This Sculptural Book Maps Out a Journey Through Es Devlin’s Rich Creative World

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An Atlas of Es Devlin is the first monograph on the British artist’s cross-disciplinary practice encompassing art, activism, theater, poetry, music, dance, opera, and sculpture. It was co-published in October by Thames & Hudson and Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum. Devlin installed her 30-year archive across the third floor of the Cooper-Hewitt in November 2023. 

Devlin’s protean output draws upon a lifetime of reading and drawing, thinking and seeing, and most of all, reimagining. Seven years in production, the 2.75-inch thick, 8” x 8” book is a solid counterpoint to the artist’s experiential works. Weighing in at nearly five pounds, its square proportions echo one of Devlin’s signature formats, the box. 

Despite its heft, the book’s complex form, designed by her cousin Daniel Devlin, feels intimate and inviting. Devlin describes her process as consisting of five ingredients: space, light, darkness, scale, and time; the book pays homage to all. Printed books always have a time element, marking the passing of the hours as a reader gets lost in the pages. In this one, a surprising variety of translucent and mirrored papers, page sizes, die cuts, and other unexpected moments invite readers to pause and appreciate the object they hold in their hands. The ideas startle, provoke, and reward. Devlin searches for ways to provide dopamine hits. As with her designs for the stage, she invites readers to become part of a temporary society traveling through a rich, creative landscape of observing and feeling.

“I do it for love…If I make a beautiful object, it’s the most important use of my time.”

Es Devlin

The book’s pristine white cover features a blind-stamped title and a hypnotic series of circular die-cut apertures slicing through multiple following sheets. The effect is to draw a reader through a portal into the artist’s world, focused on an image of her as if seen through a camera viewfinder. The back cover features a smaller oval opening as if to say: here is a simple way out; your journey is complete. Each boxed copy includes a die-cut print from an edition of 5,000.

© Es Devlin, From A Student Sketchbook 1985-1995.

Devlin’s design practice is physical and conceptual; every project starts with a blank page, a pencil, and a conversation with the playwright or musician. She sketches, builds cardboard models, cuts holes in things, welds, and paints. The value of the craft process is integral to the book as well. The sculptural volume runs to more than 900 pages, with 700 color images documenting 120 projects over four decades. Of particular interest are 300 color reproductions of the ephemeral miniature paintings, sketches, paper cuts, and small mechanical models representing the development process of Devlin’s large-scale works. These welcome surprises scattered throughout appear as small accordion-folded inserts that jog sometimes to the head, sometimes to the foot of the book. 

© Victor Frankowski, MIRROR MAZE, Copeland Park, Peckham, London, September 21-25, 2016.

An Atlas of Es Devlin highlights the artist’s deeply personal collaboration with actors, playwrights, directors, musicians, and other creative clients. The project examples cover a range of venues worldwide: performances at the Tate Modern, Victoria & Albert Museum, the Serpentine Galleries, the Royal Opera House, the Royal Ballet, the National Theatre, and the Imperial War Museum in London; Superblue Miami; the Metropolitan Opera and Lincoln Center in New York City, and La Scala in Milan. This monograph includes Devlin’s initial sketches, paintings, and rotating cardboard sculptures for the design of the London 2012 Olympic Closing Ceremony, early materials for the 2022 NFL Super Bowl half-time show with Dr. Dre and Kendrick Lamar, as well as setlists overlaid with sketched diagrams of illuminated stage sculptures for U2, Beyoncé, and Abel “The Weeknd” Tesfaye. 

© Nikolas Koenig, LONDON OLYMPICS, Closing ceremony, London Olympic Stadium, August 12, 2012.

Because Devlin didn’t like the onstage shape of rock shows as seen from the audience (a horizontal layout interrupted by spotlit bumps where the drummers, guitarists, and singers stood, with downlighting and maybe a huge banner behind them—boring!), she tore the shape apart. One approach involved putting each individual on stage into a separate box created with projection mapping and using enormous animated screens that visually synced to a second-by-second timeline of the music. 

© Es Devlin; Left (p 350): WATCH THE THRONE, Jay-Z & Kanye West, World Arena, Tour, October 28, 2011-June 22, 2012. Right (p 351): TRIANGLE, The Weeknd, Voodoo Music Festival, City Park, New Orleans, October 28, 2016.

In addition to stage performance design, some of her early ideas developed into public sculptures and installations exploring biodiversity, linguistic diversity, and AI-generated poetry. In September 2022, Come Home Again, a 16-meter-high interactive sculpture outside Tate Modern, attracted over 7,000 visitors daily to sing alongside a pre-recorded soundtrack featuring diverse London choirs and the sounds of 243 species.

© Daniel Devlin, COME HOME AGAIN, Tate Modern Lawn, London, September 21-October 1, 2022.

© Es Devlin, BLUESKYWHITE, Lux Exhibition, 180 The Strand, London, October 13-December 18, 2021.

Devlin’s process relies upon a give-and-take of ideas, allowing her vision and that of her client to shine through. She collaborates closely with her professional studio team to bring her concepts to life. In an episode of the Netflix series Abstract, she discusses how crucial her collaborators’ support was during stage production for the play The Faith Healer, a series of monologues through rain, sludge, and bleakness. Devlin envisioned and sketched out a curtain of falling rain to create walls separating the actors on all sides from the audience without having the technical know-how to make it happen. Of course, someone else knew how. As she puts it, “It just shows you can design nice things without having any idea how they fucking work.” 

An Atlas of Es Devlin is an immersive, joyful reading experience, an encyclopedia of creativity, and a tribute to the sculptural possibilities of the printed book. It gives form and substance to the artist’s philosophy of why she creates: “I do it for love…If I make a beautiful object, it’s the most important use of my time.”

Banner image: Aperture p xi, © Es Devlin, Engineers and Fabricators

Side-by-side gallery one: Box and cover courtesy of Thames & Hudson

Side-by-side gallery two: Left – © Es Devlin, pg 45, From A 28-Year Sketchbook; Right – © Es Devlin, pg 70, From A 28-Year Sketchbook

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