Dezeen's new Face to Face podcast series kicks off with an interview with artist, designer and director Es Devlin, who discusses her seaside upbringing, her maverick student years and her meteoric career.
In the Face to Face series, Dezeen's founder and editor-in-chief Marcus Fairs sits down with leading architects and designers to discuss their lives.
Working with Kanye West
The first episode features Devlin explaining how she first became a theatre designer before branching into stage design, creating sets for artists including Beyoncé, Kanye West and U2. The interview took place in the bedroom of her home and studio in south London.
"I've known Es for a few years and she really is one of the most amazing, electrifying people to speak to," said Fairs.
"She peppers her dialogue with references to art, science, movies, culture, theatre, literature and quite often the references go over my head and I have to sit there nodding as if I've read that book or seen that play."
Obstacle courses for guinea pigs
Devlin grew up near the coast in East Sussex, England. "We were making a lot of stuff because there wasn't a lot else to do," she said of her earliest creative experiments.
"And it was mainly using Kellogg's cornflakes packets or toilet rolls or making runs for the gerbils and obstacle courses for the guinea pigs."
Devlin studied literature at Bristol University but was a rule-breaker from the outset. "Every time someone wanted me to write an essay, all I wanted to do was to paint a picture," she said. "I deviated a lot from the course."
Later, when studying theatre design, she continued with her maverick approach. "I didn't pay any regard to the stage direction," she explained. "So if it said on the play, this play takes place in a room with doors, I didn't actually read that part."
"A fluke that happened three times"
She describes her move into the world of pop stars as "a fluke".
"It was a fluke that happened three times," she recalled. "There were three pop artists who all asked me to design their concerts at the same time. It was the Pet Shop Boys, a singer called Mika, and Kanye West."
Produced by Dezeen's in-house creative team Dezeen Studio, Face to Face episodes will be released every Tuesday at 9:00am for the next eight weeks. Interviewees will include Thomas Heatherwick, Hella Jongerius and Norman Foster. The podcast features original music composed by Japanese designer and sound artist Yuri Suzuki.
Face to Face is sponsored by Twinmotion, the real-time architectural visualisation solution that can create immersive photo and video renders in seconds.
Subscribe to Dezeen's podcasts
Read on for a full transcript of the interview:
Marcus Fairs: Hi Es.
Es Devlin: Hi Marcus.
Marcus Fairs: Could you just describe yourself? Who are you and what do you do?
Es Devlin: I'm a designer, artist, director who works across a range of fields, quite a wide range of fields, including large scale architectural works, gallery installations, theatre, opera and concerts.
Marcus Fairs: And do you describe yourself as a designer or an artist? What's your favourite creative title here?
Es Devlin: So actually, at the moment, I'm calling myself an artist, designer, director.
Marcus Fairs: And if you could just explain where we are – It's quite an unusual setup you have here.
Es Devlin: Well, my studio is in my house in southeast London. And my studio is quite busy today. So we have taken refuge upstairs in my bedroom.
Marcus Fairs: And describe your studio because when I walked in there earlier there were two giant hands there and all kinds of other things. There's models all over the place, describe the setup and describe your working environment.
Es Devlin: So we're in an Edwardian house on a street in southeast London, and the front part of the house is a series of Edwardian living rooms that have been knocked together to form a series of workspaces which are aligned with books, models, relics of previous projects. There's a giant pair of hands that are left over from a Carmen opera that we did on the lake in Bregenz. There are lots of models of Abel from the Weeknd’s head lying around. We rather like being surrounded. There are eight of us in there and we rather like being surrounded by a little memory palace of works that we've touched on before.
Marcus Fairs: Because a lot of your work is ephemeral, isn't it? It's a stage set. It's something that you build and then gets taken away. So I guess these are little mementoes? Are they from things that don't exist anymore?
Es Devlin: Yes, I mean, lately, of course, I've realised that everything I've been saying about the ephemerality of my work is utter crap because it leaves the most massive carbon footprint. So it's just the little bits of ephemera in my studio and a shit load of carbon in the atmosphere, unfortunately.
Marcus Fairs: We'll come back to your working process later. But just to give everyone an idea of the scale of these hands that I was talking about. Were they three meters high or something?
Es Devlin: Indeed, the ones that were in my studio are three meters high, and they were the small scale model of the ones that emerged out of Lake Constance, which were 29 meters high.
Marcus Fairs: Let's take it back to the beginning. Tell us about your upbringing. Where did you grow up? What did your family do? What were your earliest memories and where, how was your early life?
Es Devlin: I'm fundamentally a child of 1970s/19080s suburbia. I was born in Kingston upon Thames, and that's where I spent the first six years of my life and my mother was a teacher of English and my dad was an education journalist on The Times. And they went for a romantic weekend in the small town of Rye in Sussex. And they came back having changed their life and we moved there in 1977.
And that changed everything for us because we then grew up more or less on the beach. We went to Camber Sands after school pretty much every day or Winchelsea beach and it was a much more feral, wild upbringing. We went to Beckley Woods we picked things in the forest, we foraged. So that changed everything really in my childhood. And there was such a mythology around that town. Rye had a way of telling its stories. They had a little model that lit up and told its own town stories. So storytelling and architecture, and the countryside became very much linked to my mind.
