Thomas Edison didn’t invent the lightbulb by himself. Alexander Graham Bell wasn’t single handedly responsible for the telephone. And Jennifer Doudna did not develop the revolutionary gene editing technique known as CRISPR/Cas9 by working alone in a lab. They all had help; they had collaborators. And every successful start up, whether initiated in somebody’s garage or a school chemistry lab, requires collaboration as well as creative thinking. The brilliant and beloved Hamilton, An American Musical, was the brainchild of the brilliant and beloved Lin-Manuel Miranda, but he most certainly could not have mounted that groundbreaking work alone. One of the many creative minds he collaborated with is David Korins, the award winning scenic designer behind many Broadway musicals, including, Dear Evan Hansen and War Paint. He also creates extraordinary set design work for television, films, music, and more at his firm David Korins Design.
Debbie Millman: When David Korins was little, he spent a lot of time moving furniture around in his childhood bedroom. Little did anyone know back then that he'd grow up to be one of Broadway's most celebrated set designers. Korins' designs are as varied as they are gorgeous. From the stages of “Hamilton” and “War Paint” to restaurant interiors and performance stages for Kanye West and Lady Gaga, Korins is a master. He transports the audience in time and space, creating moods and spectacles that envelop us in another world. Today I'm going to talk to David Korins about his impressive career on Broadway, his design process, and his latest projects. David Korins, welcome to Design Matters.
David Korins: Thank you. Wow, that actually made my heart race. I was a little bit nervous coming into this, but you said a lot of things that made me feel very uncomfortable
Debbie: ”Gorgeous?” “Master?” Really?
David: ”Master?” Yikes. I mean, thank you. That was amazing. I feel like we're done. That was great.
Debbie: [laughs] David?
Debbie: When you were in high school, I understand you became class president by virtue of a write‑in campaign. Where were you in 2016?
David: It is a true story about the write‑in vote. It brings up a little bit of shame and guilt when you ask me that question.
David: There was a woman who was, freshman, sophomore, and junior year, the class president, elected proper. She did, I think, a good job. We all didn't know better. We didn't know what even the elected officials of our class did, or were supposed to do, but when it came time to the senior class voting, I was a little bit of a wise‑ass. Surprise.
Debbie: My eyebrows just shot to the ceiling.
David: I was not sure that the two people who had announced their candidacy were going to do anything different or beyond the status quo. We went to the assembly, and I raised my hand, and I said, “Could I run?” The principal, who didn't love me ‑‑ he didn't hate me, but he didn't love me ‑‑ said, “No, you had to announce your candidacy in this.”
I said, “I'm sorry, we just heard these two speeches. They were not that interesting. They didn't say that they would do anything for our class that seemed interesting.” Really, the only real big thing at play was the class trip, which I thought was a big deal.
We all thought it was a big deal, and so I said, “Could I run as a write‑in vote?” I didn't really know what that meant, but he said, “I guess.”
I went to my homeroom, and I wrote out the three things I thought I could accomplish, including this great class trip. Don't ask me where, because I don't remember where to, but it was an important trip. I wrote those things out, and I went to the ‑‑ dating myself ‑‑ mimeograph machine.
Debbie: Those with the blue ink that smelled amazing?
David: Yeah, you're there. That I think for sure made everyone sterile, those. I ran off a bunch of copies, and I handed them out to everyone's homeroom. At the end of the day when they counted the votes, this is over the loudspeaker, [annoyed] “And by write‑in vote, David Korins.”
I won, but the real shame and guilt is because what we didn't know is that, when you graduate, the senior class president is responsible for planning the reunions in perpetuity, which is a disaster, if you think about it.
Who knew at 17 that that was a thing that you had to do? I basically left town, and didn't ever do that, because I knew that someone had taken care of it. They planned the 5 and the 10 and the 15. I just recently went back for my 20th.
Debbie: What was that like for you?
David: It was amazing, actually. I had no idea what it would be like, but the little guy who used to get picked on became the chief of police in my hometown. Some of the big bullies became cops underneath him.
Debbie: Divine retribution.
David: It was actually pretty amazing. I was a weird hybrid of a real athlete ‑‑ like a very serious athlete ‑‑ and also, I was in the choir and the band. I did a lot of different things, and so I didn't have a full group I was part of.
We came from a very, very cliquey school. I was one of three Jews growing up in this place, the other two being my sisters.
David: It was a hard time for me. There was a whole lot of, “You killed Jesus.” It was a really tricky time. Also, I'm one of two people from my town that moved to New York City, because from where I am from, moving to the city was moving to Boston.
