AT Offline: David Stark

AT Offline: David Stark

Aaron Able
Apr 23, 2010

April Guest: David Stark
AT Offline: The NY Design Meetup
Attendance: 160+

Last week, we "Metup" with David Stark — event designer, event producer and the author of four books — the newest David Stark Design will be available on April 27. Jump below for the transcript and all the images integrated from David's presentation and interaction with Maxwell and the audience…

MGR: Thank you to everyone for making this the largest Apartment Therapy Offline gathering yet! It was also a great month for the Apartment Therapy websites, as we reached 4.2 million unique readers. So, thank you everyone.


MGR: I'm thrilled to be welcoming David Stark to this month's Meetup. This is a first for AT Offline, as David represents our first designer who focuses primarily on event planning. His very successful full service event design, planning and production company — David Stark Design & Production — is based in Brooklyn. He has created large and small events, everything from intimate 10-person dinner parties to large scale events for non-profits like the Robin Hood Foundation, as well as celebrity-studded events such as Beyonce and Jay-Z's wedding. He has appeared on the Today Show, Martha Stewart, and CBS' The Early Show, to name a few. David has also written four books, the latest of which comes out this month — April 27. It is a monograph, which is a format that is usually reserved for artists. But as you'll see in David's slides, that is indeed what he is. Please welcome, David Stark.

MGR: Welcome! Great to have you here. So I'd like to start by asking you about your beginnings and how you got to where you are now. I see that you attended both RISD (Rhode Island School of Design) and SVA (School of Visual Arts) and trained as a painter. So how did you go from that training to running a full-service production company?

DS: Thanks for having me this month, and you are correct in noting that my path has not been a linear one. You can't go to school for what I do — although I can imagine they may start developing classes to train creative types in this line of work. I majored in painting in school and received both my BFA and MFA. But almost immediately following graduation, I decided something I already knew — that I didn't like painting. I didn't like being in the studio by myself — and in fact, I tried to avoid it as much as possible. I would often call a string of people while I was working on a piece so I would feel like I was connected to others. I knew I needed this in my work — and that I wouldn't get it from painting. Recognizing that I liked the group-work experience, I got a chance to work with flowers for event design, and I took it. I was working various events — weddings, bar mitzvahs, etc. — and I found it to be a great outlet for me. It was creative, completed in a group atmosphere, and once it was done, you would move on to the next event. The work cycle was a lot quicker than with painting.

MGR: So why do you think you were drawn to flowers in particular?

DS: Flowers are simply cool and fun. You don't need to draw deep meaning from your work with flowers, unlike painting, where you feel your work must have a deep, emotionally-charged meaning.

MGR: What was your artwork like?

DS: I did a lot of self-portrait work. I created a series of medicine cabinets, and I always represented myself by the Q-Tip! Read into that what you will.

MGR: So, you found yourself working in flowers, and you enjoyed it. I often talk about the power of working in NYC with our monthly visitors — how it can be a tough place, but it also provides fabulous networking opportunities. One thing can quickly lead to another. So, how did that happen for you?

DS: I was a partner in another business before this one. It was great, but we eventually decided to part ways and go out on our own. Thus, the business was born.

MGR: How did you gain experience in production and planning?

DS: Well, it was a lot of trial by fire. There is no designer in the world that doesn't deal with the business end of their work, and often times, you just learn as you go. I learned to pay attention to logistics — for example, I always measure elevator doors so we know what our maximum size requirements are (I learned that the hard way). My ideas go from the creative end — the design of the flower arrangement, for example — to the logistical end — how we are going to logistically implement the ideas. Ideas have changed a lot over the years. Event planning has morphed from the tulips-in-a-bowl centerpiece scenario to a more logistically-driven production. An event's cause is particularly important in the work I do these days — an event can be theatrical and unique, while also offering a glimpse into an organization from a 3D perspective. That link is extremely important in the work we do.

MGR: How do you develop new ideas? Do you come up with an idea and immediately present it to a client? Do you play off the client's interests? What is that exchange like?

DS: It's hard to sell some of the wackier ideas to clients. Often times I temper initial ideas and then things unfold as we plan the event. It's easier to show this in the slides — let's take a look:

David Stark & Robin Hood Foundation Project

DS: We organized the annual Gala for the Robin Hood Foundation at the Javitz center several years ago. For those of you who aren't familiar with the foundation, it is an NYC-based non-profit which does as its name implies — takes from the rich and gives to the poor.

