Networks, systems, patterns, connections – these are Es Devlin’s constant concerns, whether she is designing sets for hamlet with Benedict Cumberbatch, a stadium spectacle for Kanye West, Adele, U2 or Beyoncé or the closing ceremony of the 2012 Olympic Games in London. Writer Andrew O’Hagan has described her as “the boy of set design”; As her regular theater collaborator, director Lyndsey Turner, puts it, “She creates the ideas, the mindsets, the systems in which characters operate.”
So it’s not surprising that when she lets me into her Victorian home in Dulwich, which also serves as her design studio, the first thing she does is show me around the rooms. Here I find members of her team sitting in front of laptops or 3D printing cute little chairs for a mockup of the set for a new production The Crucible at the National Theater. A huge open living room/dining room/study/kitchen gapes onto an oasis of a garden – at one point during our interview her young son ambles through and out to a trampoline. Devlin loves the fact that her two children (she is married to costume designer Jack Galloway) are growing up with no separation between their mother’s work and personal life. “The membrane between work and life is very permeable,” she says. “I really like that they know what I’m doing.”
Exactly how porous is Devlin’s current project, sheet by sheet with beautifully detailed pencil drawings of mammals, birds, fish, insects, spiders and plants, covering the entire surface of their refectory-style dining tables and spreading to the walls of the living room. There are 243 drawings in total, depicting the species that the London Wildlife Trust considers “are most at risk of extinction. So what I’ve been doing for the past year is drawing these 243 species – painstakingly, painstakingly, nightly drawing for many months because it takes ages. And because my kids saw me make them, they’ve now started texting me pictures of moths. I mean that’s a result.”
Personally, Devlin is relaxed, dressed casually in a black cotton top, soft white sweatpants, her long black hair tied in a bun secured with a pencil, and two gobstopper-sized rings on the middle fingers of her right hand. Internally she is bursting with energy, straying into conversational tangents, with a hunger for knowledge. While Devlin has spent much of her career finding ways to interpret texts by other artists, whether by playwrights like Shakespeare and Pinter or by pop and rock stars, in recent years she has begun to pen a significant number of her own Creating works, including films, immersive installations and interactive sculptures. Concern for the planet and the threat of extinction runs through many of them, be it in their film I saw the end of the world (2020) about the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, her installation called memory palace (2019), who told the story of world history through a mini 3D map (her result: “Remember the low-lying deltas where rising seas are first felt”), or the 197 trees they presented at COP26 set up to witness the decisions 197 countries would decide about our future.
This latest project is a collaboration with Cartier on London’s endangered species. It is called Come back home (September 16-25), the title of which is taken from a line in the 1991 book World as lover, world as self by 93-year-old climate activist Joanna Macy. Macy’s Great Turning initiative has focused on making the transition from a society fueled by industrial growth to a more sustainable civilization. “Now it can dawn on us: We are the world that knows itself. When we give up our isolation, we come home again… We come home to our mutual belonging,” she wrote. Macy’s call for us to gain a deeper understanding of our connection to nature resonated with Devlin, whose 2021 installation The forest of usstill shown in Miami, is all about the way our internal body structures are reflected in the natural world.
“I was interested in the correlation between the geometry of our interior and the geometry of our exterior,” says Devlin. “Look at your lungs, look at a tree, see the context. I wanted people to feel like you need to look at the boundaries of yourself in a much broader way to encompass the entire network you’re part of. I thought, ‘If there’s one thing I could do that would be helpful, a little acupuncture point that I could help squeeze a little, it could just be this thought, ‘Where does one end up?’ Then I thought, “Where do I start? London: Let’s think of London.’ It is estimated that by 2060 almost 70 percent of us will be living in cities. Nature must not be outside the city. This whole process I’m talking about, expanding the margins, has to be what city dwellers are doing. So I went to the London Wildlife Trust and looked at all of their data. And I found the list of 243 endangered species and I thought, ‘243 I can look at in detail. So this is what Come back home is.”
