David Stark - Founder, David Stark Design & Production

David Stark - Founder, David Stark Design & Production

Kayne Rourke
Jul 13, 2012
What: Apartment Therapy Design Evenings Who: David Stark, Founder of David Stark Design & Production Attendees: 300 - Event Full! When: Thursday, July 26, 6:30-8:00pm Where: ABC Carpet & Home | 888 Broadway NYC

Our 59th Design Evening (at full capacity once again!) featured renowned Event Planner & Designer David Stark. Read more about his latest projects and a bit about how his team works in our evening wrap-up, or watch the evening's event below, via Vimeo.

We're taking a break in August but look forward to seeing you all again (in person on through our Livestream feed) in September. Happy summer, everyone!

As always we started with our Reader Presentations. Take a look at Frank and Allen's kitchen renovation, as well as Michael Wong's furniture line.

Also, Lisa (left) and Eliza, two of our Renters Get Rolling renters, were in attendance!

Maxwell Gillingham-Ryan:
Good evening, everyone, and welcome to our 59th design evening. Before we get started with our featured speaker, I wanted to share a bit of news from the Apartment Therapy office.

First, we reached 10,000 Facebook "likes" this week! Also, the Kitchn's "Small, Cool Kitchens" contest is up and running. As always, this contest is meant to inspire others, as well as garner votes for the best of small, cool. You can vote as many times as you'd like, so go choose your favorite and vote away.

Tonight, we're happy to share with you the culmination of our "Design Is Not Taught" internship program. This is the first time we've tried this. David (Stark) came to me and said that he was having trouble finding good candidates to work with him, so we collaborated in an effort to reach out to the A.T. community to find him a great candidate.

We received submissions from around the world, and I'm happy to say that David found a fabulous intern for the summer! Morgane Saout, who hails from Paris and joins us tonight, is enjoying a few months in New York working with David's team. She'll be sharing some posts with us on her experiences, and will also get the chance to design our holiday party! We'll share more information over the coming months on this exciting new program.

Another thing I'd like to share with you is our new one-minute video series, which started several months ago. Featured on Mondays and Wednesdays, they are great short, informative one-minute "How To" maker videos. I wanted to share two of our most popular ones from the last month - you can see them here and here.

Main Presentation

Apartment Therapy July Design Evening: David Stark from maxwell gillingham-ryan on Vimeo.

Tonight I'm pleased to welcome David Stark. Before I get into David's info, I just wanted to let you all know that this was one of our fastest sellout crowds ever, so we're very pleased to have you.

As founder, president and creative director of his own event planning and design company, David Stark Design & Production, David oversees production of events for the world's most prestigious brands and personalities. David and his team design a wide range of events, from high-end intimate dinner parties to elaborate destination weddings and large-scale corporate functions. Whether working with celebrity clients such as Beyoncé Knowles and Jon Stewart, or major corporations such as Target, TBS and Condé Nast, David Stark Design & Production is known throughout the industry for transforming any event into the most extraordinary of experiences.

In April 2010, Stark released his newest book David Stark Design; that documents David Stark Design and Production's design philosophies, conceptual process, and breadth of work put forth since the Company's inception in 2005. The book was published by Monacelli Press. His previous books include Napkins with a Twist (Artisan, 2006), To Have & to Hold: Magical Wedding Bouquets (Artisan, 2005), and Wild Flowers: Projects and Inspirations (Clarkson Potter).

Stark's has had two product lines, both holiday decorating collections with West Elm, that debuted in stores in 2009 and 2010. Inspired by David's trademark approach of turning everyday materials into glamorous and unexpected installations, the collection included ornaments, garlands, table décor, and other elements made from natural, recycled, and eco-friendly materials.

"CBS' The Early Show," "The Today Show," "The View," and "Martha Stewart" are several television shows that often call upon David to serve as a guest expert on décor, party planning, holiday decorating and home planting projects. David and his work are often featured in publications including the New York Times, ELLE DECOR, Glamour, Interior Design, In Style, House Beautiful, and Town & Country, as well as on a number of design-focused blogs.

Please welcome, David Stark.

Thanks for having me again, Maxwell.

So I always like to start off with a bit of background to help us understand how you got to where you are today. Tell us a bit about how you found your way to event planning.

Sure, so almost 20 years ago I went to art school to be a painter. I had a partner at the time who was not so industrious - he decided to start a flower business, and I helped him. I saw it as a side thing and had no intention of making it more than that.

For one of our events, we went to the NY Opera and met with Carolyn Roehm, who was helping to organize the evening's event. She told us that while we were good, we didn't have the most beautiful arrangements of all the vendors, but that the evening wasn't just about that, it was the whole atmosphere that she was looking to create with us. It was a small nugget, but a light bulb went off in my head, that we were part of a larger package. In that moment I saw opportunity.

In the big picture of things, some days it's hot, some days it's cold. You dress appropriately and make the event important. And that's what stuck with me.

