big at that point and I split the wall apart. And you’ll be invited into the exhibition. And from there, it’s really conjuring the book. There’s a reason why the book and the exhibition have got the same name and actually a record. I’ve just made an LP and it’s all the same name. And when you come in, the first thing you’ll feel is that you’re in the book because those irises that you’ll see at the beginning of the book, which are a invocation of the names of everyone who’s ever collaborated with me.

So the names of the engineers, the seamstresses, the prop makers, the choreographers, the video designers, the directors, the writers, the musicians, they’re all there. So that’s the first thing you see. And you can place yourself at the end of it and within it and be photographed within it. So hopefully, that’s a way of entering the book. Then as you walk around, you’ll see all of those early objects that are in the book, those early sketches, some of them I made when I was like 15, 16, 17 years old. They are displayed as if you’d walked into my archive storage. So the way that Andrea, the curator, and Julie described arriving in the archive and unearthing all these objects, you’ll be in that place and you’ll find all the objects stacked coming out of boxes. So first you see that. Then you’ll then enter a series of rooms that present sketches, models, miniatures.

It’s a big space, but it’s a low ceiling. So leaning into that, I’ve made it a flow of miniatures. There are I think 45 scale models of works. Some of them are rotating, projection map, they’re all illuminated. And then there are glass boxes full of flurries of drawings of collaborations over the years. So with Abel Tesfaye from The Weeknd, there’s a row of sketches made since we first met in 2016 all the way until now. And the same with Adele, the same with Beyonce, the same with U2. The paintings that were made that led to the Sphere piece and to their tours. So it’s a lot of process work that I’ve made. And then finally, the work culminates with a series of films that you can sit and watch that really bring to life the works, those final pages of the book where you see those images in black and white and then in color, forms and colors. They’re expressed in two film rooms.

And finally there’s a reading room, which is parallel to my studio, but in this case you are invited to sit and draw on the text yourself and join in with all the reading. So I’ve put every book in there that I’ve ever read really or as most as I can fit, but all the significant books. So there’s an invitation to you to stand on the shoulders of my research and to carry on. And there’ll be a lot of programming going on as well, a lot of interfacing. One of the walls of the studio will regularly open up to a camera in my studio in London so that students and groups can apply and say, “Look, we’d like to have a master class” or, “We’d like to have an interaction.” So if you’re listening to this and you’re a teacher or you have kids at school that perhaps wouldn’t normally come up to a museum or want to discover this and want to get more involved, then contact the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum now and those who are programming will try and work you into this program.

It’s on for a long time, the exhibition. It’s on until August the 15th, 2024 from November the 17th this year, or November the 18th public opening. So there’ll be time I hope for me to really connect. And of course, I really want to connect with communities who might not be well represented in set design. It’s quite a white community I would say at the moment stage designers. It’s getting much more broad now, but I really want to meet people who don’t fit that demographic. And I really want to be part of shifting the demographic.

And something that’s happening in London is the training I had at the Motley Theatre Design Course. That course closed some years ago as we’ve just reopened it, and it’s called the Genesis Theatre Design Course. And it is only for applicants from low income and global majority backgrounds. So we’re really, I’m on the board of that, I’m teaching on it. I just took the kids to see Abel Tesfaye’s show and took them backstage and all that. So they came to the book launch. So we’re really actively trying to shift the demographic so that stage design really expresses the voices of everybody, which it must to remain relevant at all.

And I have one, before I ask my last question, I have to ask before I lose all of my card carrying gay privileges. What is Beyoncé like?

She’s bionic. So in Stockholm, we are finishing the rehearsal. We’ve started at 11:00, we finished at 3:00. And me and Fatima Robinson, who is the great choreographer, she worked with me also on the Super Bowl with Dr. Dre, me and Fatima are in the cab. We’re both 52 years old, we’re in our cab heading home. And Fatima gets a text from B saying, “Right, should we do notes?” She was like, “No, we’re going to bed.” She’s bionic and she’s an empath. I mean, it’s true of most of the great artists I work with. And they wouldn’t be in that high priest and high priestess role if they weren’t empaths. They, she and the others equally, they absorb and draw on the energy around them and the pain. And then they have the power of an enzyme to transform the pain of themselves and others into art and then they dispense that art back out to help others empathize with it, and it forms a virtuous circle. And that’s why you’re asking the question, that’s why people are so intrigued, is because it’s magic.

Wow, that’s a fantastic way of describing her. And now for my last question, it might be a little bit macabre. It’s definitely macabre. Have you ever thought about what you would like to request at your own funeral?

Oh, do you know? I don’t think it’s macabre. I’m really glad you asked that. I think we live in a death-phobic culture, and I think so many cultures other than Western contemporary civilization have been so much more at home with death than we are. And I think it’s one of our problems in that we don’t set our imagination to conjure plans for death. We live life as if death doesn’t exist, and then suddenly we just fall off the cliff and suddenly get ill and die. If you think of any other culture who have a cult of death, think of the Mexican Day of the Dead, think of any culture you care to mention who have death rights. And even our own culture until relatively recently, open caskets was much more common than it is now. We are death-phobic and I think it’s a big problem. And by the way, I think it will be very interesting as AI will undoubtedly become more prevalent. It’s my thought that AI will probably fetishize death because it’ll be the one thing they can’t do.

And what would you like to do?

Well, I think I’ve already done it, to be honest. I mean, making the book, I’m really glad I got that done before I die. I do dice with death regularly because it seems I go everywhere on a bicycle and narrowly snatch life from the jaws of death daily with passing buses in London. But yeah, the book’s been really important, the record that I’ve just made, which is a limited edition vinyl LP of a combination of all of the voiceover works that I’ve made. But I think, yeah, oh God. I mean, I think the death rights, how to celebrate life at the moment of death, how to celebrate the fact. What is it?

There’s that wonderful quote, you’ll remember who said it. Anyway, it’s a civil rights quote so I’m misappropriating it completely or contextualizing it. But it said they tried to bury us, they didn’t realize we were seeds. So I think that celebration of the burying of me would be best expressed in the celebration, hopefully, of the seeds of me. And I think that’s true of every human. You asked me to talk about my own death, so I said me. But I think it would be same of you and the same of anybody is to understand that a burial is a planting of seeds.

Thank you to our guest, Es Devlin, as well as to Andrea Lipps and everyone at the Cooper Hewitt for making this episode happen. The editor of The Grand Tourist is Stan Hall. To keep this going, don’t forget to visit our website and sign up for our newsletter, The Grand Tourist Curator at And follow me on Instagram @danrubinstein. And don’t forget to follow The Grand Tourist on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you like to listen, and leave us a rating or comment. Every little bit helps. Til next time!


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