Creativity has been central to David Stark since early on. As a tween growing up in East Brunswick, NJ, his painter/art teacher mother and businessman father let him take the bus to Manhattan for classes at the Arts Students League. He went on to earn a BFA and an MFA in painting from RISD (his aunt’s alma mater) and SVA, and, after stints in other yet related fields, eventually founded David Stark Design and Production, where he still paints today—just not canvases. “I paint every single day, with all kinds of materials,” he says. The decade-old company, based in Brooklyn’s Industry City, has since grown to 46 employees, producing some 60 events a year for such clients as Target, the Robin Hood Foundation, and the Metropolitan Opera. He fills us in on the journey.
Interior Design: What was the trajectory from RISD to SVA to starting your own company?
David Stark: I went to college not knowing the exact art discipline I would explore—I was into so many things—but I did know the fine arts were more of an interest than the applied arts. When I graduated SVA, I had the intent of making work, showing in galleries and museums—the classic fine artist route. But then two things happened: I realized I didn’t like being alone in a studio making work by myself. I’d have one hand holding a paintbrush while the other hand held a phone to my ear. I would call anyone that would answer so that I could “be with” someone as I was working. Only later did I realize that collaboration was so important and central to my art. The second was that I started working with flowers as a way to support my painting. I ended up becoming fascinated with and passionate about it; just like painting, it deals with form, color, and composition. That led to me co-founding an event-planning business with my ex partner, Avi Adler.
ID: Then what?
DS: During grad school and before we were full-steam on the events business, I was also a waiter, which I was very good at. I was invited to work at the hippest gay restaurants at the time, like Restaurant Bellevues, which Florent Morellet owned. Florent was one of several great personalities in that world I was lucky enough to work for. He taught me what fun and surprise, being a good host, and elevating nightlife to the realm of immersive theater was all about.
I also realized that flowers were just one of the tools in the toolbox. They were right for some projects but not right for others. When I opened my mind to the world of material opportunities that exist, my career took off. I’d departed from the confines of the descriptor “florist” and became a designer. Eventually, Avi and I parted ways, and I launched David Stark Design and Production in 2006.
ID: What was your first event as your own company?
DS: I’m not sure what the very first event was, but I know which one was a giant shot in the arm for us early on. Prior to going out on my own, our former company had collaborated on the Robin Hood Foundation annual gala, a 4,000-person dinner, for many years. When we split up, Robin Hood bid the project out to multiple firms, including my new one. We worked really hard to come up with a conceptual idea that made what Robin Hood was all about implicit in the décor. This was not about decorating. Rather, it was about storytelling. Our vision transformed the Javits Center with giant, dimensional chalk drawings of NYC in which the guests could essentially “erase” poverty during the event and beyond. It was a good idea. But even more, getting the job, bringing the vision to life, gave me and my team a lot of confidence: We could do this! We could do this on our own. I have designed that event a dozen times since, and am currently working on this year’s.
ID: How do you handle the business side of your company? Any advice?
DS: I never forget for a second that we’re in a service business. Of course, the event needs to be more than perfect, but, let’s face it, while an event might last three to six hours, the journey to get to the event is where you spend much of the time with your client. We focus on that journey. We focus on communication, managing expectations, carefully reigning in budgets, gaining trust.
I have the strange ability to turn my left and right brain on and off as needed. I’m equally comfortable wearing the business hat as I am the creative one. I recognize that these facets of the company are yin and yang. Although I was encouraged artistically by my family, I also had wonderful business role models in my father and grandfather, and, perhaps from them, I sharpened that side of my brain.
I have a remarkable team of power thinkers, technicians, engineers, makers, and artists, and ascribe to the notion that TEAM stands for Together Everyone Accomplishes More. For us, it’s very true. And my design mantra, which I got from a professor, is that it’s OK to break the rules as long as you do it fabulously.
My advice would be to spend as much time on your business structure as you do on the design. A great structure will free you up to take design to higher heights.
ID: Which project are you most proud of and why?
DS: I can’t say “most proud” of any one project because we’re emotionally connected to all of them. But this was an exciting year of many firsts. Target’s premiere of Toycracker, a holiday, mini-musical film featuring John Legend and Chrissy Teigen, was a wildly ambitious, immersive theater first for us where, from the second guests arrived and made their way through the “backstage” of the created “theater” to the live show that bookended the film, and ultimately to the “cast party” after the show, we utilized a large cast of choreographed characters that took the guests on a journey within a living story akin to being inside a Broadway musical. (Scroll to the end of this interview for a time-lapse video of Toycracker coming to life!)