When I went back for the 20th, it was enough time to reconnect with these people, but also, a lot of time had passed. It was interesting to see how we all became adults.
Debbie: [laughs] Yeah, absolutely. You were a drum major beginning in the seventh grade, and later in high school, you played multiple instruments in both concert band and the jazz band. You were also in choir, as you mentioned.
Now, you're responsible for creating the sets for one of the most popular musicals of all time. Has music always been in your blood a bit? Do you still play anything today?
David: I was actually the drum major only for my junior and senior year, but I was in the marching band from the seventh grade all the way through.
Debbie: Forgive my inaccuracy here.
David: That was a big deal, marching in the high school marching band before you were in high school. That was a really big deal. Was music part of my life all the way through? You know, my mother and father had my two older sisters and I take piano lessons, and I lasted for about three months or six months.
Debbie: Do you regret that now?
David: I don't live with many regrets. I don't regret it, because when the fifth grade entry point of band came, I knew that I wanted to play the saxophone. I don't really know why. Both of my sisters were in the band, and I chose the saxophone, because I thought that was cooler. I tried really hard, and I was pretty good.
I quickly moved to tenor saxophone, and I tried to do whatever I could to make myself indispensable to the marching band. They needed a different instrument, so I picked it up. When I went to college, a guy who was cooking food ‑‑ and he was a weird, shifty character ‑‑ happened to ask me if he could store his guitar in my closet.
One night, when everyone that lived in the house went out, he stole all of our bicycles and left town. All that was left of him was a vapor trail and this guitar. In that moment I decided, I'm going to learn how to play the guitar. I picked it up, and I learned from going out and getting a chord book of like the Beatles and Bob Marley...
Debbie: Neil Young.
David: ...and Bob Dylan, as you do. I did that, and I realized in that moment, my entire musical career up to that point, I was unable to sing along. Everything I had played up to that point was with my mouth. I really got into playing the guitar, heavily. I still play the guitar.
I have a 12‑year‑old daughter, and when she was around six she started playing the piano. I would plink along the piano and try and learn the songs along with her. I play the piano now like I play the rhythm guitar, which is not well but to tempo.
Debbie: Do you sing along with the piano playing?
David: That's the only reason to do it, right? [laughs] Yes. I don't know that music has so much informed my design work, but I certainly...I can still read music, I appreciate it, I'm a big fan, I love working in the music industry. It's one of the things that really relaxes me, and I love the improvisational part of it. It is to me exactly like playing on a sports team.
The only two things that I find are exactly like that are playing on a team sport, as you're driving down the court, or up the field, or whatever it is, or if you're in an improvisational band and you're finding your way through music. They're basically the same thing to me. I do see that, and I think that theater and design are like team sports.
Debbie: Now, you almost had a career in sports medicine.
David: Wow. How do you even know that? Seriously, is that in print somewhere? That's so crazy.
Debbie: I have my ways.
David: Wow. I did. I was a very competitive athlete. I think we've talked about this before, I had a really not great audition experience in high school which drove me crying, kicking and screaming, out of performance, but I loved the performing arts.
Debbie: I'll ask you about that in a minute.
David: When I went to college I didn't really know what I wanted to do. I sort of thought I wanted to do athletics, but I went to a Division I college. I was on the track team for a while. I had been injured a lot, and I had recuperated a lot. I loved the body, and I was actually pretty good at anatomy and physiology.
So, I thought I would do that, but I didn't really see a life doing it. I think I was interested in that class, but it never felt like a career.
Debbie: It's so interesting that you had this avid interest in the body, given how many actors have said being on your stages makes them feel as if this is the place they were supposed to be.
David: That I think is the single greatest compliment I've ever gotten in my career, is a performer saying to me, “I don't have to do the dramaturgical work, because I know who I am and where I am, being on your stage.” I don't get that all the time, but I have gotten if before, and that's actually a huge honor and amazing, but when you create a space, it's all about figuring out how people move through space.
Some of the most interesting spaces are the ones where there are huge physical challenges like the room we're sitting in now, which is hot, and tight, and cramped, and we have to do all these weird things to get to the microphone. Some of the most interesting things happen when you put some kind of an obstacle in front of someone.
So the physical space thing was always a big deal, but I always have thought, if I was not a designer or a creative director ‑‑ whatever the thing is that I am right now ‑‑ I would like to go into medicine.
Debbie: Really? I thought you also had a real talent for house painting?
David: I do, but that's a little dangerous. I've painted a lot of houses in my life.
Debbie: Primetime Painting.
David: Oh my God, you did it!