Marcus Fairs: So you're a child living in this kind of cute little seaside town with these expanses of beach and forest and marsh around you. But did you, at that time, realise that you had a creative streak? Were you in the woods making tree houses or weaving reeds or anything like that?
Es Devlin: We were making a lot of stuff. Yes, because there wasn't a lot else to do. I was one of four children. I am one of four children. And our constant refrain was we're bored. I'm bored. What should we do? And our parents always said, Well, if you're bored, it's because you're boring. And we didn’t want to be boring. So we found something to do. And it was mainly using, you know, Kellogg's corn flakes packets or toilet rolls or making runs for the gerbils or making, you know, obstacle courses for the guinea pigs. We spent a lot of time on our hands and knees on the floor, making stuff. I actually think I developed a little kind of flatness in my chin because I used to rest my chin on my knee when I was concentrating, cutting things up on the floor.
Rye has a sort of pagan tradition of Bonfire Night and Guy Fawkes. And we would always make a Guy you know, we would make that up. And then Halloween was a big time for making things, cutting up masks and costumes. So there was quite a lot of theatre just in the sort of ritual available in that town anyway. And my parents made stuff. My dad crochets my mom paints, they're both very hands-on creative people.
Marcus Fairs: And did you find that you were good at that? Were your masks better than all the other kids' masks?
Es Devlin: I was really hard worker. You know, I was diligent. I would just spend hours and hours and hours on it. I was slow, diligent. I think probably in that sort of Malcolm Gladwell 10,000 hours thing, I clocked up a lot of hours.
Marcus Fairs: So what would the next step then how did that start to become a career? You went to art school, didn't you?
Es Devlin: Yeah. Well, we moved from Rye, largely because of the schools actually. Oddly Stella McCartney lived there and they all went to the local school but my mum and dad didn't want us to go there. So we moved to Cranbrook in Kent, which has a really nice school that you can go to for free. So we went there. It was one of those, you know, grammar schools that probably shouldn't exist, to be honest, but it was a really nice school. So all four of us went there. And they had a great art department.
And at the time, it was around the resurgence of land art. So there was Richard Long that was Goldsworthy. Our art teacher, Chris Thomas, was really into the land art movement. So he would take us into Bedgbury Pinetum and we would make a shelter and sleep in it, and then spend the days making sculptures in the forest. So that was sort of my way into sculpture and environmental sculpture a bit. I didn't take the course of going to art school straight from school.
And largely because in that period of 1989, or whatever it was, if you went to art school, you stayed living at home. So I would have gone to Maidstone art school and lived at home and all I wanted to do was to that thing of going away to university. I wanted to leave home. So I decided instead to study literature. And I went to Bristol University and read for three years, which I am really glad I did now because I would never have had time again in my life to sit for three years and just read.
Marcus Fairs: And during that period we're you still being creative? Or was it all channelled through writing?
Es Devlin: No, of course, every time someone wanted me to write an essay, all I wanted to do was paint a picture. I painted the floor of my house. I made stained glass windows. Yeah, I was busy making stuff. I got involved in the theatre there. I deviated a lot from the course and also the literature that attracted me was very concrete imagery. So I would always find the concrete imagery, the thing that was very imagistic in the writing.
Marcus Fairs: And at that point were you making a connection between literature and three-dimensional space? You mentioned you went to the theatre but was that something that you were already experimenting with? How could you realise your ideas and relationships to plays or did that come later?
Es Devlin: Oddly enough, my connection at Bristol University was that I directed a piece: Joe Orton’s autobiography called Diary of a Somebody. Again, the reason I chose that piece to direct was because [English playwright] Joe Orton famously used to go to the library and steal pages and cut them out and made this massive collage on his wall. And I was drawn to that play because of that piece of imagery. I wanted to make that collage. So I said, Well, I'll direct the play so I can make that collage. So that was really the theatre connection. At that point, I wasn't specifically thinking of translating from text to image directly, but I think I was building towards it subconsciously.
Marcus Fairs: So you directed the play. Did you also design the set or did you get someone else to do that?
Es Devlin: No, me and my friend Becky Hardy, who's now Margaret Atwood's editor actually, one of my dearest old friends. She and I did it together. And we just sort of directed it, designed it and generally cried in the corner and did our best.
Marcus Fairs: And what happened after that then?
Es Devlin: Then, of course, I wanted to go to art school. I had no clear concept of a job. And I was privileged enough to have had a boyfriend who was quite a bit older than me. He was paying the rent. So I didn't have to get a job. I was lucky. So I went to St. Martin's and did the foundation course after I'd done the degree, and I loved that. That was such a great year.
Marcus Fairs: So tell us about that time then.
Es Devlin: God can you imagine! I was 21. Everyone else was 18. I had no interest in going out and hanging out with 18-year-olds. I was like a little swat and I was just working, working working. I was a mature student. There was another one as well. We got on great actually. I got on with quite a lot of them. They're really interesting people. And yeah, can you imagine suddenly, having been in a library for three years, that foundation course at St. Martin's was, you know, a week in the darkroom doing photography, a week in the fashion studio, a week in the theatre studio, a week in the sculpture room? It was like Christmas. It was really rich education.
