The artist behind Adele’s ‘baggy old pond’: why Es Devlin is the Willy Wonka of design

Was it all a squabble over a pond? If anonymous sources in the tabloids are to be believed – and that’s a big “if” – the reason why the plug was pulled on Adele’s Las Vegas shows, just one day before her first performance, was a disagreement over the staging by British designer Es Devlin. Apparently, the singer was meant to be lifted, as if walking on water, above a slowly filling pool. She reportedly called it a “baggy old pond”. 

Devlin had created the sets for Adele’s 2016 tour, to widespread acclaim. Though there’s not much point speculating over gossip, or indulging in armchair psychology, claims that Adele would reject outright her old collaborator’s plans do seem rather surprising. When I met Devlin last year, at her studio in a leafy corner of Dulwich, she struck me as the kind of person who could convince anyone to do anything. (She did, after all, once talk Miley Cyrus into sliding down a giant replica of her own tongue.) 

Charismatic, outspoken, energetic and – like many artists – perhaps very slightly mad, throughout her career the 50-year-old has managed a delicate balancing act. She takes on the kind of large-scale commissions that should involve a great deal of compromise – two Olympics ceremonies, stadium shows, art in Trafalgar Square, a collaboration with Chanel – but then seemingly finds a way to stuff compromise and do exactly what she wants. As she put it in a 2019 Telegraph interview, “It’s very unusual for me to look at a piece of work and say, ‘Well, I didn’t want that bit’.”

For the closing ceremony of the London 2012 Olympics, her brief was to incorporate the Union flag. “I thought it was a terrible idea,” she told me. So she immediately set about looking for a way to subvert it. “That flag is an act of violence itself, so how can you find a postive way into it?” She ransacked history for ideas. “OK, let’s look up all the Union Jacks that have ever been. Let’s look at the graphic designers who James I was working with when he plonked the George Cross over the Scottish flag…” The end result was a wild, messy swirl of red, white and blue, based on a spin painting by Damien Hirst.

Devlin has a playful, Willy Wonka-ish streak: at one point, she led me into an airy side-room of her studio, with a pair of giant hands against one wall (a model of her set for Carmen), where half a dozen assistants were earnestly tapping away on computers at their desks. “Do the thing!” she cried, as if keen to show off a new toy. A little bemused, they did “the thing”: buttons were pressed, and with a faint buzzing sound each desk lifted a few inches higher up.

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