Es (pronounced Ez; short for Esmerelda) is a stage designer. Or at least that’s what she calls herself. Really, she’s a designer of transcendent, otherworldly experiences that turn people’s heads inside out. Widely regarded as the world’s leading "stage designer," Es has created jaw-dropping sets for Kanye, Beyoncé, Adele, Louis Vuitton, Chanel, the Royal Shakespeare Company, and New York’s Metropolitan Opera among countless (and I mean countless) others. Saying she’s ‘amazing’ is an understatement–she’s mind-bendingly, pants-crappingly incredible. Let’s see what adverbs Scott comes up with.
Before we get into the amazing Mrs. Devlin, what was it like working with Netflix on Abstract?
Well, I’ll start with the process of pitching this series. When Dave (O’Connor) and Morgan (Neville) and I walked into the room with the team from Netflix, we got nothing but utter support to tell these stories, and a complete understanding of their importance and value on culture, on our human way of life today. Ted Sarandos, Lisa Nishimura, Adam Del Dio, Ben Cotner, Jason Springarn-Koff, that team and the whole Original Programming team were fans of design, were curious, and were intelligent people who wanted to know how the world around us functions and how it has come to be shaped in the way that is. So there was nothing but fascination and curiosity and support and resourcing from that team to go forward and do something that had never been done before.
In fact–and quite specifically–the urging from that team was, “If you can do this with any other network, we don’t want to greenlight it. We want to do something for the first time ever and in the most original way possible.” And that was their mandate all the way through.
Netflix are killing it, aren’t they?
I remember joining up when they first started sending DVDs in the mail and thinking, “Wow, what a great idea.” But they haven’t stopped. The good ideas have just kept coming.
Well, it goes back to experience design. They’ve just created the very best experience.
But it’s not only ease-of-use and the ubiquity of the platform–it’s also the actual programming. I remember turning on House of Cards and thinking this is one of the best shows I’d ever seen, and then having it repeated with Orange is the New Black, and the bringing back of Arrested Development. Just an unrelenting stream of tremendous content, delivered in one of the most compelling user experiences and technology designs that I’ve ever encountered.
Speaking of compelling experience design, let’s talk about Es.
How much involvement had you had with her prior to the series?
Well, I was just a complete fan-boy. I’d known her work for a few years in a concert context more than in the theater. But, you know, that was one of the other conditions of casting the series: so many of these people have so many accomplishments and such a broad range of endeavor, it was no surprise when we took a look at the entire scope of her work, which is just so profoundly rich.
She’s truly amazing.
"My practice has been following my own paths of enquiry, and in order to practice, I have found willing collaborators who I’ve been able to align my paths of inquiry with, from pop stars like Beyoncé through to Wagner Operas."Es Devlin
"What can this artifice bring on that’s true? What are you going to make the audience feel? How can something pretend, initiate or generate anything true?"Es Devlin
What’s the standout Es project for you, the most breathtaking that you experienced fist hand?
The moment that I remember looking her up specifically after a personal experience was the “Watch The Throne” tour, Jay-Z and Kanye. The feeling of being at one of those life-changing concerts–and you’d certainly know this–there’s a feeling that transcends the visual and the auditory; it’s something you feel in your heart and your gut.
That feeling was so profound at that concert–I love that album so much, two of my favorite artists–and to see the context in which she designed those stages, those giant LED cubes that they performed from with the sharks circling inside… I had never seen anything like it in all of my concert-going life. It was better than any movie I’d ever seen, any live performance, any album I’d ever heard. The incredible mix and direction; having all those aspects parleyed into a single human experience, I can’t ever remember feeling the way I did at that concert.
I haven’t been lucky enough to experience one of Es’s creations, but even seeing her stuff on YouTube is mind-blowing enough. She must have some interesting stuff to talk about the show.
Yeah, she has some really interesting lessons and some really interesting theories about ways of working. You know, if you look at the history of the way concerts and musical performances were designed, it has traditionally been three, four, five figures on a stage, the drum kit is on a riser, there’s someone playing guitar, someone playing bass, and the shape and design of that experience was some flashing lights above and maybe a screen behind; that was primarily how you experienced a music show.
But in the world of social media, when it’s as much about the Instagram you take at that show, to Es that demands a different kind of human experience, something that takes on an architectural form, where the light takes a different kind of shape or the absence of light takes a different shape. So, she is designing experiences that transcend the physical and move into the digital and the visceral. People carry their memories of those experiences in ways that are, I think, new, and she’s considering social media as part of those experiences. I found that incredibly fascinating and innovative.
"I have been given the opportunity to spend sometimes millions of an artist’s money on effectively a sculpture they have commissioned."Es Devlin
"If you look at most concerts before 2003, most of the photos were done by professional photographers near the front, and you’ll see a big God-like image of the pop star and a load of lights behind. And that’s how the imagery was recorded, and that’s how most people who didn’t go would perceive the show. So, cut-to cameras on phones. Suddenly that event is being recorded from every angle, and therefore my work is suddenly being seen from every angle and being understood in a different way. So it’s a big shift."Es Devlin
Have you ever attended a concert or performance and thought, “Wow, Es could’ve really improved this experience”? The recent inauguration for instance–that could’ve used her touch.
Oh God. (Laughter)
Don’t depress me.
Should we avoid politics?
Yes, please. This interview has been going so well. (Laughter)
This interview about Es Devlin is part two in a series of eight that will be released weekly, exclusively on SemiPermanent.com over the next seven weeks. You can check out part one with Tinker Hatfield.
To watch Abstract: The Art of Design, head to Netflix on February 10