Marcus Fairs: And what was that era in London? What was going on in music and culture?
Es Devlin: Well, that was it. I think it was around 93. I went out every night. [Influential dancer and choreographer] Pina Bausch was here. [Experimental theatre director] Robert Wilson was here. There was a load of stuff going on at the South Bank. Tons of stuff going on at the Hayward. It was rich, rich, you know? Well, it was for me. I guess London's always rich. It was a period where I went to things rather than missed things. You know, it's had a big influence that period.
Marcus Fairs: So you were very much involved in literary culture rather than the pop scene because it was also a lot of music going on around that time?
Es Devlin: Well actually, the guy I was going out with, Clive Martin, is a record producer. So we would go to gigs a lot. But his special area of interest was live bands. So it was just that period where the live bands were beginning to resurge having been overwhelmed in the 80s somewhat by electronica. So we were going to see an awful lot of things live. I guess it was around the time of Britpop as well. It was all that Pulp and Blur and all that stuff.
Marcus Fairs: I was going to mention Pulp because that song about, you know, "she studied sculpture at Saint Martins college"...
Es Devlin: That was pretty much me. Not the whole lyric. Maybe that lyric.
Marcus Fairs: You did the foundation course and what happened after that?
Es Devlin: So after the foundation course then of course, I got offered a place to do another degree. And it was going to be in photography and printmaking at Central Saint Martins. And there was a wonderful teacher called Susan. I'm not gonna remember her surname right now, but I'll look it up. She was a beautiful bookmaker, and I wanted to make sculptural books. And we were going to just roll on and do that. And then I sort of looked at myself in the eyes and thought I can't really do another three years in education. And actually, my boyfriend at the time, his dad rang me up and said ‘you can't sponge off my son forever’. Get a job.
Marcus Fairs: Did the boyfriend know about this call?
Es Devlin: Yeah, I mean, he didn't mind but it was just a general feeling that I ought to perhaps make some money at some point. So I thought, well I better do something somewhat more directed towards making money and I thought better not do another three-year degree. So people kept saying to me, literally five different, completely unrelated people, said you really should do theatre design. And actually, although I went to see quite a lot of very visual pieces like Pina Bausch or Robert Wilson, the actual straight out theatre, I didn't go to too much. Just the text on its own with a sort of box scenery environment didn't excite me as much.
And actually, when we had done the theatre design module during the foundation course, although it was very well taught by a wonderful teacher called Michael Vale, it didn't make me think ‘oh, yes, this is for me’. So I hadn't really been drawn to it diagnostically through that diagnostic foundation course process. But people kept saying "why don't you check out this little course called Motley Theatre design course", which was a one year course only taught by people who already practised.
So I went around, walked in, and they had this little grotty studio around the back of Miss Saigon, in the back of the theatre on Old Drury Lane. And it was full of old pot noodles and mice and 10 feral students who were there all night. And I just thought this feels good. Everyone was making little models and reading books. And every night at 10pm, you could hear the helicopter lift up in Miss Saigon, the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical next door.
The thing that clinched it for me was that the studio was open 24 hours. And by then whatever I was doing, I was doing it 24 hours a day. So the idea of going into a degree at Saint Martins where you had to be out of the place at six. I thought "I can't really work like that". I need a studio 24 hours a day. And I thought, well, if the theatre design thing doesn't work out, I'll just use that studio space.
Marcus Fairs: And you found a love for designing for the theatre. You already had a love for theatre itself, but how did it come about that you became a theatre designer?
Es Devlin: I just got locked into the rhythm of practice. I found an architecture for my particular sort of rambling trains of thought to lock into. There was a system. Through that course we designed six pieces. And the final piece was put on at Rose Bruford College. And then at the very end of that course was a competition called the Linbury Prize for stage design. And the prize in that competition was to put a show on at the Octagon Theatre in Bolton.
So in a way, what I'm trying to say is I didn't have a chance to look down. I was rattling through this course and having given quite a lot of consideration and pondering… "What might I do? What would be the best thing to do?". I was too busy to think about it. I just got on with it. And I think that's true for a lot of people at that point in their life. You just need to step on one tread and then just keep plodding forward in a direction and find some developments. That's what I did. I ended up designing the show in Bolton and realizing I could do it and then after that people asked me to do other ones.
Marcus Fairs: And you talked about your upbringing on the South Coast being feral and you talked about how you loved this studio next door to Miss Saigon because it was open 24 hours and the sense of freedom and you used the word feral again. How did you then find a discipline to work? You're such a wild child that you could never have developed the discipline of being able to deliver.
Es Devlin: I may have misrepresented the wildness of my childhood because although, you know, we were running around the place, my mom was a teacher. And my dad was a journalist in education. They were education obsessives, we were very diligent at school. We were real workers. You know, we studied for all our exams, we got all our A's and B's. By the time we'd hit end of school, we had a really solid work ethic. So knuckling down and working wasn't a problem. I just needed to find a direction to sort of run that Duracell battery.
Marcus Fairs: So you knew what a deadline was then?
