Es Devlin is the patron saint of people who get stuck at the back of stadiums. The British artist and stage designer has created jaw-dropping sets for the likes of Beyoncé, Adele, The Weeknd and Kanye West, collaborated with fashion giants Louis Vuitton and Chanel, and won three Olivier Awards for her theatrical design. Devlin’s work makes the big gig experience something that can be enjoyed, rather than endured, even from the lowest price tier seats.
There’s radical energy in Devlin’s designs for live music, be it an afrofuturist mask for The Weeknd’s 2018 Coachella show, split dramatically down the middle and animated with projection-mapped lighting; vast “column lifts” for Jay Z and Kanye West’s Watch The Throne tour, featuring stunning video animation and LED decks; or a hallucinatory design for Miley Cyrus’ Bangerz tour, which saw Cyrus slide down a rendering of her own tongue.
Devlin and multidisciplinary British-Nigerian artist Yinka Ilori have been chosen to head up creative direction and design at this year’s BRIT Awards. It’s the first BRITs since Covid-19 forced England’s venues to remain mostly closed for over a year, and it will see the likes of Headie One, Olivia Rodrigo, Dua Lipa and The Weeknd perform for a live audience of 4,000 key workers from London (alongside some of the usual industry types), and Devlin is clearly elated by the prospect of a return to live music.
This is her third time at the BRITs. She worked on the sets for the 2015 ceremony, and with Stormzy on his politically-charged 2018 performance. She refers to the BRITs job as a “gladiatorial”, thanks to the sense of conflict between the overall event designer and the various artists’ creative directors.
“Usually, [the creative directors] are offering something in retaliation, because the nature of pop music is retaliation and to rebel against any boundaries set for it,” Devlin says. “So I found myself in the past in the odd position of being invited by individual artists to come in and rebel against my own creative direction.”
Devlin relays the story of working on the 2010 MTV Europe Music Awards in Madrid, which hosted live performances from Katy Perry, Rihanna and Shakira. She came up with the idea of centering the event’s staging around “a big revolving cube”, with eight artists arranged around the cube’s four sides. The organisers weren’t initially convinced but Devlin fought tooth and nail for the idea, eventually persuading them to sign over the entire budget to make it a reality.
“And then of course, as predicted, Rihanna turned up and said, ‘I hate cubes.’ Are you going to drape it in fabric?’” Devlin explains, laughing uproariously.
MTV mishap aside, Devlin makes being able to sit down and talk creative direction with some of the biggest musicians in the world sound like a pleasure. “Every artist – and I’ve worked with a lot of them – there’s not a single one where they are not personally responsible for everything that ends up on a stage,” Devlin insists. “I often hear stories about, ‘Oh, you know, so-and-so artists, decisions are made by their managers, or so-and-so pop group is manufactured.’ I’ve never encountered anyone like that. Every single artist I’ve worked with, every single one, the engagement I have with them is completely direct.”
It doubtlessly helps that she’s particularly personable and open-minded. But Devlin also has a vast amount of respect for the artists and music that she works with, often taking cues from the artist’s lyrics, which she finds “are easy for me to cling onto”.
“You know, people used to laugh at me in my studio back in the day when I was working with Take That [on the Progress and Circus stadium tours] and I would sit there literally with my headphones on writing down the lyrics going, ‘I want you back /I want you back /I want you back for good.’ And they would say, ‘Es, what the hell are you doing – it’s just the lyric!’ And I would say, ‘Yeah, but it’s my way in.’” Song lyrics, she adds, aren’t “an end in itself”. “But it’s like a detective, I’ll take any fucking clues; you are like Hansel and Gretel in the forest, following the crumbs.”
For the 2021 BRITs, Devlin has decided to take a more collaborative approach to design. “In the first instance, it felt that it was inappropriate for myself as a white person, this particular year, to be presiding over the whole thing,” she says. “And I have always wanted to work with Yinka Ilori, who is the most beautiful artist and designer.”
Ilori, she explains, came up with the starting point for the 2021 BRITs. “Yinka came in and said, ‘Listen, why don’t we go to each artist and ask them to consider an object that represents an act of kindness that has happened to them or in their experience over the past year?’ Which, again, is something that after 10 years working in this field, I’ve lost my naivety. Do you know what I mean? I wouldn’t have dared to ask the artists that.”
The traditional BRIT Awards trophy will also consist of two statuettes this year, with the main award accompanied by a smaller, second prize that the winner is expected to give to someone else. The large statuette is a riot of colour inspired by Ilori’s Nigerian heritage, the smaller trophy is more sober, a metallic younger brother to the main award, engraved with the maze theme that underlies the set design and graphics for the 2021 BRITs.
“The maze is the form that Yinka and I have converged upon as the underlying graphic for this year’s BRIT Awards,” she explains. “We have co-conceived a maze that features Yinka’s distinctive use of colour and pattern derived from his Nigerian heritage, as well my decades-long exploration with the maze form.”
In 2016, for example, Devlin created a mirror maze in a former warehouse in Peckham, which came with its own unique Chanel scent. The idea of the maze also features in Forests Of Us, a project that Devlin has created for Miami’s new cultural venue, Superblue, which uses video, mirrored surfaces and other media to explore the human respiratory process.
During the past year in which live music has been shut down (she calls it the “temporary extinction”), Devlin used this period to reflect on “the complex decisions and journeys that many of us in the performing arts and music worlds have had to navigate”, and so yet again, the image of the maze was prominent in her mind.
You can see why this idea appeals. Accessible yet challenging, glamorous but witty, a mirrored maze might be the perfect symbol for Devlin’s work, as an artist whose creative intelligence is reflected in her mischievous sense of adventure. From the BRITs to Beyoncé, this is high art for the cheap seats.