She is the stage designer of choice for opera houses, dance companies, and rap and pop royalty—from Beyoncé and The Weeknd to Kendrick Lamar and Billie Eilish—who also created a pocket forest for the New York Times at COP26. Much as she enjoys experimenting in those fields, the British designer Es Devlin is also devoted to the discipline where she began her career in the 1990s: theater.
To celebrate the retrospective of her work at the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum in New York, opening in November 2023, Devlin reflected on her first professional project in 1995: designing the set and costumes of a production of Christopher Marlowe’s 1593 play Edward II at the Octagon Theatre in Bolton, a post-industrial town in northwest England.
“I won it as a prize,” she says. “I was finishing my time on the Motley Theatre Design Course in London and won a Linbury Prize for Stage Design. It was an extraordinary gift, which meant I could immediately make something real with an audience.”
The Octagon is a plucky local theater with a bold program, typified by Marlowe’s play set in the 1300s, which traces the passionate relationship between King Edward II of England and a young aristocrat, Piers Gaveston, and ends with Edward’s brutal murder. “It’s virulent and pretty vicious, very much in the spirit of a Tarantinoesque horror-story-slash-romance,” Devlin recalls. “The directors, Lawrence Till and Kate Raper, and I wanted to present the beauty of Edward’s relationship with Gaveston and the horror of his death.” The first thing was “to make the 16th century text understandable to a 1990s audience,” explains Devlin. “I thought the best thing would be a disused swimming pool: the blood would show up rather well against the filthy, sordid tiles, and there was going to be a lot of blood.”
She scoured London for abandoned pools and combined elements of them in sketches of a set to be built in the center of the stage. A row of showers would produce “gorgeous, hazy, steamy water” during the love scenes and blood-red water after Edward’s assassination. Then she made a tiny model.
“I was so young and green that when I walked in and saw the set, I was all surprise and joy that it was happening,” remembers Devlin. “Richard Foxton, the Octagon’s fantastic resident designer, took me under his wing and said: ‘Why don’t you compare your model to what we’ve made?’ And of course, I was so green that I hadn’t given them any supervision or guidance. That was lesson number one.”
Another lesson Devlin learned from Foxton was that “because the showers didn’t look functional they weren’t believable,” says Devlin. “I’d drawn what I thought was a rather beautiful, decorative wall of plumbing. So I got some books from a local library to study how the plumbing would actually work.”
The costumes proved trickier. “Motley taught us that we were designing a whole world, so costumes couldn’t be separated from everything else,” Devlin explains. “I put a lot of effort into making costumes as paintings, but when it came to the fittings, I had these little drawings and there was an actual human being with a real body and a thousand opinions.” This was an important understanding. “It’s a ridiculously courageous choice to be an actor,” she says. “Their costumes need to be the armor that protects them when they step out in a live theater. Also, as a designer, you have to negotiate with a whole new tribe of tailors and cutters. I failed pretty badly on those costumes, but I learnt a lot.”
As for the set, Devlin was so stressed that at one performance she “ran up on stage to move a small orange party hat that wasn’t in the right place. Definitely inappropriate.” But another lesson—photographing her finished work to show prospective employers—paid off. Thanks to Edward II, Devlin secured a job at the Bush Theatre in London, which convinced Trevor Nunn, director of the National Theatre, to hire her to design her big break, his 1998 production of Harold Pinter’s Betrayal.
An Atlas of Es Devlin is on view at the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum from November 18, 2023 to August 11, 2024.
Alice Rawsthorn is a London-based writer on design. Her books include Hello World: Where Design Meets Life published by Hamish Hamilton, Design as an Attitude published by JRP|Ringier, and, most recently, Design Emergency: Building a Better Future, co-written with Paola Antonelli and published by Phaidon. She and Antonelli are co-founders of the Design Emergency podcast.