Es Devlin: Deadlines I wasn’t so brilliant at. Working hard I was.
Marcus Fairs: So tell us how your career took off then?
Es Devlin: Well, I did that first piece. And then because I was, you know, excited and enthusiastic, I wrote letters to a lot of directors and said "I'd love you to come see my play." I did a little play at the Bush theatre. And I was audacious enough to write a letter to Trevor Nunn, who at that point was running the National Theatre. And I said "Dear Trevor Nunn, please come see my little play". And he did. And he then asked me to do a play at the National Theatre, a Harold Pinter piece called Betrayal on the big Lyttleton stage, and then it progressed from there really. I went to the Royal Shakespeare Company, a lot of stuff at the National Theatre, The Royal Court. Once you got going, it was pretty fluid.
Marcus Fairs: And how did you approach theatre design? Because I'm not someone who goes to the theatre that much but my view of theatre design was that it wasn't that exciting. Of all the visual arts, it was not one of the ones that I would say was where things were happening, where avant-garde ideas were being experimented with. So how did you approach it? How did you make it different? How did you make it exciting?
Es Devlin: I didn't pay any regard to the stage direction. So if it said on the play ‘this play takes place and room with doors’, I didn't actually read that part. I was used to studying literature and imagining directly from text into image. I made sculptures and I was heavily immersed in contemporary art. So those are my influences. Sort of drawing on contemporary art and the wider art history that I had been studying. So I drew from that. I guess I was practising within the framework of a theatre with the primary text of a play by my side, but I was kind of practising like a visual artist.
Marcus Fairs: So you literally didn't stick to the script.
Es Devlin: I treated the script like a primary text for me to respond to. And I made my response to it, knowing that there would be a performance within the environment I created. So it wasn't creating illustrations or a translation of the text because the performance would do that. I was creating a kind of counterpart.
Marcus Fairs: I read an anecdote about the Harold Pinter play Betrayal that you mentioned. Tell us what he said to you afterwards.
Es Devlin: It's funny because the way this anecdote got reported recently was as if I was saying it was a compliment when it was actually a complete backhanded slap. It's quite funny. Basically the play Betrayal is a very perfect, exquisite work of art. And the one thing it really did not need was little old me responding to it, to be honest. It would have been much happier in a white box. But at that time, it was 1998. Rachel Whiteread had just done her house at Bow. And that piece was so compelling at that moment, I was intoxicated with it.
And actually, when Trevor Nunn asked me to do Betrayal, I said ‘why don't we just ask Rachel Whiteread if we can perform this piece at House’ because it was so much about memory. To me the piece had been designed, Rachel had done it. And actually I wrote to Rachel. And I said ‘Listen, Trevor, doesn’t think that we can do it underneath your building, but can we bring your building into the National Theatre?’ And she wrote back and said ‘knock yourself out’. So we sort of recreated chunks of her house and in my mind, that just seemed like the right thing to do.
And then we projected all over it. And, you know, it was the thing in itself. One could argue now that it was entirely surplus to requirement. Harold, because he'd seen Betrayal done in a white box 50,000 times, he was quite happy to see the sort of Baroque version of it. But yeah, as a backhanded compliment when he introduced me to Antonia, his wife, he just said "this is her, she wrote the play" as a joke.
Marcus Fairs: Or rewrote the play.
Es Devlin: He didn't even say that.
Marcus Fairs: Let's jump forward then. So you established yourself as a theatre designer, but now if we look at the things that you do. You're working with rock stars, pop stars, stages, opera. You delved into AI, you've done fashion and everything like that. How did you start to then diversify outwards, which is not easy to do? Most creatives, they find their niche and they stay in it.
Es Devlin: Yeah. And before I answer that question, I just want to say one more thing about why I did theatre because as you rightly say, it wasn't the most glamorous. You didn't look at it and go right, that is where it's at. Right at that time, I could see that there was a structure of resources and teams and humanity available to collaborate with to put stuff on. I liked those people. I like that tribe of people. Remember we had come out of the 80s, I was a child of Thatcher most of my time. You know, we just ended decades of Conservative government just passing 1997 and I found a group of people who none of them were being paid.
There were a lot of people working in the theatre, working late at night, working around the clock collectively. Not to express themselves, but to make a collective expression. And doing it basically because they wanted to do it for free. There wasn't a client. And if the client was anyone, it was the person who bought a ticket. But there wasn't a client. You made it together because it was the right thing to make. I think that's why I was drawn to it. And I could see that the people were great. Yes, people weren't doing particularly interesting things with it all the time. But I could see some people were. You know, Pina Bausch. There was a lot of stuff that was great.
So that's why I think I was drawn to that group of people, thinking I can make something with them. But to answer your second question, your question was, how did it then sort of transpire that I shifted from one medium to another, and you know what, I think it may have been luck because theatre naturally leads to opera. I think people have got a little fed up with my overreach in the world of text and straight drama, so I was slightly moving out of that anyway. Whereas people who worked in opera, especially European opera, were quite drawn to what I was doing. So I moved pretty much into doing opera design.