David: Can I ask you later for my social security number, because I forgot it?
Debbie: Tell us about Primetime Painting.
David: We're going in order. My dear friend, best man at my wedding, Darren got a job painting houses. Maybe I was a sophomore in high school, he might have been a senior.
He learned how to cold call houses by walking around and knocking on doors and estimating about the amount of paint that it would take to paint a house, how long it would take, and all these things.
Debbie: That's really smart.
David: He worked for a big national company. They took student labor and taught them how to do it. They took a percentage of it. He asked me if I would paint on his painting crew.
It was a great summer job. It mixed brushwork ‑‑ which I had never done, but it was exciting ‑‑ physical activity, you didn't work if it rained, you were outside. It was lovely. It was kind of social, kind of physical. I did it, and we did it for a whole summer. We were pretty successful.
Then I said to him at one point, “The only thing this company is doing is essentially giving us an insurance policy. We do all the other work. We move the ladders. We move the paint kits. We interface with the clients. We do all of this stuff.
“What do you say we strike out on our own? I know nothing about insurance, but if you figure out the insurance stuff, I'll figure out how to talk to the clients.” We got a third person who would be our third man on the team. He did, and I did, and we did, and we created Primetime Painting. I think I was 16 or 17. We were incredibly successful. We didn't have to give the 20 percent that we gave to the other company to anyone else. We made a whole lot of money.
The next year, instead of one crew of three, we got six other people. We made three crews of three, in which we then took the 20 percent from the other guys.
Debbie: A mogul is born.
David: I was the color guy. I would knock on the doors and say, “Hi, my name is David. Can I interest you in a no obligation, free estimate on painting your house?”
Of course, they would come out, and they would look at the next‑door neighbor's house, and they would look at their house. They would look at the other next‑door neighbor's house, and they would say, “Sure.”
It took about half an hour. We sort of put rough prices together. We were really fast and physical, and we could always beat the budget, so we could pocket the money.
If you're there in a neighborhood for a couple of days or four days painting a house, the neighbors see that house looking really great, and it took off.
We painted hundreds of houses. It was three or four years we did it. I feel like I was getting close to making more money than my parents in three months.
It was a great job that allowed...
Debbie: That's saying a lot. Your father was a doctor. Your mom was a teacher.
David: That's true. It was a good job. Dad was a podiatrist, which is a doctor, but we weren't raking it in. We didn't grow up wealthy.
You could make a lot of money painting houses, if you got a lot of people working with you. It was super exciting. It did teach me how to be entrepreneurial, but also it was a lot of the things I already knew, as we talked about.
It was teamwork. What more incentive is if you can beat the budgeted time, you get to pocket the money? It's a really good idea.
Debbie: What made you decide to abandon that business?
David: I went to college. I was a “in the closet” theater major. When I got an internship at Williamstown, and Williamstown Theatre Festival happens in the summer, I jetted off to an internship.
Debbie: Since you mention that pivotal moment in high school about not getting a part that you'd auditioned for, that you wanted very badly, share that story with us.
David: I was a performer, sort of. As much of a performer as you could be. In my high school, the high school choral teacher/drama teacher was classically trained pianist. She would write a full‑length Christmas play in which she would embroider all the classic Christmas songs into every season.
Then she would license and produce a full‑length musical in the spring. I got involved in this, and I really loved it.
Everyone in the choir had to be in the Christmas concert. She would cast the parts, but everyone had an option to audition for the spring musical. I did, and I was in “Man of La Mancha” and I was in “Our Town.” I was in “Sound of Music,” as bit parts, but getting bigger and bigger.
In my senior year, we were doing “Carousel,” and I loved the show. I wanted to be Billy Bigelow. At that time, you didn't prepare audition material that was anything other than what was in the show. I prepared the “Soliloquy,” which is insane to do.
I think I really did a great job auditioning. I did not get the part. I got the part of Jigger Craigin, which is the bad guy.
I was so crestfallen. My ego was so bruised. I was also the president of the concert choir.
I felt that I was made for the part. I really wasn't made for the part. The guy that got the part was really fantastic.
I was so hurt that the choral teacher said, “I think you should try and talk to Mr. Barnes, the math teacher but also the guy that builds all the scenery and see if you like doing that,” as another way to [laughs] take the devastating defeat. I went and did that. I helped moved the scenery around backstage between scenes. I didn't think much else about it until I went to college, and I wanted to stay in the arts, but I did not want to ever audition again.
I was looking at the course directory, and I saw a course called “Beginning Techniques and Design,” which was a theater 100 course, and it taught a little bit about lighting, scenery, costumes, and sound.