So what was the first thing that you used besides flowers?

For this event, it was candles. Sounds simple, right? We were at the NY State Theatre (now Koch Theatre). At the front there are two big statues - we surrounded them with scaffolding and shelves and covered them with candles. For that particular opera there were three acts, so before every break we would climb the scaffolding, re-light any candles that went out, etc. It was a really small budget, but the passion to make something prevailed. In addition to how the event was framed, the opera itself was Macbeth in Industrial Era-land. So the scaffolding worked perfectly with the theme. I really started thinking about events as an extension of drama at this time.

For myself and my team, we take a conceptual approach to event planning - it's not just decorating. I look to art more than the decorating world for inspiration as it's a lot more conceptual.

So you started with decorating concepts - flowers, candles - and moved on to more conceptual iterations. And I guess you can consider the time your installations have to last, about four hours or so?

Around six. We need to get to know the client a bit, of course, in order to see what type of concept works for them.

Give us an example.

Sure, so we just did an event in the Detroit area. The client was really involved - as in, they would do errands with us, etc. They are huge Francophiles so the home looks like a mini French chateau. There's this artist that does large-scale animal sculptures and the client is very friendly with him - you see the sculpture throughout their garden, which is pretty sculpted, yet it also has some wild elements. So, we needed to find a balance for the wedding between elegance and wild, natural landscapes. It wasn't a Plaza (Hotel) wedding, in other words.

What's really fun is that I get to go back to my artist roots for these events. Each one is different and requires a different concept.

Do people ever ask you to repeat events? Say, if they saw images of one that they think is perfect for what they want to do?

Actually, most people want their own unique event. Event marketing is now a thing - so for an organization there's business involved with the actual event. Design challenges come out of goals. It's the same with private events.

Last year we had a wedding that was delayed due to the bride's father passing away. They got married a year later and we ended up creating an event with honors to her father.

How did you do it?

Well, more back story here is that they ended up getting married in the hospital room, so the actual event was more of a reception only. We incorporated childhood memories, etc.

Our type of event work is not for everyone - we have to mine their memories, which can be difficult for some. It's a journey - not just flowers and placecards - and it takes a while to rummage through their memories. It's really a T.E.A.M. sport, as in, "Together Everyone Accomplishes More." I'm very proud of the team.

It's also probably a bit distinctive because you choose very unique materials. How do you choose them?

The decision comes from a few places. Budget, for one. Everyone has a budget, no matter how wealthy. Our largest event ever was a seated dinner for 45,000 people, and even for that we had a budget. The truth is, we must always come up with compromises, change ideas, etc. and sell it to the client.

I might say to someone that we'd like to make a landscape out of, let's say, 100,000 donated products and then give them away. They may not understand our exact intentions, but there's a trust factor there that allows us to run with the concept.

Talking about landscapes, it is a large canvas you work with. Not like with the defined borders of a painter's canvas, for example.

True. That big event for 45,000 was for the Robin Hood Foundation. Everyone's going "green", but we wanted to think beyond the typical and the played out. It's not what drove us in the conceptual ideas for this event, but given that it's a charitable organization, we thought, why not make the décor out of donated products that we can then give away?

In many cases we screw, nail, and glue items, so this was a bit different. The "shoe tornado", as we called it, was a fabulous idea fabricated by the team (see images of this event from David's last Meetup with us).

Coming from flowers, at first different concepts are a bit scary. For example, a tip I always give people, now that I'm on the more conceptual side of things, is to not be afraid of stems. Cut 'em! Learn the basics of flower arranging, and then push the limits. In event planning, we just keep pushing it farther.

You know, the people we entertain have seen some really spectacular stuff. So using everyday items has another very impactful result. It's unexpected. We don't want people walking into our events and just seeing dollar signs. We want to go beyond that.


When talking about big events, there are really only a few main places (Cipriani's, for example) that can cater to a large group. What are the budgets typically like?

For a non-profit they usually look to $120-$160/person, where a private event can be $400-$500/person.

So this is a fairly neutral space, as you can see. For this particular event, for New Yorkers for Children, the inspiration was symbolic, where we used a ladder to the stars (think Little Prince).

The ceilings are a whopping 50 feet, so the projected stars were very dramatic. We didn't have a huge budget so we put money into the big entry moment, with a large rectangular table at the center. It was elegant, yet charming.

In contrast, this next event was the National Design Awards, held in conjunction with Cooper Hewitt. This wasn't a big budget, but it was a design audience. We created a simple yet impactful graphic package.

In one of my RISD classes, we were taken to the first Baptist Presbyterian church built in the U.S. We were brought into the church and, as a team, we were given rope and told to transform the space. Six hours later, we hadn't gotten very far. When the Professor returned we got a lecture on our progress - from there, the Professor simply coiled the rope, left it on the pulpit, and walked out. It was an early lesson in simple, yet impactful design.