I say it was a fluke. But it was a fluke that happened three times. There were three, three pop artists who all asked me to design their concerts at the same time. It was the Pet Shop Boys, a singer called Mika, and Kanye West. It was all in 2005. And for different reasons. Mika because David McVicker who's an opera director, and I were doing a Salome opera at the Royal Opera House, and there was a Southbank show documentary about it.
And Mika watched it. I was very pregnant in 2008, or it must have been earlier than. Anyway I was pregnant in 2006 and he saw me being actually kind of torn apart. A design I had put together was not liked by the director, and he observed how I responded. Apparently, I flinched and then carried on, tore the spiral staircase out of the design and just carried on. And Mika is a sensitive guy and he picked up on that. He said "I want her to work with me".
Alex Poots used to run a festival called Only Connect at the Barbican Centre. And he put on this festival and his whole fascination was to put unlikely collaborations together. And he thought it'd be interesting if I would collaborate with post-punk band called Wire. And he asked me to do it, but I didn't respond. It was the early days of email and I didn't respond. So he then asked the Chapman brothers to do it. Then I did see the email and I did respond. He said ‘well, can I have both?’. So I did the second half of the show and the Chapman Brothers did the first half and that was in 2003. So he has to be credited really with that first transference to pop music.
Marcus Fairs: And then you said about these three musicians that got in touch and did you work with all of them?
Es Devlin: Yeah, I was excited to do that. You know, I was really excited. I mean, although I've been to a lot of small gigs, I hadn't really spent much time in a stadium or an arena. So pretty much my first experience was when working in there. It's quite a sensation being around 100,000 people roaring.
Marcus Fairs: It must have been quite a culture shock as well, because you talked about what you'd liked about the theatre was this culture of people, this dedication to the cause, people working for no money, probably taking quite a long time to put things together and get the funding, the rehearsals and then rock and roll, which is fast, big bucks, international people getting on and off planes. How did you cope with that transition?
Es Devlin: I rather enjoyed it. Can you imagine? The epitome of this must have been around 2006 where I found myself at the sort of junction of these various fields I was working in, and I was in Miami rehearsing for Kanye’s Touch the Sky tour, but I had also committed to being at a meeting in Spain about a production I was doing with an Australian Director at Hamburg. We were doing a Benjamin Britten opera, Midsummer Night's Dream. And I had committed to being in Manchester doing a new play called All the Ordinary Angels. And I'd sort of managed to mess it up so that these things had to happen on the same day.
So I found myself flying from Miami to Manchester, just to go to a little meeting. I then sat in this rather quiet room in Manchester, where the only question that came up for me as the set designer "was did I like this prop teacup? Was it the right one?". I said "yes" and then I got into some kind of transport to Liverpool to fly to Spain to sit in a quiet rural house to talk about Benjamin Britten for a week. You know, so you're absolutely right. It was a clash of timescales and rhythms.
Marcus Fairs: But you're still juggling those different worlds and then some more as well. Including, now you’ve started to become an artist in your own right rather than just working for other people. So why don't you talk about that transition as well?
Es Devlin: Really, I have to credit that to Louis Vuitton. I was invited in 2014 to work with [Louis Vuitton creative director] Nicolas Ghesquière on his runway shows. He has already done one, but this was his second. The Fondation Louis Vuitton, the beautiful Frank Gehry building, had just been built. And we were to make the first show there. I hadn't been to a fashion show. I didn't know anything about how to do them, which is just how I like it really, because I think my mind, and I think many people's minds, are much more agile when you're an outsider, and we don't know the rules.
And you're somewhat wrong-footed at every point. And you need to keep doing that to yourself. So we began making shows and at a certain point, they wanted to make an exhibition. Knowing that not many people can visit the fashion show, how do you communicate the clothes to the public. So at 180 The Strand, before it sort of became what it is now in London, we took over that 22,000 square-foot [space] and tried to turn the fashion catwalk show inside out so that it was the audience who we're walking, and the show communicated itself to as you walked through.
This, to me, was an utter treat of a canvas. A perambulatory, promenade piece of theatre communicating an artist's train of thought, in this case Nicolas Ghesquière’s train of thought. So having just come out of doing that, I got an email from i-D magazine. I couldn’t quite understand the email. I misread it and I thought they said would you like to make an installation of 12,000-square-foot in a warehouse in Peckham of your own? And I actually looked back at that email to re-scrutinise it not that long ago. It actually said ‘can you make us a three minute perfume advert’. I read into it what I wanted to say.
So because I had this in my mind I went straight on from the Louis Vuitton series three-piece into making this mirror maze installation, which was just me doing what came as naturally the next step. I made a short meditation on architecture, geometry and identity. But because I've had a long anxiety about filmmaking, something I always kind of feel I should one day do but haven't got around to yet. I often put forward a little critique of films, when I sit in the cinema I go ‘god that was good, but what could have made it better’. And often, I reached the conclusion that the film would have been better if it had a hole in it. So you could walk through the hole and into something sculptural, rather than just watching the effect of the light that creates the sculptural illusion.
So I fulfilled that ambition and made a film with a hole. So you came in, you watch a two and a half minute film with a hole in it, an oval hole. And then at the end of the film, you walked through the hole, and you were in the environment that you'd seen being created in the film, which was this large scale mirror maze. And then finally, you found yourself in a scent that Chanel made specifically just for five days that we called Chanel SE15. And so that was the first piece and it worked well.
