Es Devlin is known today for her extraordinary ability to integrate the power of music, light, and performance to produce the finest design of stages and sets, in the past few years. She uses the latest technology to help make mind-bending visual narratives in most of her sets. She somehow connects with all her clients, can go deep into their minds, and can realize sets that truly reflect their work and their thought processes.

Es Delvin- Changing the dynamics of narrative set design - Sheet1
A set for Miley Cyrus ©New Yorker

She was born Esmeralda “Es” Devlin in London in 1971. She has a bachelor’s degree in English Literature from Bristol University. She went on to pursue a foundation course in Fine Arts at Central St. Martin’s after which she specialized in theatre design. During her studies, she got a chance to work on Le Cirque Invisible, a circus that was known purely for its ability to entertain people for a non-stop two hours. She was involved in the props making for the show.

Her initial work was in theatre design, she worked on Betrayal by Trevor Nunn in the National Theatre in London in 1998. Since then she has been working on sculptural designs for the theatre. In 2016, Es Devlin had worked on a set for Verdi’s “Otello”, an opening for that year’s Met show. The stage was a two-storey high confusing box of spaces that had stairs connecting the first floor to the second and windows and doors in the Palladian style. The design was derived from the palace of Cyprus where the play is set. She stated in a New Yorker interview that space was a metaphor for the lack of privacy of the characters in the play. They are always being overheard or watched. Es does her bit by studying everything about the project she lands, be it a play or a rock concert. This has helped her to recreate the essence of the artists on the sets. The sets are essentially a byproduct of what the artists create.

Es Delvin- Changing the dynamics of narrative set design - Sheet2
Adele performing on a Devlin set ©New Yorker

Devlin has made large scale touring stage sculptures in collaboration with Beyoncé, Kanye West, Adele, U2,  The WeekndLorde, Pet Shop Boys, in London. In all these shows she tries to study the artist’s work and brings to life what pieces or memories and incidents of their childhood or life have inspired them to put it in their work. For example, for the Kanye West concert, there were two parts of the stage raised 5 meters above the level where the audiences would stand and watch. Es’s idea was that the audiences treat these rappers are someone whom they can look up to, thus giving them the experience of what they feel about their artists in their minds.

She also states that when we watch any kind of performance, most of what we experience is inside our minds, the stage should just be an accessory or a sort of tool that helps to manifest the pure essence of the artist’s work, what they want to translate into their mode of work.

Es Delvin- Changing the dynamics of narrative set design - Sheet3
Devlin in a small part of the stage she had created for Otello ©The New Yorker

This approach to stage design was influenced by something that had happened in her childhood, where her siblings and she would lock themselves up in a broom cupboard and just close their eyes shut and try to imagine different kinds of spaces in their minds. Something like transportation to a fairyland in their heads, where they would spend much of their time dreaming, imagining, and living.

The way Es Devlin works, it tells us about the power that imagination has over designing something physical. She has won numerous awards for set designing today. She designed the stage for the closing ceremony for the 2012 London Olympic games. Her firm is also the one responsible for the London pavilion at the 2020 Expo going to be held in Dubai. This pavilion in particular represents the future on a different scale and in a different light, it recites poems generated by AI. Es Delvin is synonymous with contemporary set design and what it stands for today. She put herself into her work, creating sets for artists for all genres, defining set designing in today’s age. Just by doing this, she broke stereotypes.

Bharani Sri Gujuluva
Author

Bharani Sri is currently a B.Arch student at the VIT School of Architecture (VSPARC), Vellore. She enjoys passing her time by reading about architectural history, art, philosophy, and criticism. She believes that the world would be a better place if everyone was encouraged to look through the lens of historical analysis.

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