There was a very nervous first‑year grad student named Troy [indecipherable 16:14] , and he was there fresh from Canada. It was his first year. He asked me if I would assist him on something.
He said, “You know, you're pretty good at this. You need to sit down and draft a plate of drafting that you'll be proud of for, not this moment, but for five years. It needs to be way outside of your scope of what you think you can do right now. It doesn't matter how long it will take, but you have to do this and suffer through this exercise.”
I sat down, and I drafted a realistic interior wall with doors and molding and crown molding and baseboard. It was a disaster.
With the photos of the things that I had assisted on and this plate of drafting, he said to me. “You should now apply to Williamstown Theatre Festival.” I applied with that portfolio and got in.
Debbie: I think it was around that time you had your very first realization about the power of design, which included a puddle in a parking lot. Can you tell us this story and what it made you realize?
David: I had been to Williamstown in the summer of 1997 as an intern. I returned in 1998, and I was driving through a flooded parking lot. The water splashed up in a violent surge on either side of my car. I could feel it hitting the bottom of the car.
In that moment, I literally had a light bulb, “Aha!” moment, in which I thought, “Everything in the world needs to be designed, and I know that because the drainage of this parking lot is designed like crap.” It's that moment where you can't unring that bell, but in that moment, I literally thought, “What else could I design other than theater?” That was the beginning of the end.
Debbie: Let's go back to Williamstown. You leave Williamstown., you then cofound The Edge Theater Company in New York City. That was in 2001. You supported new writers you wanted to see produced. Kurt Vonnegut came. Edward Albee came. You were 25 years old at the time.
What were you doing to get the attention of these literary titans?
David: In my life, almost all roads have led to Williamstown. In that early pocket of time that I was there, I met not only some of my best friends, I met the woman who I would marry, who I would also cofound a theater company with. Her name is Carolyn Cantor. She was one of four incredibly talented fellows there, directing assistants.
I was a design assistant. We all met. We all worked together. When we moved to New York, Carolyn, who was from New York and had a lot of connections to people who were seeing theater and being patrons of theater...We had made a lot of allegiances to playwrights.
So many playwrights had gone through the wringer of writing, and rewriting, and revising their shows for the hope than an artistic director would produce it.
We looked at each other and said, “You know, when you read a play, do you know if you want to work on it or not? Warts and all, are you interested in the ugly mess that is the story or not?” There's a lot that gets cleaned up and worked on in a rehearsal room, and then in the tech process.
We said, “What if,” and Adam Rapp was the first playwright. He had become a friend. We had workshopped one of his plays up in Williamstown. He was a star on the rise.
We said, “Adam, this is a crazy idea. Do you think we could raise money and produce your play?” which was a play called “Finer Noble Gasses.”
He said, “Yes.” We rented a theater and with mainly Carolyn's connections and a little...95/5. We sent out a letter and we tried to raise some money. In between the time of sending out the letter, Adam's play got chosen for the Humana Festival, which is a big deal for a young playwright. He said, “I'm so sorry. I have to do this.”
We were left with a theater rented and money raised and nothing to produce. We thought, “What could we produce that we could get the rights to quickly and that we would never have the opportunity to do?”
Carolyn had the idea of doing Calderón de la Barca's “Life is a Dream,” which is a classic because in New York, unless you're working at the Roundabout or Lincoln Center, you're never going to get chosen to do a revival.
We did it. We actually made money, which is an impossibility. It was a really beautiful, thoughtful, poetic production. She directed, I designed, and we co‑produced. During that time period, Adam's play had gotten produced. He had another play that got produced, had a fancy production at ART that he was unsatisfied with.
He came back to us and said, “I would like you to come into Boston and see this production. Do you think you want to produce the New York premiere of it?” We decided we would do it again. We would write another letter, and we would raise money. We would produce a play called, “Stone Cold Dead Serious.”
The play was hugely successful. It got a big, mostly positive, review above the fold in “The New York Times,” and everyone showed up, including, first in line, Edward Albee. That's when Kurt Vonnegut showed up and everyone else.
Carolyn and I eventually got agents from that experience. We decided we would continue to produce. And so, we went on to produce four or five more plays. It was a really exciting, inspiring time. We were up on a high wire. It was very scary. We were not making any money from it. We needed to have those shows be successful because we actually did some incredibly fiscally irresponsible things.
Debbie: Like what?
David: We didn't raise enough money to pay for the costs, and so we took out a personal bank line of credit in our names that we had to pay back, which is the most ridiculous thing to do. We successfully did that from 2001 to 2005.