Marcus Fairs: So you did both then, you did a three-minute commercial, and you filled this big space as well, so you managed to keep everyone happy.
Es Devlin: Well, I mean, this is a larger point. The opportunities and the resources that are available within the communication of a market. And there's no reason why one can't slightly hijack those resources and use them in pursuit of one's own methodology, right, which is what I did.
Marcus Fairs: And tell us about how you work. I remember coming here 18 months ago or something like that. You were working with Katy Perry at the time. And I was really astonished to see that she would be sending you an email, you’d print out the email, draw some sketches on it, get your assistant to scan it and send it back. Is that typical?
Es Devlin: Yes, sketching. Whichever field it's in, it’s always just a piece of paper and a pencil. I can sketch and often I will do a scale drawing. But I often don't have a ruler. I want to scale the drawing to the piece of paper. So I tear off the edge of the piece of paper. And I just draw some pretty even looking lines and say "well, those will be meters for this drawing". And sort of organically make my own scale drawing like that. I don't really use the computer or ruler. I just draw it like that.
Marcus Fairs: And how do you work with someone like Kanye West then. Someone who's like a genius in his own right and probably has very strong ideas. What happens when your brain meets Kanye’s? How does that process work?
Es Devlin: Well, I haven't worked with Kanye for a while. I last worked with Kanye in 2013. He's doing extraordinarily brilliant things. Any of those artists who are in my opinion quite bionic people. You know, in that Malcolm Gladwell definition of someone who's done something for 10,000 hours. They've all done stuff for at least 200,000 hours I would say. Forget 10. And I guess artists like that work with people like me in that they know what my framework is going to be there.
I think Kanye once said "I just want a lot of people in the room". Vanessa Beecroft, John McGuire, myself, Virgil Abloh and he just said "I want to hear the Virgil of it, the John of it, the Vanessa of it and the Es of it". So often those people they know exactly which segment you're going to bring to the train of thought.
Marcus Fairs: And is that a community similar to the community you liked so much in theatre?
Es Devlin: My goodness it can be. November is awards season in rock and roll. So it's a moment for a lot of artists to create small sketches. Incredibly well-resourced sketches, so it will be a three-minute performance on the MTV Awards or something and it can go for nothing. Or it can be an exquisite little short film. Those people at MTV, I've actually been working with them for the past 10 years. And I know them all. I've seen their children grow up. And we have a two-hour rehearsal segment. The budget can be up to a million pounds or more.
And you're spending that pretty much in two hours with the decisions that you make. "That will go there, this light will come on, this will be yellow, she will stand here, this camera shot will be static". Those decisions are made like that. Only this little huddle of people who know each other, who trust each other. And we'll just take and execute at speed to make that the right thing that it needs to be. It's a very tight set of parameters that particular one to work in and it's the opposite of a sort of luxurious, sprawling, around the table, conversational theatre process. But equally when you make a piece of theatre a lot of the final work comes down to decisions that were made in quite tight stretches of time in a technical rehearsal.
Marcus Fairs: And we were talking at the beginning about your studio downstairs and the shelves of all the models of the opera sets and the theatre sets, which are probably handmade at scale over a period of time. But with some of these faster TV-based things is your scribble on the torn off piece of paper it? Is that your input that's then sent off?
Es Devlin: I mean no because everything has to go through the studio. Something I didn't mention earlier, which I should mention is when I talk about theatre and how these things come about, it's endless conversation with collaborators. You know, I have these ongoing trains of thought conversations with theatre directors, Lyndsey Turner, Sam Mendes, Kasper Holten in opera. Those are ongoing conversations that get translated into work as well. None of this happens out of my little head on its own at all.
And equally, my little sketch goes into those amazing group of women and men downstairs, who translate it into a buildable thing. You can't build up my sketch, it's meaningless. It all gets translated into beautiful 3D models and they give their lives to it. You know, these people downstairs, they are working around the clock, they are missing their boyfriends and girlfriends. They're missing anniversaries and dinners. They are dedicated. They're extraordinary people.
Marcus Fairs: And you talk about a lot of decisions being made on the fly. But if someone asks you to come up with a brief - do you go for a walk to come up with ideas? Do you lock yourself in a dark room? Or do ideas just flood your head all the time?
Es Devlin: Often it's an ongoing part of a conversation and there's a few conversations going on at once. So there's conversations directly with these musicians and these artists. There's conversations with theatre directors and opera directors. And then there's the conversation with the eight people in my studio. So generally, yes, there's the thing where I do wake up in the morning and usually something's there for me.
But it's the beginning, or it's a fragment. And I take that into a room full of people. And it's never alone. It's always with a group. And it's always conversation. I would just say ‘well, what if it's this and what if it's that?’. In the case of musicians, they often have an extraordinary series of people already around them who they've been talking to for five years. So I want to pick up on that depth of engagement. I don't want to just turn up and start from scratch, you know,
Marcus Fairs: And of course now you're working at an architectural scale as well. You’re commissioned to design the British pavilion at Expo 2020 Dubai. So tell us about that jump of scale.
