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Features

Meet A Pioneer In The World Of Design #IWD

On International Women’s Day, it feels apt to celebrate the innovative work being done by women in the creative industries. And they don’t come much more engaging than internationally acclaimed designer Es Devlin, whose unique perspective has been applied to the works of everyone from Shakespeare to Beyoncé.

“What I’m crafting, my clay, is the audience’s anticipation,” says Devlin during her keynote at Design Indaba 2018. “Every moment that they’ve spent there; they’ve slept outside to get that seat, they’ve saved up money, whatever they’ve done to get there. Much of my craft is how to meet that anticipation – how to not fuck it up.”

Much of Devlin’s work revolves around transposing an idea from one medium to another, whether that’s helping theatre producers bring the text of a play to life through set design, or taking a singer’s music and building a physical space where those songs will have the most power.

Devlin’s career started at the Bush Theatre in London, a small space which only seats 78 people, where she was invited to design the set for Harold Pinter’s Betrayal after she won the Linbury Prize at college. Before that, her main creative outlet was music: “Music was my tribe,” she says. “I have always enjoyed, since then, being amongst the tribe of musicians.”

It follows then, that in her design career she would create the tour staging for some of the music world’s biggest stars, including Beyoncé, Kanye and Adele, helping express the themes of their music in the physical space where they perform. “In any collaboration, the greater the number of authorial voices, the greater the potential for both expansion and range of inquiry,” she says, preferring to refer to these high-profile clients as “collaborators.”

When profiled in an episode of Netflix’s Abstract: The Art of Design, Devlin outlined the five “ingredients” that are most critical to her work: space, light, darkness, scale, and time. Time is what separates her practice from other kinds of design; the ephemerality of live performances, which once witnessed, only continue to exist in the memories of people who were there.

One of her more recent projects was a Christmas installation at the V&A in London; a “cumulative carol” which pays tribute to community. Visitors to the V&A were invited to contribute a single word to the project, all of which were put through an algorithm trained in 25 million words of 19th century literature. The resultant poem was then projected onto an array of individual boards suspended to simulate the shape of a Christmas tree, and turned into a choral piece, using both human and machine voices. “I wanted to include our machines in our community of carol singing,” says Devlin, “because they’re a part of our lives.”

The growing role of digital technology in our day-to-day lives has become a consideration of Devlin’s when crafting a live experience. Up until relatively recently, a concert would have only been photographed by professionals in one section of the crowd. Now, every performance is captured on smartphones from every possible angle.

“Everything’s viewed through a square at the moment,” she says. “But that might change. Instagram might suddenly become a triangle!”

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