SET DESIGNER. INTERIORS, PERFORMANCE STAGES.
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’s designs are as varied as they are gorgeous. From Hamilton to restaurant interiors and performance stages for Kanye West and Lady Gaga, he transports the audience to other worlds.
Debbie: 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. 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?
David: I was in the marching band from the seventh grade. That was a big deal, marching in the high school marching band before I was in high school. I tried to do whatever I could to make myself indispensable to the marching band; if they needed a different instrument, I picked it up. 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 relaxes me, and I love the improvisational part of it. It is to me exactly like playing on a sports team.
Debbie: During high school, you started a company called Primetime Painting. Tell me about that.
David: My dear friend Darren got a job painting houses. Maybe I was a sophomore in high school; he might have been a senior. He worked for a big national company, which took student labor and taught them how to do cold calls and cost estimates. They took a percentage. He asked me if I would paint on his crew, and it was a great summer job. It mixed brushwork—which I had never done, but it was exciting—physical activity, and you were outside. We were pretty successful.
I said to him at one point, “What do you say we strike out on our own? If you figure out the insurance stuff, I’ll figure out how to talk to the clients.” We got a third person 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 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: What made you decide to abandon that business?
David: I went to college. I was an “in the closet” theater major. When I got a summer internship at Williamstown Theatre Festival, I jetted off to that.
Debbie: You almost had a career in sports medicine.
David: It’s true—I was a very competitive athlete. I had a bad audition experience in high school that drove me crying, kicking, and screaming out of performance—but I loved the performing arts.
I didn’t know what I wanted to do when I went to 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 pretty good at anatomy and physiology. So, I thought I would do that, but I didn’t see a life doing it. 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: I think that is the single greatest compliment I’ve ever gotten in my career—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.” 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 an obstacle in front of someone.
Debbie: You had your first realization about the power of design, which included a puddle in a parking lot.
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 had an “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.” I literally thought, “What else could I design other than theater?”
Debbie: You leave Williamstown, then cofound the Edge Theater Company in New York City. That was in 2001.
David: In my life, almost all roads have led to Williamstown. In the 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. Carolyn was from New York and had a lot of connections to people who were seeing theater and being patrons of theater. When we moved to New York, we made a lot of allegiances with playwrights.
We produced 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. Then we did Stone Cold Dead Serious by Adam Rapp, which was hugely successful, and we went on to produce four or five more plays. It was a very exciting, inspiring time. It was also very scary. We were not making any money from it. We needed to have those shows be successful, because we did some incredibly fiscally irresponsible things. I basically run my design company the same way.
Debbie: You started David Korins Design in 2004. You design far more than Broadway productions. 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: I realized that one plus one equals three or four or five and not two. I 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 man named Rod Lemon. We were yin and yang: he’s a genius at figuring out how things get built; he could draft and he could build models. I finally said to him, “What would it cost for me to hire you?” He gave me a number, and I now knew that whatever I did and whatever jobs I worked on, 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.
What I would always do is calculate 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 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.
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, 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 met during the Edge Theater Company days. We met on the steps of the New York Theatre 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 come together, I thought, “Seriously, Tommy, 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.”
Debbie: You had to interview?
David: Yes. I had to interview. I got the music. I got the script. I listened to it obsessively. I did a lot of work in preparation for the interview, including lots of research and sketches. I thought about the show a lot. I never 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.
Debbie: Did you bring along any of your now-legendary models with you?
David: I brought no models, but I did propose the turntables in the first meeting. 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 cyclical relationship between Aaron Burr and Hamilton. There’s something about this cinematic, sweeping story that takes place over 30 years.” There’s also 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 very good way to tell that story.
Debbie: True or false: it’s been reported that you parsed through 33 different colors of brick to find the right shade for the Hamilton stage?
David: 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, to which no one gives any thought at all. Brick comes in so many different shades: too red, too terracotta, too brown, too beige... We had to decide 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 with no wallpaper or no interior texture?
That 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 how we were going to see people in front of the wall.
Debbie: In addition to the physical elements of the set, you also convey psychological themes and other subconscious elements to the audience. For the 2010 production of The Pee‑wee Herman Show, you crafted each step to be 12 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 think a lot about architectural standards. The cool thing about theater is we get to mess with those proportions all the time. In opera, you might make a 6‑inch‑high step, so that singers can glide down without breaking voice.
Debbie: Last year, you had four musicals on Broadway at once, and they could not have been more different 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; I wanted to rather try and be a chameleon and ask myself, “What does the show want it to be?” If you look at a Frank Gehry building, you know that it’s probably a Gehry building. I’m excited by the fact that I don’t have a style that I impose on something, but I rather try and listen to what the show wants it to be.
Debbie: But you have to 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. It’s true there are things that my aesthetic bends toward, and I put those in my home, but not necessarily in an environment I’m doing for a client.
Debbie: I was surprised to learn that theater only accounts for about 25 percent of the work you do in your design firm. Kanye West asked you to turn My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy into a stage show, and he wanted a new design for each city his tour visited. 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. 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. 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, but I banked those images. He didn’t have the vocabulary to talk about the worlds he wanted to conjure. But he was showing me pictures of smoke under water, huge cosmic storms, and I realized that he was very connected to the four Furies and elemental things. If you look at his work, he’s all about an obelisk or standing on top of a mountain. I know that he’s getting closer and closer to this idea of deifying himself; his most recent tour was him literally floating on a deck above people who are reaching up and praying to him.
I liken my job to 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 words, adjectives, or emotions out of people, and then I try and make physical spaces or experiences around those things.
Debbie: What it was like to work with Lady Gaga?
David: Thrilling. My first meeting with her and my first meeting with Mariah Carey were the same. It was, “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.
By the end of the conversation, she had told me Joanne represented, for her, a beam of sunlight, and a person who could do no wrong in her family—someone who would leave behind her a trail of flowers. There, the job of the designer is 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, fiberoptic thing. It was really interesting to hear her talk, starting from a place of real, raw emotion.
Debbie: I know that you would like to design the opening ceremony for the Olympics.
David: I would also like to help create the opening ceremony, because how do you three‑dimensionalize the story of the United States or of the city that we’re in? I’ve had some experience doing that, but I’d like to think about it in a more holistic way.