Debbie: My heart stopped beating for a second there. That is really being committed.
David: If you're not going to invest in your...I'm not sure if Carolyn really knew. She's fairly risk adverse. I'm not sure how much she understood the profundity of that, but I certainly did. I was like, “Yeah, we'll take out bank line of credit.”
That was a thing that I thought would be OK. It wound up being OK, but when I think about it now, how far away from $50,000 I had, which is about 49 thousand, nine, nine, repeating. That's about as far away as I was.
Debbie: It's probably better that you didn't know then what a big deal it was, because you wouldn't have done it.
David: True. By the way, I started a little design company. I basically run my design company the same way.
Debbie: You started your company in 2004, David Korins Design. You design way more than Broadway. You design theater, film, television, galleries, restaurants, hotels, interiors, rock concerts. How did you go from doing bootstrap theater productions where you were cleaning toilets and taking tickets to working with Lady Gaga and Kanye West?
David: There's a long way in between...
Debbie: Not really. A couple of years. That's not a long time.
David: It feels like a long way.
I realized that one plus one equals three or four or five and not two. When you're doing overnights ‑‑ of which I did many overnight work hauls or working through the night ‑‑ if you have to lift up a piece of four‑by‑eight, three‑quarter‑inch plywood and schlep it across the theater and screw it down, I had muscles enough to do that but if I had someone helping me I could do it three times as fast.
What I would always do is look at the bare minimum I needed to live on, and I would make sure I got paid that amount of money. The rest I would pay for help. I did that over and over again, so that my $500 show ‑‑ which was a thing that you could do in 1999 or 2000 in New York City ‑‑ looked like a $5,000 show. A $5,000 show looked like a $50,000 show.
I really took a very honest look at myself and my skill set, and I thought, “What are my weaknesses and what are my strengths? How can I cover my weaknesses? Can I possibly pay money to a person or several people to cover my weaknesses?”
My roommate from the 1997 internship at Williamstown Theatre Festival was a guy named Rod Lemon. I finally said to him, “What would it cost for me to hire you?” He's a genius at figuring out how things get built. He could draft and he could build models. We were like a yin and yang.
He gave me a number. I now knew that whatever I did and whatever jobs I worked on, I knew I needed to get him that number. It took me 11 years to make more money than him, but in the 11th year, I turned the corner.
Debbie: How long has it been now? How many years?
David: That was 2004.
Debbie: You were investing in yourself that entire time.
David: Yeah. Throughout those 11 years, we added people. We went from Rod and I sharing a computer and a drafting table in our East Village apartment to another office and now the office that we're in currently. Now we have 11 people.
We've been as many as 18. We shrink and grow to whatever we need, but Rod's still there. I just left a design meeting with him.
Debbie: You passionately wanted to be involved with “Hamilton” and pitched director Thomas Kail that you would be, “the James Madison to his Jefferson.”
We can understand why now, but back then, before it was even off‑Broadway, when it was the 10 people in a room, what made you want to be involved so badly?
David: There's probably a lot of ways to answer that question but the short one is they're my friends. By “they,” I mean Lin, Tommy, Andy, Alex.
Debbie: You knew them before?
David: I did.
Debbie: How did you meet?
David: Tommy and I actually met during The Edge Theater Company days. We met on the steps of the New York Theater Workshop on East 4th Street. He came and supported some Edge Theater Company shows. I came and supported his downtown theater company. We knew of each other.
As the show started to coagulate and come together, I thought, “OK, Tommy. Seriously, when it comes time, call me.” And then, I got a phone call from the Public Theater. They said, “We think we're going to do Hamilton. Tommy wants to interview you.”
David: Interview. I think we were in tech for a show that we were working on. I thought, “What is this going to be?” I got the music. I got the script. I listened to it obsessively. I think, at the time, my oldest daughter was maybe four or six. I don't know. The days, the years.
I played the opening number for her. I became obsessed with the show. I really liked it and I played the opening number.
Debbie: ”I'm Not Going to Give Up My Shot”?
David: No, the opening number was the Alexander Hamilton number. I remember her at six, let's say, saying, “Put a pencil to my temple, connected it to my brain.”
She was super into it. I did a lot of work in preparation for that interview for Tommy, including lots of research, some sketches. I thought about the show a lot. I never really try and do that, because I always feel like directors are halfway fishing for ideas, but I didn't care. I went in there trying to get the job.
I did say to him, “I think that Lin rose to pretty big stardom with 'In the Heights.' I think that people think, on some level, that you've hooked your wagon to his star. Let me be your Madison to your Jefferson. Let me be your right‑hand man. I can do this.”
