I’m really lucky. I wake up every day and jump onto a rollicking roller coaster of art-making. Yet, the art that I make is not what many might recognize as art. It’s not a romantic, lone act performed in a garret. It does not end up for sale in a gallery. Still, I have had many “shows,” including exhibits in some of the world’s finest museums and in a fair share of galleries, too. The art that I create with the incredible team at my namesake firm makes people impossibly happy, perhaps more so than the kind of art people collect. Why? Because this art masquerades as a party, a magical environment in which people have FUN, pure and simple.
If event design had been offered when I was in art school at the Rhode Island School of Design, I never would have majored in it. I had no idea that such a career even existed. With my love of drawing and painting, I plunged singlemindedly toward becoming a painter. I quickly learned, though, that I didn’t like being stuck in a studio, working solo. Whenever I painted, I’d find myself on the phone the entire time, trying to share the experience. Now these many years later, I know that putting together a team is ultimately as creative an act as any other artistic pursuit.
People often profess sadness when I tell them I no longer paint with a brush. But I have simply traded in my traditional oil palette for objects from the world around us, making living paintings with 15,000 paint swatch samples swiped from hardware stores; rendering a glowing, 65,000-square-foot city with basic children’s sidewalk chalk; painting with luminescent pigments more saturated and true than any tube of oils—glorious, luscious flowers. Unlike a painting, which freezes a moment in time on canvas, a party is ephemeral. I am thrilled to create eye-popping moments to celebrate landmarks in people’s lives; my own sister’s wedding is a painting that is as important and lasting to me as any of the works I so revere that hang on the walls at the Museum of Modern Art.
I don’t think of an event as work. Whether it’s a fundraising gala for 1,000 people or an intimate surprise birthday celebration, I apply every single thing I know about art-
making and invention to create something I have never seen or experienced before. Our goal is not to create objects—our goal is to create experience. Our three-dimensional “canvases” create memories that will stay with guests forever! The approach is two-fold; create an environment, fill it with glorious, thought-provoking art.
I often say that I could make a lot more money if I simply dumbed down event planning to the right hook and a catalog of centerpiece choices A, B, or C. Make a template and repeat: efficient, cost effective, quick. While I appreciate good business sense, my heart tells me to innovate and play without rules, make the sky the limit, and believe that there will always be an audience for fearlessness.
The following pages represent many years of dedication and steadfastness to that vision, and it represents the work of a family. My friend Jaime taught me what “TEAM” means: Together Everyone Accomplishes More. I would be fibbing if I claimed the credit for the magic that WE do, and it is with awe and gratitude that I share our accomplishments and dedicate this book to each and every one of my teammates over the course of many years. We invented a new, shared language together and of that I am very proud. Say It Loud Say It Proud
I like making big things. Towering props, enormous images, and huge swaths of color are amazing things to behold and they impress people. To make something big I first think big, imagining an event on a gigantic scale.
When it comes time to build and install, I wrestle with the realities—gravity, safety, practicality, and budget—but the main hurdle to executing an idea is confidence. Confidence—belief in yourself and your idea—is the single most important ingredient for any successful event. Only when I truly believe I can do I move forward. Staging a 2006 fundraiser for the Robin Hood Foundation in New York brought that home in so many ways.
Four thousand donors and volunteers gathered for cocktails, a formal dinner, silent auction, and a private concert by Beyoncé—it was Robin Hood’s most important event of the year. I had worked on it several times before, but with my twelve-year business and personal partner. By 2006 we had gone our separate ways and I was on my own. This was my first foray as an independent designer and I knew I had to prove to the foundation—and myself— that I could deliver.
The challenges began right away. First I had to enter the foundation’s open competition for designs, against my former partner, and we won! Winning was a good confidence booster, but it was just the first step.
The foundation asked us to create a décor that related the Robin Hood Foundation to New York and its efforts to help erase poverty in the city. Robin Hood’s no-nonsense approach to ensuring every cent of every donation goes directly to programs—rather than to lavish galas— appeals to its donors, particularly the Wall Street types, but this is also a client that still expects its benefactors to be wowed. You always want to knock people’s socks off when they first walk through the door.
Guests also pay attention to detail, so there has to be substance behind the imagery. We needed big yet accessible, sincere yet dazzling, fun yet thoughtful. I took it step by step. Yes I wanted pizzazz, but also a conceptual underpinning to give the event meaning. I looked to the soul of the foundation and homed in on one of its core causes, education. From there it went to the idea of a schoolroom, then to a blackboard, then chalk— drawing people together, erasing poverty. Concept born, materials reveal themselves, visuals come into focus.
We set out to draw a chalkboard New York, a huge, jaunty cutout version of the city’s many grand monuments—the arch at Washington Square Park, the Chrysler Building, the main library on Fortysecond Street and Fifth Avenue—to serve as a looming backdrop that surrounded the guests in a playful, two-dimensional cityscape. Also tending a bit awry, perhaps appropriately, were street-level chalk sketches of notched brick walls that served as portals to the evening’s cocktail bars.
One good concept begets others. The chalkboard landscape—easy to draw, easy to erase—succinctly underscored the foundation’s goal to redraw a better New York and erase poverty. Further, the foundation strives to achieve its mission by encouraging everyone to work together, which led to inviting guest participation. We gave each person a stick of chalk as they entered the room, to add his or her own mark to the city. This wasn’t about creating a prissy panorama meant to overwhelm attendees—they were meant to engage with it.
Throughout the evening guests jotted their signature, for example, or a piece of graffiti along the chalked sidewalks. The graffiti of the well off and the less fortunate were pretty much always the same: “For a good time call . . .” In the weeks leading up to the show, I fought pangs of self-doubt. Could I realize my idea? Would it come together as I envisioned? How would the foundation react? The guests? I felt a palpable nervousness among my staff. Though no one mentioned it aloud, they were certainly channeling my own skittishness.
About five minutes before the event opened I stepped back to look at our party landscape and nearly shed a tear. It looked stunning, but the real accomplishment was inside me.
Excerpted from David Stark Design by David Stark. Copyright © 2010 by The Monacelli Press. Excerpted by permission of The Monacelli Press, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.