For a brief moment during Art Basel Miami Beach last month, stage designer Es Devlin turned 7,000 square feet of the Edition hotel into a labyrinth. In Room 2022, the viewer’s journey began with a sliver of light projected onto a dark wall that split open into a door, followed by corridors and dazzling colors that culminated in final mirrored room of disorienting, reflective walls.
“This is my next step,” says Devlin. “Watch a film and then walk through a hole in it.”
A vanguard of stage design since the mid-90s, Devlin, who was featured in the popular Netflix series Abstract: The Art of Design, began her career in independent London theaters before eventually giving Kanye West the mountainous landscape of his Yeezus tour, and Benedict Cumberbatch the crumbling mansion inundated with “black, poisonous earth” in the Barbican’s Hamlet. For Beyoncé’s Formation World Tour, she introduced the “Monolith,” a towering, revolving video screen that stood some seven stories and projected, in massive scale, what was happening on stage.
More recent works, however, like Room 2022, a carte blanche commission by American Express Platinum; The Singing Tree, an abstracted, interactive Christmas tree recently on view at the V&A; or the Chanel-scented Mirror Maze that she erected in London in 2016, have blurred the distinction between stage design and work of art. In these, the viewer replaces the performer as the protagonist of the piece (resulting in the anxiety, she says, that in the absence of Kanye and Beyoncé she has to create “something worth watching on its own”).
In the grand spectrum of Devlin’s body of work, her approach remains the same. “Saying, ‘Well, how can I translate story, music, drama into space and architecture?’ has become quite habitual to me,” she says. “I love always to seek the geometry and the system of everything.”
For Room 2022, for example, her starting point was the simple line of light that sometimes slips between the gaps of hotel curtains, “the first geometry of the day.”
Although Devlin describes these solo projects as “a wonderful new branch of the practice,” stage commissions remain her central focus, with plans to do a New York collaboration with The Weeknd in the spring, and another with director Sam Mendes at London’s National Theatre in June. Rather than clients, she calls these her collaborators, to whom she credits much of the work. “In any collaboration, the greater the number of authorial voices, the greater the potential for both expansion and range of inquiry,” she says. Collaboration is an art in itself.