Andy and I had just done a revival of “Annie.” I was like, “We're young, scrappy, and hungry. Who else are you going to hire? I will not throw away my shot.” Literally, I was quoting the show. I did try to at least plant a seed in his mind, “Boy, will you regret it if you don't do this.”
Debbie: Did you bring along any of your what is now legendary models with you?
David: I brought no models, but I did propose the turntables in the first meeting. We've talked about that a lot but...
Debbie: Tell me, just because I'm afraid that there might be some listeners that aren't familiar with what a turntable on a stage actually is. It's not an actual record player, for those that might be wondering.
David: That's right, although Lin was so excited when we proposed that we have two turntables on the floor. He was like, “Two turntables and a microphone. That's so exciting.”
No, turntables are a big, huge machine that rotates the stage in a circle. We have, in Hamilton, a turntable, and then on the outside of it, we have a doughnut which has a big hole in it. It's essentially a three foot section that can rotate left or right. The turntable can rotate counterclockwise or clockwise.
We can adjust the speed, the tempo, the starting, the acceleration, the deceleration, and all that perfectly timed to the music. I didn't say to him, “I think it should have a turntable in it,” but what I said to him was, “I cannot shake this cyclical motion of the show. There's something about this Aaron Burr, Hamilton, cyclical relationship.”
Hamilton was swept off the island of Nevis by a hurricane, and he gets into this storm. I thought, “There's something about this cinematic, sweeping story that takes place over 30 years. It could be really beautiful.”
I think there's this thing where there's a lot of people watching, and there's a lot of people listening, and there's this, “Room Where It Happens” thing, where you are either in it and you're complicit, or you're not, and I thought that the turntable would be a really good way to tell that story. Tommy was like, “That's not going to happen.”
He was not that interested, but I guess he was interested enough to go down the road with me, and they said, “If you can give me 10 moments in the show where we could use a turntable, we'll think about it.”
I sat down, and I drew for them 10 moments, and they said, “Actually, that sounds really compelling and interesting. We'll think about that. We should try it. Let's storyboard further,” and then we did it.
Debbie: True or false, on Hamilton, it's been reported that you parsed through 33 different colors of brick to find the right shade?
David: Yes. That's an example, as we talked about, how we got to the end result of Hamilton.
When you design, you make hugely obvious choices, like the turntable, where people say, “No performers are walking, but yet they're still moving. That's an obvious David‑Korins‑steps‑on‑stage moment,” but then there's 33 variations of brick, where no one gives any thought to that at all.
Brick comes in so many different shades, as do people. Too red, too terracotta, too brown, too beige...What's it going to be, and how are we going to carve out 25,000+ words and 51 songs ‑‑ with very little physical scenery ‑‑ and be able to see these actors in front of this wall, and have no backing wall, with no wallpaper or no interior texture?
It also led to a lot of discoveries with the costume design, because the parchment clothing that most of the ensemble wears throughout the show was in direct response to the brick, and what it was going to be, and how we were going to be able to see people and carve them out with their shapes and etch them out in front of the wall.
Debbie: In addition to the physical elements of the set, you also take a strong psychological approach to your designs and how they convey theme and other subconscious elements to the audience.
For the 2010 production of “The Pee‑wee Herman Show,” you crafted each step to be 10 inches tall, so that when Paul Reubens as Pee‑wee was going up and down, he would be able to, “clomp up and down like he was a small child.”
David: I actually think we went with higher than 10 inches, I think we went with 12 on the Pee‑wee steps, because the normal rise‑to‑run is 8 inches is the rise.
It's a thing I've been thinking a lot about, architectural standards. I think a lot about how table heights are the right height, and seats are the right height, and light switches, and toilet bowls ‑‑ and all those things ‑‑ curbs, so we don't fall down and go boom. I think about it a lot.
Then I think the cool thing about theater, we really get to mess with those proportions all the time. So, in opera, you might make a six‑inch‑high step, so that they can glide down without breaking voice? That was an easy one with Pee‑wee.
Debbie: On Hamilton, during intermission, eight feet of wall is added to the set to convey the impression of the nation being built. I did not notice that when I was at the show, but I would have wanted to.
David: No one notices, by the way.
Debbie: So why add these layers, even when most audience members won't consciously realize they're there?
David: We add the eight feet because the country has progressed. The big theatrical gesture of the show is that we see the scaffolding being built, that the builders would use to build the foundation of the country, and the foundation being this unmade brick wall.
Tommy and I talked about this. Such a huge moment in the show...We're building towards independence, there's this war, we finally win the war. It's this cathartic, massive revelation, and then we go home and we have to start to govern. What does it mean to sew this nation together?