Es Devlin: If you think about the first Great Exhibition in 1851, and you think about this country that we live in and the impact that a small island has had pretty much igniting the Industrial Revolution, which led to so much progress. We now find ourselves in this calamity of where the Industrial Revolution has led us from a climate point of view. Isn't it incumbent upon us, this little small island, to now be broadcasting from this building. It is designed a bit like a musical instrument in that it is there to broadcast. Shouldn't we now be broadcasting ways in which we can try and unravel and unpick this calamity?
Listen, the Expo’s in Dubai. The site that we will be building on, is sponsored by Saudi Aramco. It's incumbent upon the UK, who has been the first country to declare a climate emergency – we’re the first of the G7 countries to commit to achieving net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. We have to put all our effort in that particular realm to broadcast and celebrate and explore and examine ways to communicate that.
Marcus Fairs: So tell us quickly what the pavilion will be then?
Es Devlin: It's a giant musical instrument, sort of like a conch. A big conical shape made from extruded, cross-laminated timber. On its facade, big circular facade, concealed LEDs illuminate and communicate a collective poem. And the collective poem is achieved by each visitor contributing a single word, which then passes through an algorithm. And on the front of the building, the collective text is broadcast ever-changing.
Marcus Fairs: And that's one of your ongoing experiments using AI isn’t it? To generate poetry and so on and so forth and crowd sampling and things?
Es Devlin: Yeah, it came about because in 2016, Hans Ulrich Obrist and Yana Peel at the Serpentine Gallery invited me to make some kind of work to celebrate their annual gala. And I wanted to make a piece that could gather that 1500 people into a single work. Google Arts and Culture already had an algorithm Ross Goodwin had created. And we pushed that forward and made this collective poetry algorithm. So I've been working with it. I then, as a sort of anti-Brexit comment, took it to Trafalgar Square and painted one of the lions red and got one of the lions to make a collective poem anyone could contribute a word to. So this is a progression of that work.
Marcus Fairs: Some people think that artificial intelligence is going to take over and even take over what creative people like you do. Do you have a view on that?
Es Devlin: I know that my ability to predict is poor. I was given the first camera phone in 2003 Nokia and asked to predict how it would change us as a species. And I was absolutely un-visionary and just said ‘it's not a very good camera.’ So I don't have much faith in my ability to predict what AI will do but I do recommend anyone who wants to delve into that to read the wonderful Max Tegmark book Life 3.0.
Marcus Fairs: Which talks about a future in which artificial intelligence plays a prominent role.
Es Devlin: That's right, it hypothesises about the possibilities of a benevolent general AI. What would happen if the AI could predict conflicts before they arose and could influence those on each side of the conflict in such a way that the conflict never happened?
Marcus Fairs: And back briefly to the British pavilion in Dubai, I think you're the first woman to ever be given that commission. Do you see yourself as a woman creative or just a creative?
Es Devlin: Listen, I only know the experience that I've lived. It would be really interesting to have a go at the other version of life, maybe as a tiger or as a mouse or as a man. I only know the female version. I mean, I often find myself in rooms where I'm the only woman, but that's the only way I know it to have been.
Marcus Fairs: And do you see yourself as an active role model or a pioneer for greater diversity and equality and in industry,
Es Devlin: If you're a woman and you decide to have children then you are faced every day with the choice of going out and doing your absolute best you can in a project or being the best mother you can. But I do think that challenge is also faced by men. My husband feels as conflicted as a father. So I don't think that conflict is restricted only to women. But hopefully, I set an example of trying to find a balance and be content with equally failing as a mother and failing as an artist on a day by day, carefully calibrated basis.
Marcus Fairs: And you can see from being in your home that you have achieved some kind of balance because your studio is here, your husband's studio is here, your family is here.
Es Devlin: That's about using precise little, what I call, shoulder moments of time. The moment when I'm on the way out, the moment when I'm on the way in. Those can become moments of spending valuable time with the family, with the children, which if my studio was elsewhere, those moments would be taken to get there and back. And also, by the way, it's another way of trying to limit the carbon footprint of what we do. You know, there's eight people working here and we all eat together. We eat vegetarian food, we’re around the table, we use one cooker, we use one kitchen. And we're using one electricity bill. We're just trying to keep it as lean and mean as we can really.
Marcus Fairs: And just now we were talking about how you've now started to do projects under your own name, in your own right. Do you have a plan for the future? Are you going to carry on working in all these different areas or even expand that?
Es Devlin: This reminds me of a conversation that I had when I was at secondary school, and I was probably about 16 and the teacher said ‘are you going to focus or are you just gonna be a jack of all trades forever?’ and here we are 40 years later, 30 years later. I am a bit greedy it turns out. Like the Memory Palace piece that we've just made at Pitzhanger Manor has been the sort of next natural progression in that train of thought.