This event is a great example of having the event installations become a marketing extension of what the organization is about. I was thinking a lot about recycling at the time of this event. I had attended a "green" fashion event which was a pretty lame interpretation of sustainable design, right down to the green lightbulbs that they used in some of the fixtures (Iiterally). I feel strongly about this concept, however, and knew we could interpret it in a more creative way.

We received donations from many companies and decided to incorporate those donations as part of the event design. In all of these images that you see, you should note that there was no nailing, screwing, etc. of any of these installations. They are designed to go straight from the event to those whom they were originally intended for.

During this process, we learned a lot about what is needed, and realized that it isn't always what you expect. For example, we received a lot of clothing, shoes, and food, which we expected. However, we also learned that there is a great need for alarm clocks — if you need to get up and go to an interview, for a job that you really need, you need to make sure you have a way of getting out of bed. So, we designed the installations based on two principles: the donations that we received, as well as the four pillars of the Robin Hood Foundation's philosophical approach: early childhood, education, jobs and economic security, and survival.

In this image, you see a house made of blankets, donated by Ralph Lauren:

This survival sign is made out of 1st aid kits:

We received a very generous donation of shoes and decided to create this "tornado of shoes" installation. We tied each show to fishing wire, and then lifted it up to make the shape of a tornado. Afterwards, we simply snipped each shoe off the wire and they were ready for donation:

These pencils were donated directly to students:

This large chair was made of hundreds of bottles of water:

This is one I am particularly proud of. We received computers that were intended to be donated to schools after the event. We used them as centerpieces, and it turned out quite well. Many people now ask for this centerpiece at other events (weddings, etc.):

David Stark & West Elm

DS: This next project is the West Elm store at Broadway and 62nd street in Manhattan. I was speaking with someone who told me that store development results in a lot of waste. I worked with West Elm to create temporary installations using the waste from the store build-out.

The lamp you see in the window is made from recycled cardboard:

This indoor shot shows the "topiary" we created out of 7,000 shredded catalogs:

These cacti are created from recycled boxes:

MGR: Do you ever do permanent installations?

DS: Not really. My only permanent work has been the books, as well as a line of products for West Elm, which was a new venture for us which is working out very well.

We did this series of clocks for the store, which was a lot of fun. Again, they are made from material excess from the store build-out. Clock hands can be purchased online for really cheap ($1.29 for hands) and then we used them with various materials. You can see a roll-of-tape clock on the wall, as well as others.

This chair is another installation for the store, made of shredded catalogs.

We used a lot of cardboard, since there was a lot left over from the build-out. This is a lemonade pitcher and glass:

I also like to create whimsical, or ridiculous (to some), objects. Here is an image of a box of tissues that we created:

Another example of this is this pipe, inspired by the (Rene) Magritte (artist) pipe series.

Another piece inspired by an artist is this clock installation. It is inspired by the piece "Untitled (Perfect Lovers)" by Felix Gonzalez-Torres. I'm very inspired by his work, so this is an homage to that piece — in his installation, he placed two clocks side-by-side and synched them up perfectly. Slowly, they start to get out of sync, which I find quite beautiful and romantic:

Maine Wedding

DS: This next project is a wedding that we did in Maine. Again, the theme of reuse was introduced. On the property, there were a lot of cut trees, which were to be used for a new structure on the property:

We decided to repurpose them as a backdrop for the band as they played during the reception:

MGR: Did you create everything for this event?

DS: Yes, we did. We try to tie everything together, as you'll see in the tablescape. We used other natural materials from this very rustic setting to pull together the tables, menus, initial invitations, etc.

David Stark & Israel Museum

DS: This next project was for the Israel Museum. The theme was "The Printed Word." In this installation, we used newspapers as the raw material — something that is in abundance from a recycling standpoint. We created 3D letters that represented the museum's logo:

MGR: Do people ever complain about the rawness of the materials?

DS: At one time, there was a great amount of opulence at events. For example, I remember going to an event where thousands of orchids were installed on the ceiling. You see something like that and you are immediately struck by the cost of an installation like that. People still have events like this, but the use of raw materials is becoming more accepted, especially when they are transformed into something visually stunning and different from their original form. I am very interested in making the every day important. "Shamanism" is very important to me. I've found that creating an event that relates directly to a non-profit's mission, for example, really resonates with people.

