Blockbusting set star and Wallpaper* Design Awards judge David Korins on usable design

A close-up of David Korins wearing a black jumper and grey blazer standing next to an old red corded telephone.
David Korins at his New York Studio, wearing coat, by Salvatore Ferragamo A/W18. Styled by Jermaine Daley.
(Image credit: Jeremy Liebman)

Triple threat performers may be typical of musical theatre, but in the design world, multi-disciplinary dexterity is hard to come by. For David Korins, the award-winning set designer and creative director behind the hit musical Hamilton, live shows for Lady Gaga and Elton John, installations at Coachella and exhibition designs for Gagosian Gallery, working across different fields usually boils down to the same thing.

‘If you look down from 50,000 feet above sea level, design is basically the same thing for every medium,’ Korins says about his wide-ranging work. ‘I started doing theatre design in 1997, but then I was crazy and inquisitive enough to try different kinds of design. What I’m really doing is helping people tell their stories, and I’ve been doing that for over 20 years.’

Korins runs his eponymous design and experience firm, which is currently finessing the musical adaptation of Beetlejuice, opening on Broadway in March 2019, and the touring ‘Hamilton: The Exhibition’, which premieres in Chicago in April 2019 – from its airy New York City base.

‘In design, people are always trying to label you as a minimalist or [put you in] some other kind of silo,’ he reflects. ‘One of the things I’m most proud of is that I don’t come in with a preconceived notion of what something is going to look like. I try to stay open in the process and as free as possible from any visual agenda. I think that’s why the work is so varied and wide-reaching.’

What I’m really doing is helping people tell their stories, and I’ve been doing that for over 20 years.

Korins’ innovative approach is rooted in anticipating how people relate to a three-dimensional space. His projects often also venture into unchartered territory. ‘For the Hamilton exhibition, [there is] a huge responsibility for historical accuracy and [the research] is much more profound than the show,’ he states. ‘This is museum-quality rigour in a 360-degree fully immersive experience, where you walk through the life and times of Alexander Hamilton, seen through a high art yet totally accessible lens  – whether you’re a super fan of the show or a history buff. And it travels. This is 20 sets, stuck together, that will get picked up and moved.’

As a Design Awards judge, Korins tried to imagine each of the nominees in the most human way possible. ‘It’s about the design first and foremost, but I tried to look at the products with a practical and useful eye to determine which product was really the best,’ he says, adding, ‘I really loved the Nest House. There was something about the warmth and womb-like quality that just felt like the essence of home.’

Another standout was Ferragamo’s menswear collection. ‘It felt to me like a beautifully thought-out collection in which regular clothes were complemented and elevated by a touch of high fashion. I could see myself in them and appreciated the collection as an intersection of high art, fashion, and usability.’

View the Wallpaper* Design Awards 2019 here

As originally featured in the February 2019 issue of Wallpaper* (W*239

Pei-Ru Keh is a former US Editor at Wallpaper*. Born and raised in Singapore, she has been a New Yorker since 2013. Pei-Ru held various titles at Wallpaper* between 2007 and 2023. She reports on design, tech, art, architecture, fashion, beauty and lifestyle happenings in the United States, both in print and digitally. Pei-Ru took a key role in championing diversity and representation within Wallpaper's content pillars, actively seeking out stories that reflect a wide range of perspectives. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband and two children, and is currently learning how to drive.