We thought, there's a whole lot of progress as that happened. We're a big, industrious country really getting its stride, and we needed to show that somehow. If we're doing this brick wall that's in the middle of being built, we should add layers to it, because it would not ring true to...so we add that, we change the whole profile, and no one sees it.
They're busy buying merch, going to the restroom, talking to their friend, or taking selfies. When they come back, it has changed, and we also change out a lot of the props. They go from building, and utilitarian, and war‑like objects like guns and muskets, and we change them to maps, and books, and china, and no one sees it.
No one sees it. So much so that, when we were in tech rehearsal, and we had spent three weeks on the set, Tommy and I said, “We should bring the actors downstage and have them look, and let them see the walls fly in.” We did, and they were all like, “Huh. I had no idea. I just spent the last 300 hours here, and I had no idea,” but maybe they felt it.
Debbie: Last year, you had four musicals on Broadway at once, and they could not be more different. They were Hamilton, “Dear Evan Hansen,” War Paint, and “Bandstand.” Given how diverse they are, topically and culturally, how do you manage going from one show to another stylistically?
David: Stylistically, it's easy. I came up studying designers, and I always thought, “If you want to do a realistic interior, you get so‑and‑so,” and, “If you want to do a big, abstract, muscular thing, you get the other so‑and‑so,” or whatever it is.
I always wanted to be the designer who didn't have a specific aesthetic that I applied to a thing, but rather really try and be a chameleon and ask myself, “What does the show want it to be?” Bandstand, Dear Evan Hansen, War Paint, and Hamilton could not be more different shows...
Debbie: Dear Evan Hansen and Hamilton are like the opposite ends of the spectrum.
David: ...opposite ends. They have a different set of challenges. They had all sorts of different things in their DNA, and I'm really proud of the fact that I get so many text messages, calls, and emails, and people say, “I saw such‑and‑such. That was your set, right?” and I say, “No, that wasn't,” and they say, “It looked like a Korins.”
The things that they send to me are so different and varied, and that really makes me happy. Frank Gehry, who is an incredible seminal artist...You look at a Frank Gehry building, you kind of know that's probably a Gehry building. I'm really excited by the fact that I don't have a style that I impose on something, but rather try and listen to what the show wants it to be.
Debbie: But you have to really resist instincts to use similar motifs or ideas when something is successful.
David: Listen, I only have three ideas, but I mask them with really good veneers. So, it's true, but I think that...There are things that my aesthetic tends to bend toward, and I put those in my home, and not necessarily in an environment I'm doing for a client.
Debbie: I was really surprised to learn that, despite the fact that you had four shows on Broadway last year, that theater only accounts for about 25 percent of the work that you're doing in your design firm.
You're working with musicians. You worked with Kanye West. He asked you to turn the album “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy” into a stage show. You work with Lady Gaga, Bruno Mars...I know that Kanye West wanted a new design for each city his tour visited, [laughs] and you were building sets weekly. What was that like? What was it like to collaborate with Kanye?
David: Working with Kanye was incredible. He said, “Let's just start by sharing images,” and he sent me 50 images, let's say. We all trade in the currency of ideas and we trade in the currency of visual pictures, and he sent me probably 46 out of 50 that I had never seen before.
David: I was shocked and excited. I didn't know how he was doing it and where he was getting them, and I thought, “What websites do you know? What books do you know?”
Debbie: Did you find out?
David: No, [laughs] but I banked those images. He didn't really have the vocabulary to talk about the worlds that he wanted to conjure.
I liken my job to one of a therapist, in which we talk a lot about what you're going through, what you're hoping for, or what you're dreaming about. I conjure out of people words, adjectives, or emotions, and then I try and make physical spaces or experiences around those things.
He didn't really have the words to describe what he wanted, but he was showing me pictures of smoke under water, huge cosmic storms, and I realized that he was really connected to the four Furies and elemental things. If you look at his work, he's all about an obelisk, or one huge, muscular thing, or standing on top of a mountain.
Years later, I've had some interactions with him, and I know that he's getting closer and closer to this idea of deifying himself. The first design I ever did for him ‑‑ or the second ‑‑ was a big, huge, artifact wall, which was a very deep relief sculpture that looked like it was a 2,000‑year‑old thing that was dug up and hung behind him.
He moved on to standing on top of an obelisk, he moved on to standing on top of a mountain, he moved on to the next thing, and the next thing...and now, his most recent tour was him literally floating on a deck above people who are reaching up and praying to him.
