Whether it’s a 40-person salon dinner for social change in Detroit, a 4,000-person non-profit fundraiser or top-tier art museum galas in New York, one call tell when David Stark Design has been involved. Stark and his team use their decor to trigger dialogue—from reaction to conversation. They aim to keep the message moving, and it’s a beautiful thing. Much of Stark‘s success can be pinned to developments in his background. In fact, he’s a fine artist who began working with flowers to make money. Now, he employs 50 people full-time and works with an additional 50 freelancers. At Brooklyn’s Industry City, Stark has an office (dressed in Kelly Wearstler wallpaper), a fabrication studio and an epic storage facility totaling 9,000 square feet. Here, he keeps inventories of items that they all frequently shop through.
David Stark Design may best be known for their work with the non-profit Robin Hood organization—or their swanky affairs for the Whitney Museum of American Art. We, however, first met Stark himself at Culture Lab Detroit. It wasn’t until our second Culture Lab Detroit, however, that we felt the magnitude of Stark’s vision. Set among the 20-year-long Cosmopolitan Chicken Project—featuring live chickens—at Wasserman Projects, Stark dressed the table with row after row of chicken eggs while chicken pot pie was served. It was so beautiful and highly-conceptual. But according to Stark, it was a reference to the importance of urban farming in Detroit. “An egg is nature’s perfect design object,” he adds. “It’s a great hero.” To learn more about his vision and practices, we toured his Brooklyn spaces and talked substantially about highlight projects.
Is there a core mission to what you are doing here?
We do not want any of our work to be boring. We want to keep people guessing at all times. Our work aims to make strangers talk or give them something that’s a potential commonality or a hot discussion point. I do wake up every day with this thought that any idea could be amazing or horrible depending on how you do it. We have no choice but to make things amazing. We live in a space where there a lot of wacky ideas so we have to ask ourselves: how do we make something that is an art installation but doesn’t look “eventy?” What’s the difference between something chic and something “eventy?” I don’t know if we have the perfect answer but it’s something we talk a lot about. And we return to simplicity. Our mission is to make simplicity impactful. People will often come back and praise us for what they perceive as simplicity at our events. And I know it isn’t exactly simple but I am glad that this was their takeaway.
How did you end up in Industry City?
We began in a much smaller space. It was my painting studio and I was living there. As the business started to grow I took over everybody else’s space in the building. There were lots of other artists there. When one would leave I would snap up their space. At some point in time our landlord said, ‘Why don’t you just buy the building?’ We looked around for two or three years and couldn’t find anything at all—so we ended up calling him and asking if he was serious. He was—so we bought it from him for a very reasonable amount. At that time it seemed like so much money to me. It was! But that’s where we ended up staying for 20 years.
When we realized we had outgrown that space we started looking around for another two years for something to buy. Everywhere we could afford either had no heat or no windows. Everything simply started to get too expensive and we realized we needed to rent. We had looked here at the start, before it had been transformed. I didn’t think there was any way I could ask people to come here to work. When it started to change, we came back. We knew it was right. It took us a while to renovate but here we are.
How does your office work? How does your personal office within the office work?
The way the company is organized—there’s a department of project managers that work with me to plan the projects, there’s a design department that works with me to design the projects, there’s the studio that builds and constructs what we design, and then there’s an office that writes a lot of checks. We hold meetings in this office [Stark’s office]. We will sit around and talk, but we have all these conference rooms as well. One of the problems with our old space was that it really was just a funky loft. It was never designed to be an office. We threw out the sofa to make way for a desk. When we hired another person, we threw out the kitchen table to make way for another desk. It kept going. I still lived in a little apartment on the roof. It was very convenient.
How did this turn from working with flowers to a company of this size?
I went to art school. I didn’t know this was a thing you could do! So, I approach it as art-making at first. It occurred to me at some point that we needed to organize, to make this a business. We always had that innate organizational ability but we had to come up with continued sustainable solutions to get the jobs done.
What is your process like for building business?
It’s a combination of word of mouth and social media. I get direct messages on Instagram now. It also comes from press and the relationships I’ve created. I was never a person who wanted only to do corporate gigs and not the social gigs. The Whitney Museum is a great example of an organization we’ve worked with for a long time. We have a great working relationship with their galas and other milestones extend from that.
You are doing a lot of fabrication for one night events. How do you maintain eco-friendliness and sustainability beyond the fact that you save and reuse so much?
More and more and more we try to be eco-friendly. There are companies that we work with, like EcoSet, that come in and supervise the installation and breakdown. They work with us to have a softer footprint and to provide homes for materials after. They don’t allow certain materials to come onboard.
Of course, sometimes, implicit in our process we design something that has an intentional home afterward. For Robin Hood we got $1 million worth of donations for things the organization needed and then we built installations out of those things. The design challenge is that you can’t nail or screw anything. They need to live in their pure form. The label cannot be marred in any way. So, we built a cityscape of canned foods. Sometimes the strategy is built in that way. Also, the client frequently keeps things. And we also create structures that can be skinned in different ways: gold one day, covered in feathers the next.
What’s the brainstorm process like for you?
When I started and it was all about flowers. It was a totally different time period. I didn’t even know this was a this and that was a that. It was about decorating. certainly now we do decorate, but we also tell a story. That’s not right for everybody but for lots of people it’s what they want. What it looks and feels like comes out of the story we want to tell. What the Brooklyn Museum is saying is quite different from what the Whitney wants to say, or the Cooper Hewitt. My job is not to think about a personal style but to really be thinking about the story our partners need to tell. It allows us to be fluid.
You are making art. Temporary, of course. But art. What is it like to exist when it’s more often thought of as, say, dressing or decor?
When I first got into this it was really hard to sell these ideas. I can’t tell you the amount of pitches we would do. And people were afraid to commit to them. They were a little too wild. There was worry over what guests would think. And every once in a while we would breakthrough. It would prove itself. When the market crashed, it became much less acceptable to display your wealth in an ostentatious way. Prior to that, people would cover the ceiling of the Pierre Hotel with thousands of orchids just to show that they could. I never want people to walk into a room and say “look how much money they spent.” I want them to walk into a room and say “wow, that’s stunning.” I’ve always been drawn to every day materials because it eliminated this. 50,000 pieces of paint strips from the hardware store, that’s conceptually lavish. And the ideas relate back, rather than have a visual price tag.
People rethought the world with that crash. Institutions still needed to raise money. All of a sudden there was more openness to concepts. There was a groundswell. Our success grew. People understood, first in the non-profit world, that the reason why we are all in a space can influence how it looks. Robin Hood taught me this. They posed the challenge. It was a line drawn in the sand. It made me realize you could think of event design as theater. There are occasions where we just make things beautiful. And that’s the right thing. But as an artist, I am drawn to the challenge and that visual drama.
And what about social media moments?
For all the events, everyone wants an Instagrammable moment. There’s this idea that you have a set up generally and only to be a photo moment. It was exciting for a while. Everyone wanted a version of that. But what I think is more interesting now: people want the photo being taken in a more authentic experience. That want the entire space to be so cool that people want to take a photo and share the message. It’s about extending the experience for those who aren’t there. And that’s lasting.
Robin Hood Annual Benefit, American Friends of the Israel Museum Gala, Alvin Ailey Opening Night Gala Photo, lightning bolt private celebration images by Susie Montagna; Culture Lab Detroit salon dinner photo by Ara Howrani; floating candle private celebration, Brooklyn Museum Artist’s Ball, The New York Public Library Spring Dinner, Target Tricked Out Treat Maze and Whitney Studio Party images also by Susie Montagna; Moroccan-themed private celebration image by Aaron Delesie