'An Atlas of Es Devlin' at the Cooper Hewitt
Inside the Artist's Studio
27. November 2023
All photographs by John Hill/World-Architects
More than five years in the making, An Atlas of Es Devlin opened at the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum in New York City on November 18, 2023. It is the first monographic exhibition on Es Devlin, the renowned artist and set designer from London, and is accompanied by a sculptural book. Both exhibition and book invite people into Devlin's studio and archive to learn about her artistic process.
An Atlas of Es Devlin presents thirty years of Devlin's career, spanning from early sketches and notebooks to models of stage sets for London plays and blockbuster pop concerts, models of immersive installations, and an on-the-wall presentation of the 926-page book that is also a work of art in and of itself. The exhibition was curated by Cooper Hewitt curator Andrea Lipps, who also edited the book that is also called An Atlas of Es Devlin and was published by Thames & Hudson with the Cooper Hewitt. Devlin and Lipps spoke to a group of journalists a day ahead of the exhibition's opening; their remarks inform the captions that accompany the photos World-Architects took while touring the exhibition.
An Atlas of Es Devlin is on display at Cooper Hewitt until August 11, 2024.
Visitors to the exhibition buy timed tickets and enter in what Devlin describes as “a little group of people who are united by having an experience” — an entity that applies to her wider oeuvre. They first encounter a replica of her London studio, where study models and other artifacts in white, black, and orange fill the shelves.
The artist is present: Devlin spoke with the assembled journalists in the replica studio, prepping us for the the immersive experience that will greet visitors (the fewer spoilers about it, the better).
Once through the studio, visitors encounter a large iris-like opening whose apertures function as a complex timeline of projects and collaborations layered with artistic statements; the book, which features a circular opening on its cover, also greets readers with an iris, such that entering the exhibition is like entering the book — and vice-versa.
The exhibition occupying the entire third floor of the Cooper Hewitt is laid out a bit like a labyrinth, where visitors are guided by numerous turns, and mirrors giving the impression of larger spaces. A right turn from the iris leads to a long space packed with notebooks, sketchbooks, drawings, and even CD-ROMs from Devlin teens and early twenties.
Devlin recounted how an ex-boyfriend delivered numerous bags of stuff she had left behind, telling her “you might want it one day.” That one day came decades later, when Devlin and Lipps fortuitously met and soon after started the process that would result in the exhibition and book.
The next leg of the labyrinth displays the studies for the stage sets that Devlin is known for, be it small theatrical and dance productions in London or arena concerts for the likes of Miley Cyrus on her Bangerz world tour.
Devlin works with a rotating core group of a half-dozen apprentices — many of them architects, due to the nature of her work — using sketches, drawings, and models to work out designs with them. These drawings and model were studies for Flag:Burning, a performance by Wire at the Barbican Theatre in 2004.
The next section is a short corridor lined with highly finished, carefully illuminated models made especially for the exhibition. Pictured is a model for the set design of Harold Pinter's Betrayal, which opened in 1998 and found Devlin inspired by Rachel Whiteread's monumental House sculpture from 1993.
While many of set Devlin's set designs are seen by hundreds or thousands of people gathered in theaters or arenas — the groups of people “united by having an experience” — the 2022 Super Bowl halftime show, which had performances by Dr. Dre and others in an installation depicting Compton, was watched by around 50 million people on TV.
Even more models are found in the next section of the exhibition, labeled “Portraiture” and “Participation.” Note that this photo is taken looking into a mirror set perpendicular to the long niche of models.
Mirrors are in abundance in the models, as in this one for Forest of Us, the immersive installation that opened at Superblue Miami in 2021. In recent years, both the set designs and immersive artworks by Devlin find inspiration in natural structures and systems; the artist wants to express how people are part of nature, not separate from it.
Next is a room where visitors can sit on the wooden crates that were used to send her models from London to NYC and watch clips from the performances she designed sets for. Without the clips, the models would present an incomplete portrait for museum goers.
The timeline arrayed about the shifted apertures in the iris at the beginning of the exhibition is depicted linearly in a corridor that leads visitors back toward where they first entered the exhibition.
Minus the pandemic putting a pause on the planning of future plays and other performances, Devlin's output has been voluminous from year to year.
The last room in the exhibition is devoted to the An Atlas of Es Devlin book, with every page displayed in a grid across a couple of walls.
Just as the book features pages with smaller trim sizes and gatefolds with additional sketches that stand out from the majority square pages, those special pages project from the wall. At far right is a drawing for The Singing Tree, a 2017 V&A installation that used AI to generate poetry for a “tree” made from suspended words.
At the center of the room is a table …
… that shows the working process for the book, a massive undertaking given its size, mix of papers and page sizes, cutouts, and other features that make it akin to a mass-produced artists' book rather than a typical exhibition catalog.
The last glimpse of the exhibition is also the first one visitors see after walking up the stairs or exiting the elevator on the third floor: a portrait of Devlin on the floor of the Memory Palace, a 2019 installation at Pitzhanger Manor & Gallery.
Even though Es Devlin is clearly an artist with crossover appeal — she is able to create intimate, immersive art installations but also backdrops for U2, Adele, and other larger-than-life musicians — publisher and exhibitor did not anticipate the demand for the exhibition's companion book: it immediately sold more than three times the initial print run. While a second printing is in the works, the book's complex construction means it won't be available for at least another month. In the meantime, below is a quick flip through the book, courtesy of Thames & Hudson.
An Atlas of Es Devlin
Edited by Andrea Lipps
7.9 x 8.25 x 3 in
Thames & Hudson and Cooper Hewitt
Purchase this book