He's sort of [laughs] self‑actualized as this deity. I don't know that he has the verbal language, but he certainly has the visual language.
That was maddening to create a new set, every single city, but it was thrilling to be able to do it, and to bring that message to a lot of people was cool.
Debbie: The Taylor Swift line, in the song where she's dissing Kanye West, about his “slanted stage,” was that yours?
David: It was not mine. Thank god, because, Taylor, if you're out there, call me.
Debbie: You don't want to be the designer of that stage or the “Becky with the good hair.”
David: Maybe you do ‑‑ not the “Becky” ‑‑ but the slanted stage? I don't know. That's all right.
Debbie: Tell me what it was like to work with Lady Gaga, what that collaboration was like.
David: Thrilling. Actually, my first meeting with her and my first meeting with Mariah Carey were the same, it was like, “Come over and sit on my couch, and let's talk.”
Gaga talked a lot about where the particular album that we were working on came from, and it came from her passed‑away aunt, who she never met, but was a huge influence in her life. She talked about the character of “Joanne,” and what the music meant, and it was a very deep, psychological, personal dive for her.
I said, “Just talk to me about your aunt. What do you remember?” She told me about pictures hanging on the wall, how her parents talked about her, and all this stuff.
By the end of the conversation, she had told me how she was going to start wearing this hat ‑‑ that she wears on the album cover ‑‑ but how Joanne represented, for her, a beam of sunlight, and a person who could do no wrong in her family and that would leave behind her a trail of flowers.
There, the job of the designer to figure out, “Does she mean literal flowers? Does she really want flowers? Is it about pink? Is it about softness? What does that mean?”
The worlds that we created together were electrical flowers, and then we pivoted and made a different, fiber optic thing. It was really interesting to hear her talk, starting from a place of real, raw emotion, and then hopes and dreams.
Then a secondary aside is what is the physical space for this concert going to look like?
Debbie: You have been also working quite a bit in television, and now, in restaurants. In restaurants I could see the connection because you're literally physically inhabiting a space. With television, it feels very two‑dimensional, and I'm wondering if you have a fundamentally different approach to designing for TV versus theater or a space that you're actually inhabiting?
David: Yes. The thing about television is it flattens out. Mostly you see things in a 270‑degree...There's a bunch of cameras in a room, all pointing one general direction.
There are cross‑shots and all those things, but you hardly ever turn the camera around and see the other part of it, so you could make a whole, big, beautiful environment for film or television, and you could never see it, or it could be in soft focus in the background.
I attack it, in that I want to make the world as real and as complete as possible, because I've been burned before. You think the back wall is going to be the hero, when it's really all about the ashes in the ashtray, so I attack it like it's going to be 360‑degree. Every single inch of the space has to be camera‑ready.
With television, you do think it's going to flatten out. You have to create depth and layers much more than in theater, where you can individually light every single layer and you've got 70 feet before the first person sees it. You have to think about what the camera does differently than what a human eye does. So, yes.
Debbie: I know that you would like to design the opening ceremony for the Olympics. Anything else that is on your wishlist?
David: I would like to design the opening ceremony in the Olympics. I would also like to help create the show. I think the idea of trying to tell the story of the United States ‑‑ which inevitably, I would probably have a crack at doing the US Olympics ‑‑ would be an interesting one, because how do you three‑dimensionalize history and the story of the country? Or the city that we're in?
I've had some experience doing that, but I like to think about it in a more holistic approach.
Debbie: My last question for you, David, is one you posted on social media several years ago. You asked, “Would you rather live in the world of Tim Burton or the world of Dr. Seuss?”
David: I love both of those artists so much ‑‑ and I'm not going to give you a non‑answer, I'm going to give you the real answer ‑‑ I am currently working on the musical, “Beetlejuice,” which is terrifying, because Tim Burton's worlds are so specific and so iconic.
I'm going Dr. Seuss...
David: ...because I've gotten to reconnect with Dr. Seuss through my kids. There is a simpler time, for me, attached to Dr. Seuss and some profound life lessons involved there that...I think I'm going there. Today.
I spent a lot of my day working in the world of Tim Burton, and I love it, but I'm going Seuss.
Debbie: David, thank you so much for joining me on “Design Matters” today, and thank you for doing so much to make our world a more interesting place.
David: Thanks for having me.
Debbie: To learn more about what David Korins is up to, head on over to his website, davidkorins.com. This is the thirteenth year I've been doing Design Matters, and I'd like to thank you for listening. Remember, we can talk about making a difference, we can make a difference, or we can do both. I'm Debbie Millman, and I look forward to talking with you again soon.