So it's a large scale installation. It's not associated with anyone who was trying to make an advert. It is bonafide in an art gallery, because it wants to be there, because someone commissioned it for the Pitzhanger Manor in Ealing which is the most stunning house. It was John Soane's country house and it's absolutely breathtaking. And they've given over one area of it to be a gallery and then rather visionary they had Anish Kapoor do their inaugural exhibition, and have invited me to do the next one and that and the one following me is also going to be really interesting. That was an absolute gift really because the brief was "do whatever you want, have this 60-foot-wide space and do whatever you want". And I knew that I wanted to make an imaginary map, a sort of gathering together of all the threads of things I've been thinking about.
So it's a map of a shift in human perspective over the past 73,000 years. Not least because I find myself at the moment really concerned with how as a species we're going to, and I know you're concerned with this too, how are we going to make the shift in perspective and the change of attitude and the change of habit that we know we need to make? Perhaps all the work I've been doing Marcus, perhaps all of this learning how to work with audiences, all of this learning how to use flashing lights and quiet sounds and loud sounds and colours and bright colours.
Maybe it's just been a sort of training to try to learn how to say the thing that really needs to be said, which is how we're going to protect our species and our biosphere from extinction. Not in a preachy way but just that I am rather influenced by Timothy Morton’s writing and his manifesto to artists when he says "please don't preach, just amaze us into changing our mind". And I guess that's where a lot of my energy is going at the moment.
Marcus Fairs: And right back at the beginning of this conversation when I mentioned your room full of models, and the ephemerality of a lot of your work. You immediately responded to say ‘but I realised I have a huge carbon footprint’ so this is clearly playing on your mind.
Es Devlin: Massively. I've just read a book which I can't recommend highly enough called Are We Human? by Mark Wigley and Beatriz Colomina. Oh, my goodness, it's a breathtaking book about the feedback loops between objects and humans. We design a flint, our hand now becomes a different kind of prosthesis. We design a mobile phone, you know, that redesigns us. You design an object, the object redesigns us. And it draws our attention to the web's networks that we’re caught in and I’m kind of beginning to reach a sort of train of thought, which suggests that I actually don't mind being caught up in a big web of interconnections.
You know, I love the fact that I can draw on the shared intelligence, the collective intelligence of so many people on the planet. I am delighted to be able to find the collective richness of connected minds there. What I'm less interested in being drawn into as a shop at every point. So I don't think there's anything wrong with the webs that we're weaving around ourselves. I think the trouble is that they're getting polluted and infected with market. It’s sort of a messy, old, tangled piece of string. How can we just unpick and keep the beautiful geometric web of connections between us, but know where to cauterize the ones that are really just shopping?
Marcus Fairs: And you make it sound like this is a process of becoming aware that you're still going through, but have you settled on a view of what you can do about this?
Es Devlin: I think it's a lot of small things. You know, really basic things markers, like making sure that my energy supplier is only renewable energy. Trying to divest my banking from a bank that isn’t heavily invested in fossil fuels will be this afternoon's mission. The word offset I find unhelpful because it suggests that one can but at least balance each flight I take with some trees that I'm planting in Sebastiao Salgado reforestation project and trying to tread lightly.
There was a beautiful thing that [environmentalist] George Monbiot said recently when he said: "Listen, I'm going to be accused of being a hypocrite". He said: "If we trouble ourselves with that – if all of us who are absolutely tangled in the system that we want question, if we're not allowed to question then who the hell can? If we're only gonna be called a hypocrite".
There's no option of moral purity so it isn't really a question of do you want to be a hypocrite or morally pure because there's no real option to be morally pure. So it's really a question of do you want to be a hypocrite? Or do you want to be a cynic? And I'd rather be a hypocrite than a cynic. So yeah, it's stepping lightly. My life takes me into places that are using massive amounts of resources. I do ridiculous small things. If I'm in a hotel, I use one towel. It's stupid little things. I go rapidly around the house turning off lights. I think the most useful thing I can do probably is use the skills I've learned of storytelling and communication to try to find those patterns, to try to find the patterns of connection.
I'll give you an example. You know, that Body Worlds exhibition and you see just the arterial system, devoid of anything else, and you look at it, and just as a visual person, you go "well, I'm obviously related to a tree". And then you read the James Gleick book Chaos, which explains to you that the equation that governs the division of an artery is the same equation that governs the division of the branches of a tree, which by the way, is the same equation that governs the way rain falls down your windscreen or the way that sheep arrange themselves randomly on a hill. So if we can, perhaps, recognise that a bit more and feel that connection between us and the rest of living and non-living beings. Perhaps we'll feel more able to consider ourselves worthy of not going extinct, if you see what I mean.
Marcus Fairs: And a final question, just now you said "the thing is with me is that I'm greedy" but I don't think you meant materially greedy or financially great. Is it greedy to experience everything? Is it greedy to be at the centre of this network? Or is it a kind of greed to be the one that finds the solution? What did you mean by that?
Es Devlin: Maybe greed was the wrong word. I think my curiosity is quite insatiable. I like the word "curiosity" because I found when looking up its etymology that it comes from the same root as to care. So "cure" means to care. So care, curate, curious all come from the same route. And I do think profound curiosity is profound caring and I think mine is endless.
Marcus Fairs: So it’s not that you're greedy, it's that you care.
Es Devlin: I think so. Curious.
Marcus Fairs: That's a good point to end on. Thank you so much, Es.
Es Devlin: Thank you.