In fact, the drawings are just the beginning, as each depiction is enlarged and printed onto a 2m long sustainably sourced panel, which is hung, illuminated and projected around a cut-away, scaled-down model of the dome of St Paul’s Cathedral in front of the Tate Modern . Inside the dome there will be choir stalls where visitors can sit during the day and listen to the sounds of Devlin’s chant and a choir singing the names of all 243 species. Instead of hymnals, QR codes will provide access to information on all species mentioned. Every evening a London choir sings the evening song live from the dome.
Devlin hopes that the simple act of giving an endangered species a voice will be transformative. There are well-known names like common swifts and house swallows, but most of us are less familiar with the olive earth tongue, the river mussel or the German hair snail. “There is a book wild yourself, by Simon Barnes, and he says, “Learn their names. The name changes everything. You will no longer listen to a vague thing or birdsong. You’re listening to music you know and love.” So it seems to me that the most useful thing I can do is to invite people to learn the names of the animals closest to them. I want them to think, “Actually, this network of animals in my city is completely connected to the network to which I belong. Any harm I do to him or any way I ignore him is actually harming myself.’ That’s the change we all need to make in our brains pretty quickly.”
All around us is a library of books Devlin used for her research. She quotes Rebecca Solnit, Richard Powers’ Pulitzer Prize winner The Overstoryand indulges me in the story behind Robert Hooke who created his micrograph. From all of that, it’s a jump to the giant cubes showing projections of sharks and tigers that Devlin created for Kanye West and Jay-Z’s Watch the Throne tour in 2011; but surfing between “high” and pop culture is one of Devlin’s superpowers. How different does she find it to work on a solo project Come back home and organize a mega concert? “You know what? These great artists that I’ve had the ridiculous luck of working closely with, many of them over a long period of time…they’re lightning rods, I think, they’re conductors. Their music resonates, a bit like the choirs that will be performing Come back home; it finds a vibration in all of us and so everyone wants to tune into it.”
Opera director Keith Warner has described Devlin as “the most ambitious person I’ve ever met in my life”. So that’s no surprise Come back home is just one of many projects between which she shuttles back and forth: in February she designed the halftime show for the Superbowl; she has just created a monolithic ring for Saint Laurent’s SS23 men’s collection in the Moroccan desert; and then there’s The Crucible in September and a collaboration with Sam Mendes and Jack Thorne, also for the National, on a new play The motive and the keyword; she is also contributing to the COP27 in Egypt in November. But one thing she won’t be working on is Adele’s postponed Vegas gigs. Devlin was the designer for the original shows, which were canceled in January and there were rumors that this could partly be due to disagreements over the set. Was there any truth in them? “The reason I didn’t say anything is because there’s nothing to say,” she says. “If there was more of a story I’d honestly be thrilled to tell you, but there isn’t. It was a pleasure working with her. She’s a friend.”
As for the future, she is aware that as a designer who creates monumental global installations yet speaks about the importance of avoiding climate change, she exposes herself to accusations of hypocrisy. She nods, quoting a line from a U2 song: “I have to be an acrobat to talk like that and act like that.” But: “On the plus side, it’s my direct experience that every Zoom, on that I attend, every room I walk into, I feel a lot more encouraged to open my mouth and say, ‘How do we check carbon emissions in that regard? Project?’ It wasn’t a question that would have been routinely asked even two years ago. Now you can open your mouth.”
She hopes so Come back home could have life beyond his September tenure outside the Tate Modern, but if it doesn’t then nothing will end up in the landfill: “All his particles will be recirculated.” More importantly, Londoners and visitors to outside to know a little more about these 243 species, from the common swift, which flies to the moon and back seven times in its lifetime, to the 450-million-year-old sea lamprey (” When I googled it to find a picture of it, you can usually find it pictured on toast, which is really unfortunate) and the striped bombardier beetle, which clings to its existence in the UK in Tower Hamlet.