Here, ribbon is the straight lines offsetting the graphics. The entrance was criss-crossed ribbons, and on the tables we had two rolls of ribbon. Line work, like party streamers, gave lots of drama to a simple design.

This is a good example of taking something small and making it big, making a big impact.

Indeed. Scale is very important. Everything is purposeful. And, while we only execute ideas once, it's the learnings that we can apply to other events.

With corporate clients, we are doing a lot of pop-up stores lately. Clients like Target, for example. It's exciting because these installations last longer than six hours, and it's like a shopping party. It's a fixed product for a certain amount of time, so we have clear boundaries within which to work.

This year, we created a pop-up store named "Woodshop" at Haus Interior in NoLIta. We garnered some great learnings from this store.

First, we took out all of the regular products. As you can see, it's a pretty narrow space. It was tough during the setup to maneuver in there. We created all new products, all in wood - and given that it was during February, we had several Valentines-related themes. For example, we created wood chocolates in a heart-shaped box with the words "wood you be mine". We also created wooden cakes, vases, bandanas, etc. We also created some soft items, too.

Doing a pop-up store is almost like inventing a company for one month. Some folks on the team felt we needed some regular items that folks would actually buy in the space, so we mixed in some things like that. Items like the wooden box of chocolates sold really well. The wooden cupcakes were also popular, as were the cakes. It was actually the special and unusual things that really sold well.

One of the few items made overseas (a first for us) was by a women's knitting collective in Bolivia.

It was an interesting process because they won't quote a price until they've gone ahead and made one product. It takes several revisions, and it's all done by hand. It was many months of work on something that we didn't even know if we could afford it. But it worked out in the end.


Thank you for being here tonight with us, David. So you said that you aren't the greenest person, but there was a lot of wood used in that store. They say that more natural materials in a space improves the flow and feeling, do you agree?

Not necessarily. It's more about the fact that there's a time and place for everything. Each opportunity is a moment to design for that specific event. We chose the material to fit the store goals, not to just "be green".

You mentioned your team - could you tell us how many people are on the team and the different roles they have? Or does each person always perform the same role?

We have 30 full-time people, and have upwards of 60-70 freelancers. It's all very organized now, in terms of roles. When we first started we wanted to be reengage (no job titles, no business cards) but we slowly learned that these things are very important for clients, as well as for internal clarity. Structure is actually quite critical in what we do. I like to think of it as carefully orchestrated chaos.

Hi David. First off, I'd like to say that your work is incredible. So, a girlfriend of mine is going in to event design, and I'm curious, asking on behalf of her, how she can set herself apart from others. Any advice?

That's a good, and difficult, question. I can't really give you a straight answer on how to set oneself apart. I can tell you that for me, I go everywhere for inspiration, but I don't look to other event designers. I like to look in all disciplines to get inspired. Also, since event design is now a "thing", I find it's important to look within (what's important to me) and to other sources for my inspiration. And I guess both of those are important in developing a unique style.

One of the biggest discerning factors is to remember that we are in the service industry. While there is an end material result, we're giving the client a journey. They want an interesting experience, first and foremost - the materials themselves simply convey that journey. Also, I never forget that I go in and out of an event through the service door - it's important not to forget that.

How do you source manufacturing?

We make a lot of it in our shop. Over the years I've reached out to folks for recommendations on knitters, sewers, etc. Over time you develop a group of reliable vendors to work with.

Thank you for your time tonight. So I have a question on how to explore more about the field - do you take volunteers who want to learn more?

We have a revolving internship program - as Maxwell mentioned earlier tonight, we used Apartment Therapy this summer to find one of our new interns. It's not volunteers, per se, but interns that come through our doors to learn more.

I'm curious to learn more about what art you own and what inspires you?

I can answer that, partially. David is into Tom Friedman and Shamanism (the concept) as examples.

That's true. And in fact, there are few artists I don't like. What I really look for is the process and what an individual artist is doing to move the world forward. Again, it's the concept behind the material end product that interests me. For example, right now we're doing a project with a lot of geometry, which was really inspired by art.

You've mentioned that you really want to take people on a journey. Can you point to something that you wanted to do that didn't work?

We have a joke in the office - when an idea is rejected, we just save it for another client. For example, I was with a client today and we were talking about an event in a space with a freight elevator. I threw out the idea of having a comedian perform, and then when least expected, we'd have the elevator open and Vegas showgirls would come out. Not sure the idea went over well, but perhaps it will resurface somewhere else.

Thanks, David, for being with us tonight.

Congratulations to the evening's two winners of David Stark's new book!

• Special thanks to Kayne Elisabeth Rourke for transcribing our Meetup!
• Special thanks to our volunteers, Gabriel Sperber & Georgie Hambright!
• Images: Apartment Therapy

Thanks to our host and sponsor, ABC Carpet & Home!

Thanks to our July wine sponsor, Seven Daughters!
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