We were also honored to be part of the team that created the very first Whitney Museum gala inside the new downtown building by Renzo Piano. Being able to utilize the entire 5th floor, the largest gallery in the world unobstructed by interior walls, was thrilling. As was working with Anne Pasternak on the very first gala for the Brooklyn Museum under her leadership. We needed to create something that signaled change as well as take people by surprise. And, of course, it had to be chic and elegant. Our solution was inspired by Constantin Brâncusi and the extreme verticality of the museum’s Beaux Arts Court. We created towering totems of thousands of rolls of toilet tissue and paper towels. I know that doesn’t sound all that chic, but it’s how you do it that makes all the difference in the world, right?! I’m really proud of the results on that one. We’re working on this year’s gala, too.
Finally, although we produce events all over the world, we’d never worked in Palm Springs, California, until last year. The destination wedding weekend we did—social events such as weddings, bar and bat mitzvahs, birthdays, and anniversaries make up 35 percent of our work—was inspired by the mid-century, old Hollywood glamour of the resort town as well as the world of Tony Duquette.
Our goal is to be there for all the milestones of a person’s life, whether professional or social. That makes us many friends—and very nimble in terms of creating many different kinds of experiences.
ID: In broad strokes, what’s your design process?
DS: I sort of stockpile ideas in my brain. I might take photos of a material possibility on my phone or my iPad, and sometimes an idea might percolate for years until the right event presents itself. But for each project, we start by outlining the goals. No company is having an event simply because it’s fun. There are real business goals at stake, and it’s our responsibility to not only help achieve them but to also surpass them, thus the need for them to be clear from the onset.
From there, structure is key. We create a planning calendar that outlines the timing of all the milestones of the planning and design process. This serves as the outline for us and our clients, the roadmap for the journey together. Simultaneously, we create a master budget for all the elements we imagine will be needed to create the experience. Only after we create this master budget do we then start reaching out to vendors to get estimated pricing. We operate knowing how critical it is to have a budget outline from the onset, as well, so that from the first financial commitment we make, we know that we’re not going to be backed against the wall monetarily later. This is so important.
Once this structure is in place, our teams brainstorm against the budget and the goals, and we let the ideation process run wild. It’s the goals of the project that lead us to inventive design solutions. We are big on meaning being implicit in the materials used and context is everything. We create mood boards that visually outline directions we see as viable. We create renderings, samples, technical drawings, and videos. I’m over-simplifying the process, of course, but the journey is very inclusive and has many check-ins along the way.
ID: What’s your apartment like, colorful or all white?
DS: In NY, I live in a Brooklyn Heights loft with my husband, the performer and artist Migguel Anggelo. It was purposely created to be a respite from the opulence of color that our events typically employ. With a palette of soft grays, whites, creams, and punctuations of black, it’s quiet without sacrificing graphic interest. The flooring is cement tile with an optical pattern of dimensional cubes, and the spaces are filled with handmade pieces by either the loft’s architects, MADE, Migguel or myself, or international designer friends. Antiques and artworks add layers of personality, too.
Our place in Miami is more colorful and beachy. It’s also filled with special, handmade items that we love, but it’s a different sensibility to Brooklyn, reactive to the light of the environment.
ID: If you have the time, what do you do to unwind?
DS: I was in Miami over the holidays for a few weeks, and I played tennis just about every day, worked out in the gym, and went to the beach. As a kid, I was anything but sporty. But as an adult, my inner athlete has reared it’s head and drawn me in as a means of relaxation and burning off the steam of my high-stress world.
ID: What’s a dream commission?
DS: I’m kind of dying to do a giant, elaborate Indian wedding.
ID: What do you do to get ideas and stay on top of what’s going on aesthetically worldwide?
DS: An hour in a museum fuels me to know end. A trip to a far off land is a similar wonder. I spend time in gardens. I like to be grounded in history. Give me a meaty, historic time period to delve into, a particular architecture, or an artist’s paintings, sculptures, or installations, and the ideas flow uncontrollably. What I don’t do is look at a lot of other event design. While I’m interested in what my colleagues do, I don’t find studying their work useful for accomplishing our goals. In fact, when I meet with couples that are getting married, I often encourage them to NOT look at wedding images. I encourage us, as a team, to look at really anything at all except other weddings/events to find inspiration. That’s what keeps the work fresh and personal. And I never worry about being on trend. I simply focus on providing the right solution for the design problem. If the solution is a good one, it will always be in vogue.
Time Lapse Photography and Editing by Gustavo Campos. Song: “Spectacular” by Alan Zachary & Michael Weiner.