The Las Vegas Sphere could set a new standard for tour design much like the iPhone did for mobile phones, set designer Es Devlin told Dezeen in this interview.
Devlin began her career in the London theater scene in the 1990s before going on to create some of the most recognizable sets in the history of modern touring – from Kanye West’s floating stages to a giant augmented-reality version of Bono.
Her projects have grown in scope over the past three decades, most recently culminating in U2’s viral opening performance at the MSG Sphere in Las Vegas, billed as the world’s largest spherical structure.
But no matter how big a venue or how monumental her set design, Devlin says her work is not primarily about creating a spectacle.
Instead, she argues that tour design, since its inception, has been almost entirely about recapturing the sense of intimacy that audiences were first able to experience when watching giant acts like The Beatles and Elvis Presley on their TVs.
“The reason tour design came about on a mass scale was because singers had always been singing, records had started selling but TV was what came in the 1950s,” Devlin told Dezeen. “And it was this feeling of intimacy in your own bedroom, in your own living room that a TV gave the audience.”
“The last 60 years have been about trying to replicate, through 75 or 17 or three trucks full of stuff — of speakers and screens and pyrotechnics and lighting — the intimacy that you get from sitting and watching TV.”
The Sphere is the “ne plus ultra” of tour design
With its gigantic 15,000-square-foot screen concealing nearly 160,000 speakers, Devlin claims that Madison Square Garden’s Sphere venue in Las Vegas is the closest stage design has come to capturing this ideal.
“It’s kind of done the last magic trick, which is to put the screen and the speaker as one unit,” Devlin said. “So you don’t see speakers, you just see an almost infinite area of screen, in which the speakers are embedded.”
“You’re almost inside a movie and the band is accompanying that movie, and the band is amplified in that movie by live relay.”
Plans to build a sister venue to the Sphere in London were recently put on hold after local councils, MPs and a 2,000-strong petition raised concerns that its glowing LED exterior would prove disruptive to the local area.
But Devlin believes that at least the interior layout that pioneered the Vegas arena could set a new standard for tour design, much like the iPhone did for mobiles.
“It’s almost the iPhoneification — in terms of a Jony Ive, the ne plus ultra of phone design that then all phones will emulate — it’s almost that applied to tour design,” Devlin said.
An Atlas by Es Devlin
Devlin spoke to Dezeen to mark the launch of her debut monograph, a 900-page book titled An Atlas of Es Devlin that looks back on the past three decades of her career and took nearly seven years to complete.
The book compiles some 122 different projects, from her early work at London’s National Theater to designing catwalks for Louis Vuitton and Saint Laurent, two different Olympic ceremonies, various operas, a Superbowl half-time show and installations for Tate Modern and the V&A.
“It’s a small object compared to a stadium,” Devlin said. “But the amount of energy me and my team put into it is as great as any stadium show we’ve done.”
“It’s a black hole, in the way that it has contained a reverse Big Bang of everything we’ve done for 30 years, condensed into this book.”
The projects are presented first chronologically, through sketches and models from her archive, and later thematically through glossy photographs that reveal recurring shapes and colors throughout her oeuvre.
“Every early draft of this book felt a little exhausting,” she admits. “There were too many projects. It looked interesting, maybe even impressive because there was so much variety.”
“But it didn’t quite make a thesis or a nourishing read. It took a lot of time to find a form that could offer some kind of useful communication to a reader.”
“We need urgent ritual”
Ultimately, Devlin hopes that the accumulation of her genre-bending work in one place will stand as a testament to the fact that designers today don’t have to choose just one lane.
Instead, she says, they can and should be more “chameleon-like and amphibious,” working across disciplines to serve as a model for how societal divides can be bridged.
“The more connectivity we have between art forms, the further we’re likely to move forward in these urgent conversations about understanding each other’s points of view,” Devlin said.
“Because you could argue that the crises we’re facing now with what’s happening in the Middle East, what’s happening with our climate, what’s happening with social inequality and the cost of living crisis, all of these can be said to stem from a lack of ability to see through the eyes of others. And that’s what theater has always been about – empathy.”
Cultural gatherings, whether intimate plays or giant stadium concerts, have a unique ability to bring people together, she argues.
But so far this function has been largely held back by seeing entertainment primarily as an industry, valued based on how much money it generates rather than its larger societal impact.
“We need rituals of urgency and we need rituals that don’t make money,” Devlin said.
“At the moment we feel the pain of seeing the worst of what people can do to each other,” she said. “But if you can gather a group of people and invite them to all sing the same song, invite them to all feel the same thing, the best of people will come out.”
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