To step inside the world of Es Devlin, the world’s most sought-after set designer, is to take a trip down the proverbial rabbit hole and into Wonderland. Her perennially curious mind questions everything, leading her to create unique concepts. ‘Machiko, can you look up the etymology of “indulgent”?’ she calls out to one of her design team during our visit to her south London studio space. ‘Sometimes the origins of words don’t get you very far, but more often they do.’

This instinctive curiosity, along with her seemingly boundless energy and imagination, has fired Devlin’s supercharged career. She filled the stadium at London’s 2012 Olympic closing ceremony with Damien Hirst’s 5,600 sq m Union Jack spin painting; sent Miley Cyrus down a tongue-shaped slide; mounted Jay Z and Kanye West onto two video cubes; and conjured a rotating cinema for Beyoncé. What she practises, she says, is the ‘suspension of disbelief’, and she is most comfortable when operating ‘on the edge of impossible’.

In her Peckham HQ, concept models fill every surface, while miniature props spill out of drawers and cabinets. On shelves, bulging folders with labels such as ‘Adele’ or ‘U2’ hint at Devlin’s jaw-dropping client list. ‘I’ve got to talk to you about the word “client”,’ she says apologetically. ‘I don’t really like it. It’s derived from the Latin clinare, meaning “to incline or bend”. Theatre is a collaboration, a set of ideas being constructed by people in space. So there are no clients, as such.’

A plane model for a Kanye West tour

Nearby, Devlin’s small team of five or so young designers busily click around screens building complex digital models for various projects – the next Louis Vuitton show, a mirror maze for New York and a top-secret hotel installation are all underway.

The daughter of a journalist and a teacher, Devlin grew up in the East Sussex town of Rye, a place that continues to inspire her. ‘When I was younger I made stuff for people,’ she says, pondering the origins of her creativity. ‘I’d start making a Christmas present for somebody in November and get it ready by Easter. There was often someone else involved when I was making stuff.’

Unsure of where to channel her talents, Devlin embarked on an art foundation course at Central Saint Martins, where a tutor suggested she complete the Motley Theatre Design Course. ‘At the beginning, I didn’t understand what a set designer did, to be honest,’ she reflects. ‘I walked into the room, which was not so different to this one,’ she says, glancing around her studio, ‘except it had mice and smelt of Pot Noodles. I thought: “OK, I like this room, this is a bit like where I’ve been all my life so far, playing with bits of cardboard. And if this doesn’t work out, I’ll just be happy to be here making stuff.”’

Luckily for Devlin it did work out. Upon her graduation in 1995 she won the Linbury Prize for Stage Design and with it, her first professional commission: Edward II at the Octagon Theatre in Bolton.

A torso for Elegy For Young Lovers, 2017, Theater an der Wien

Over the past 20 years, Devlin has gone from small theatres to gigantic stadiums, but it’s only in the past 12 months that she has found herself creating standalone works. In 2016, her scent-infused Mirror Maze installation with Chanel delighted crowds in Peckham, while her PoemPortraits series with Google at the Serpentine Gallery saw a crowdsourced poem projected across visitors’ faces. ‘After 20 years of working in performance spaces, where there are certain invisible parameters, doing this allows me to escape those restrictions,’ she reflects.

This independent new direction coincides with another professional triumph for Devlin, the Panerai London Design Medal. Part of the British Land Celebration of Design Awards, the medal is distributed each year during the London Design Festival and previous recipients have included Zaha Hadid and Ron Arad. ‘I have been following the London Design Festival and the medal for the past decade,’ says Devlin, who also holds an OBE and honorary doctorate from Central Saint Martins. ‘It’s a festival that is infused with a spirit of inclusivity. It epitomises everything that London represents to so many, and that has shaped my character and my practice. “Design” stems from the Latin designare – “to plan, mark out or designate”. I design in London; but it was London that designed me.

‘My work is transitory and exists only as this skeletal trace through the memories of those who were there at each performance. Sometimes the work feels invisible once it’s passed. Sometimes I feel that it exists as a complete body of work only in my memory, so to have it recognised and made visible in the design community is overwhelming.’

A model set for Ugly Lies the Bone, 2017, National Theatre

As part of the celebrations, a 1:10 recreation of Devlin’s spectacular lakeside stage set for the Bregenz Festival’s production of Carmen will be on show within London’s V&A Museum, as will a showcase of all four British Land Celebration of Design Award winners, with exhibition design by Devlin. ‘I need to encapsulate 20 years of work in one piece,’ she says, looking again around her studio. ‘I haven’t quite nailed it yet.’

Having found herself in a moment of reflection, Devlin tells us that she has also been pondering a book and possibly a retrospective exhibition. ‘I need to create some kind of thesis of my 20 years of work,’ she reveals, eyes twinkling with excitement as her imagination sets alight. ‘I’d love to create an installation where you could travel through my stage sets. You could walk in through Kanye’s mountain, and then out through Wagner’s Parsifal tunnel and then slide down Miley’s tongue. Wouldn’t it be fun?’ We’re waiting on the edge of our seats.

As originally featured in the October 2017 issue of Wallpaper* (W*223)

RELATED TOPICS: LONDON DESIGN FESTIVAL, CHANEL, VICTORIA AND ALBERT MUSEUM, LONDON DESIGN