MGR: The work that you do is also an incredible amount of work. But you are teaching people that materials can be transformed into something spectacular.

DS: The work is involved, but I learned a long time ago to surround myself with good people. And we do have an incredible team of people. They help to make something that is quite complicated look easy.

David Stark & Target

DS: This project is the pop-up Target store that we did on 42nd street and 6th avenue in Manhattan. We combined live flowers with projections of flowers throughout the store. We also did a lot of large and small scale stuff — playing with scale throughout, a la Alice in Wonderland:

Overall, we used 12,000 flowering plants, all of which went to the New York Restoration Project afterwards and were planted throughout all five boroughs:


Q: Who cleans up after each of these events?

DS: My team does. That is the only downside of our work!

Q: Do you ever utilize green organizations throughout the city to assist in your work — Green Depot, Materials for the Arts, etc.?

DS: We actually donate a lot of materials. As a for-profit company, we don't have a right to take from places like Materials for the Arts, which is an amazing organization that does great work with non-profits, artists, schools, etc. We donate a lot of materials to them.

Q: As an interior designer and occasional event planner, I find it difficult to sometimes plan events that can come out as kitschy, or overly-themed. How do you control that?

DS: One thing that is important is the use of real materials. For example, a lot of event planners use plastic boxwood. The real boxwood is actually much cheaper, and looks better. Editing of materials and installations is also extremely important. I'll give you an example — right now, we are working on a project where we are trying to make vases that look like corsets. We are currently trying to figure out if it is important to see the bow. Does it still read as a corset without it? Sometimes you need to know when to say when, and what is too over-the-top for your purposes.

Q: What is the smallest budget you have worked with and how did you stretch it?

DS: We have worked with all sorts of budgets. You have to remember that non-profits do not have a lot of money to spend on events, especially these days. It's all about creating good design, no matter what monetary figure you are given.

Q: You spoke briefly about selling ideas to clients. Can you, or are you comfortable with, giving us more specifics on how you do this?

DS: It's definitely become easier with more projects under our belt. No one has ever said to me to do whatever I want, or that I have a limitless budget. There are always parameters to work within. And now, everyone wants real value from their investment. If a client doesn't understand an idea at first, they often love it after they see it. The trick is to get to that point, and that's a delicate balance. It's something that is hard to describe, but is learned after multiple projects. Many of our clients have been with us for 6, 8, 10 years. These are great clients to work with, because they trust me and the team implicitly. With those clients, the sell is a lot easier. Ultimately, you have to learn to not take things personally. It's a lot about adapting to a client as a person and learning what works for them, what doesn't, their communication style, etc. We write every proposal differently — every single project is catered to the individual.

Q: Do you still paint?

DS: No. And I don't want to. I have found another creative outlet, doing something that I love.

Q: How may freelancers do you bring in for each project versus your permanent staff?

DS: We have 24 full-time staff members. They are divided into Project Managers — those who manage the overall project, budgets, etc.; Designers — those who do all the design work for an event; and Administrative staff. The company is based in Brooklyn, and we have two studios in our space — one houses the wood shop and painting facilities, and the other houses flowers, craft work, etc. So to answer your question, we do have some partners for larger-scale installations, and we do bring on freelancers for other installation work. But all design work is done in-house.

Q: Do you do any interior design projects?

DS: No.

Q: How often do you sell an idea and then realize you can't implement it?

DS: All the time! I try not to over-pitch an idea. As long as I believe in an idea, I know we will figure out a way to make it happen. We just have to figure it out. I liken the process to painting in this way, in that we never want to do the same project twice. This can be tough, as clients often see images of previous work and say, "create this space for me," and I have to tell them that we can use that as inspiration, but that each individual project requires individual attention.

Events are like moving day. They are a lot of work, but it's worth it. My goal is to stand back at the end of installation and say "WOW".

MGR: I'd like to close out the questioning to say that the summer of 2010 is rounding the corner. Where do you see the world going? What do you see people wanting in the near future?

DS: People want surprise and delight. Over the top lavishness is out — ingenuity is in. And people are appreciating that. We started these strategies before the recession, so it's working out well.

MGR: Thank you for joining us, David.

Special thanks to Kayne Elisabeth Rourke for transcribing our Meetup!

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