If you find yourself in New York between now and 11 August, be sure to visit this show, mapping the career of artist and set designer Es Devlin, writes Nick Hornig

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Source: Es Devlin Studio

London-based Es Devlin first studied English at the University of Bristol, before a foundation in fine art at St Martin’s led her to set design at the Motley Theatre Design Course (now the Genesis Theatre Design Programme). She rose to prominence in the UK designing productions at the Bush Theatre, and the National Theatre. But it was through her witty designs for the closing ceremony for the London 2012 Olympics that many of us first encountered her work on a global stage.

Fast forward 12 years and Devlin’s client list is extraordinary. Amongst others, she’s worked with Adele, Jennifer Lopez, Nitin Sawney, Lorde, Miley Cyrus, Pet Shop Boys, Take That, U2, and The Weeknd. She designed the UK Pavilion at the 2020 World Expo in Dubai (the first pavilion designed by a woman since the expo’s inception in 1851); a miniature version of Compton for the 2022 Superbowl half time show; a set for Bizet’s Carmen, with giant hands rising up out of Lake Constance at Bregenz in Austria; as well as an interactive poetry-generating lion in Trafalgar Square, part of the 2018 London Design Festival.

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Source: Es Devlin Studio

This exhibition at the Cooper Hewitt Museum in New York helps us to understand Devlin’s prolific output by highlighting common themes that run through the first three decades of her career. The show begins by acknowledging her collaboration with the multiple disciplines that support her craft. We then move to explore her school-age art portfolio which reveals early explorations of human form and scales of enclosure.

It then delves into an examination of her interest in how simple geometric forms, which once distorted or reoriented, can convey a particular emotional resonance. Her engagement with figurative abstraction is highlighted, before moving onto explorations of participatory practice through interactive design and a concern for the environment, exploring the link between our bodies and the natural world.

Through all of this, it becomes clear, her designs are integral to, and heighten the very meaning of the drama, music, or philosophical message with which she is working.

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Source: Es Devlin Studio

Having participated in the design of an architectural exhibition earlier on in my career, I am always curious to see how others translate the visceral impact of large-scale construction to the more confined spaces of a gallery. According to Devlin, theater is an “architecture of the imagination”, and here Devlin and her team demonstrate their tremendous talent for this kind of emotional engagement – you could also call it seduction – through the design of the exhibition itself.

First, there is the opening sequence – an overture – that takes place in a replica of her London studio. Visitors take seats around a table strewn with books, pots of pens and rulers, surrounded by book shelves. The lights dim, and on the table, projection mapped pages flip as if blown by a light breeze: revealing poetry, theatre scripts, music scores.


Source: Es Devlin Studio

Devlin’s voice welcomes us in a low whisper: she tells us “being in the space between music, light and architecture is also a kind of practice.” As the sequence closes and we are admitted into the start of the show, the BBC Radio 4 Shipping Forecast plays softly from a radio on the table. Suddenly I am transported to late nights at architecture school: and we have been admitted into the dream-like, private world of Devlin’s creative mind.

The arrangement of the exhibition itself suggests a journey of discovery. Inserted into the third floor of the Cooper Hewitt, a softly lit sequence of spaces feels labyrinthine, laboratory-like, perhaps an orthogonal version of her interactive art pieces “A forest of Us.” The free-standing walls are painted white, but don’t quite touch the ceiling, so you are aware of spaces beyond, even if you don’t know how to get to them.


Source: Es Devlin Studio

A recreation of Devlin’s London studio space

Sketchbooks pinned to the wall flicker with projection mapped pages. Intricate paper cuts and delicate hand drawings reveal her thinking through details of future installations or costume – informing the visual language for the Pet Shop Boys’ head gear perhaps. Sometimes the spaces dead end into reflective walls, suggesting avenues of exploration beyond.

Then there are the models of her projects: 50 white aluminium and perspex models were made specially for the show. They float or silently rotate like precious geological specimens, set in backlit horizontal slots which are sliced into the gallery walls. The models are laser cut, monochromatic, three-dimensional encapsulations of Devlin’s ideas. But in their miniature abstraction, they are not explanations.

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Source: Es Devlin Studio

As an architect visiting the show- my one frustration would be that I would have loved to have seen some of the technical drawings – or sensed more of the messiness of collaboration that breathes life into her work. I’d love to know how the mirrored box in her design for the Macbeth opera is able to spin (evoking the protagonist’s “churning consciousness”); or how the projection screens for Adele’s eyes were stretched taught; or see the code that allows for poetry to be generated and projected onto a complex three-dimensional surface in “Feed the Lions”. But for this experience, Devlin and her team keep these details to themselves and the illusion intact.

Throughout the exhibit, we hear a pulsating, polyphonic music that draws you through the show. The music, it turns out, is emanating from a wood model of a theatre interior- that is situated at the end of the thematic sequence. Here visitors are invited to sit on packing crates, and view images of her work – in operation, at full scale.


Source: Es Devlin Studio

In comparison to Architecture’s longevity, Es Devlin’s work may only be designed to last a season, or just one night on stage. But the impact of her work, on the audience that she calls a “temporary society,” can last a life time. Devlin believes her work has the capacity to change her audience’s preconceptions and collectively imagine an alternative future.

This exhibition is a powerful reminder for architects, so often caught up in the practicalities of project delivery, of how important the fundamental tools of light, shadow, transparency, form and sound are in creating settings for our own narrative spaces. Devlin’s mastery of these tools, and her productive energy are inspiring. Here’s to the next 30 years.

Exhibition team:

Cutators: Andrea Lipps, associate curator of contemporary design and head, digital curatorial department and Julie Pastor, curatorial assistant

Exhibition design: Es Devlin Studio

Exhibition designers of record and fabrication: Pink Sparrow

Graphic design: Marcos Key

Creative production: Jo MacKay

Projection and video design: Luke Halls Studio

Composition and sound design: Polyphonia

Lighting Design: Bruno Poet, Ken Willis and John Viesta

Audiovisual production and integration: AV&C

In kind equipment provided by: Disguise Technologies