Set designer Es Devlin has been crafting new worlds for over 30 years. In her decades-long career, the British artist has designed incredible sets for some of the biggest celebrities and most-watched cultural events, from the Super Bowl and Olympic Closing Ceremony to performances at Lincoln Center and the Tate Modern. In a new retrospective exhibition at the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, An Atlas of Es Devlin, you can delve into her fabricated worlds as you step into a replica of her studio, become part of a mesmerizing art installation, examine models of her stage designs, and peruse over 300 drawings, sculptures, and paintings from her early days to the present. Join Untapped New York Insiders for an in-depth tour of the exhibition led by Andrea Lipps, Associate Curator of Contemporary Design and Founding Head of the Digital Curatorial Department on January 23rd!

This tour is free for Untapped New York Insiders! Not an Insider yet? Become a member today and use code JOINUS for your first month free. Registration for tickets to this event opens at noon on January 9th.

Explore the Impressive Set Designs of Es Devlin

Visitors enter the exhibition through a replica of Devlin’s London studio. A desk covered in papers and drawing utensils sits at the center of a room ringed with shelves that are bursting with stage models, sculptures, boxes, and sketches. Once you step inside, the lights will dim and a projection narrated by Devlin brings the items in the room to life. You are guided into the next gallery as a projection of Devlin’s larger-than-life hands pull open the wall to reveal a portal-like sculpture ahead.

Installation photo of “An Atlas of Es Devlin.” Photo: Elliot Goldstein © Smithsonian Institution

This installation, titled Iris, features the written and spoken names of collaborators Devlin has worked with over the years. After Devlin comes up with the design for a set, it takes a team of other people to help make it a reality, from lighting designers and fabricators to studio associates and video designers. The overlapping rings of the installation “express the overlaid perspectives of creative partners and audiences” and is a motif that often appears in Devlin’s work.

Iris installation
Installation photo of “An Atlas of Es Devlin.” Photo: Elliot Goldstein © Smithsonian Institution

In the galleries that follow, visitors get an up-close and behind-the-scenes look at Devlin’s design process. On display for the first time are never-before-seen sketches, paintings, collages, diaries, and more ephemera from Devlin’s time in music school and the early days of her career. As you walk through the galleries and examine these items, you can see the themes that followed Devlin from her early work in small theaters in the 1990s to the massive stadiums, operas, and performances seen by millions that she works on today.

Es Devlin exhibit
Installation photo of “An Atlas of Es Devlin.” Photo: Elliot Goldstein © Smithsonian Institution

The exhibition shows Devlin’s work in various stages, from sketch to sculpture to stage. Rotating models of set designs created for Beyoncé, U2, The Weeknd, and the NFL Super Bowl half-time show with Dr. Dre and Kendrick Lamar are spotlit in one of the galleries. You get a 360-degree view of these stage models, alongside models of art installations Devlin has created, including Your Voices, which was installed at Lincoln Center Plaza in 2022.

“I have spent 30 years translating words into images and spaces – transforming texts on a page into kinetic sculptures that encompass viewers with light and song and use magic to alter their perspective,” says Devlin. 

Set Design models
Installation photo of “An Atlas of Es Devlin.” Photo: Elliot Goldstein © Smithsonian Institution

After seeing sources of inspiration, early sketches, and models, the final product of Devlin’s work can be seen in a small cinema gallery where video footage of performances will play. In addition to creating stages for the biggest names in music, Devlin has also crafted major public sculptures and choral installations for institutions such as the Tate Modern, V&A, Serpentine, Imperial War Museum, and Superblue Miami, as well as kinetic stage designs at the Metropolitan Opera, La Scala and London’s Royal Opera House, Royal Ballet and National Theatre.

“Es Devlin’s polymathic practice dissolves boundaries between art, activism, design, poetry, sculpture, music and architecture,” said Andrea Lipps, “Within an environment conceived by Devlin herself, this exhibition will immerse visitors in the artist’s studio and archive. Centering archival artifacts, the exhibition will reveal the remarkable breadth, rigor and iterative process underlying Devlin’s transformative, multidisciplinary work.”

Es Devlin exhibit
Installation photo of “An Atlas of Es Devlin.” Photo: Elliot Goldstein © Smithsonian Institution

The exhibition is accompanied by the publication of the first monograph on Devlin’s genre-defying practice. Published by Thames & Hudson and edited by Andrea Lipps, this experiential publication features 900 pages of foldouts, cut-outs, and a range of paper types, mirrors, and translucencies. Inside, there are over 700 color images documenting 120 projects spanning four decades, and a 50,000-word text featuring Devlin’s personal commentaries on each artwork as well as interviews with collaborators, including Bono, Benedict Cumberbatch, Brian Eno, Sam Mendes, and Pharrell Williams. Each book is boxed and includes a die-cut print from an edition of 5,000.

An Atlas of Es Devlin will be on view through August 11, 2024. Join us for a behind-the-scenes look with the curator on January 23rd!

Explore the Impressive Set Designs of Es Devlin

Es Devlin Exhibit

Next, check out more art installations on view this January!