Seven Questions for Event Design Master David Stark

David Stark has made a name for himself with design that is simultaneously innovative and playful, monumentally scaled yet welcoming and thoughtfully customized. His Brooklyn-based firm’s events, for clients ranging from Smithsonian’s Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum and New Yorkers for Children to West Elm and discerning brides often transform quotidian materials—Post-Its, paint chips, bundled newspapers—into one-night wonderlands. Guests have been known to marvel, look closer, and then ask, “Why didn’t I think of that?”

Stark’s latest production is WOOD SHOP, a “surprise ambush” of Nina Freudenberger‘s Haus Interior in New York. “For about a month, all of the product that Haus usually carries will be removed and replaced with our limited-edition WOOD SHOP collection that is inspired by the iconic wood worker’s atelier,” explains Stark of the collaborative concept store-cum-art gallery, which opens to the public on Friday at 11:00 a.m. (sneak a peek at some of the goods and buy them online here). “We’re excited to take the pop-up store to the next level.” Stark took time away from last-minute preparations to answer our seven questions about wooden must-haves, his start in event design, and how he created a “garden of Versailles” out of shredded paper.

1. What are a few of your favorite products in WOOD SHOP?
Oh, I love so, so many of them that it is hard to name one or two, but I am particularly happy with the hand-crocheted paint can and brush pillows, the turned poplar vases, and I do love the “Pining for You” poster/valentine. It’s a fantastic card to send in the mail, and it is also cool to frame and put on a wall. This pieces is the newest in our company tradition of newsprint cards that we have sent to friends and clients over the last couple of years. Those cards have become so popular that they are commonly saved and framed as wall art.

2. You went to art school at RISD. How did you get your start in event design?
Totally by accident! I didn’t even know there was a career called, “event design”! Back in the day, I worked with flowers and a partner, making arrangements for parties to support my fledgling painting career. Over time, I did more and more floral work than painting and got better and better at it. One day we were invited to interview for the job of designing the décor for New York City Opera’s fundraising gala. Carolyn Roehm, a noted florist in her own right, was the chair lady of the evening, and she took one look at our book and said, “Well, there is no question that you make the most beautiful flower arrangements, but this evening is not about flowers at all.”

All of a sudden a light bulb went off! It was a real a-ha moment. The revelation that flowers were not the only decorative tool for a party was mind-blowing. It seems real obvious of course, but at the time, it was radical. Now flowers are just one of the tools in my tool box, and the rest of the world of options is readily at my fingertips.

3. Your firm specializes in “elevating ordinary events to extra extraordinary experiences.” What do you consider the key ingredients to a successful event?
We love to break the rules and create something that people have not seen before. It’s something that I learned at RISD and think about everyday: Break the rules, but if you do so, do it brilliantly! Seriously though, planning a party is about a bunch of things that are equally important. The flow and comfort of the guest experience is as equally important to what a party “looks” like. The service is critical. We make sure that the planning process, the logistics, and the flow are as buttoned up as possible so that our clients don’t need to worry about a thing, and at the same time, we create environments that elevate party décor to the realm of installation art. Thus, my art background really does inform my work today. I don’t see any real difference between making a painting, creating an event, or designing products. My approach is always the same: make art.

4. A common thread among your amazing projects seems to be the surprisingly delightful repurposing of everyday stuff. Do you have a favorite/go-to material?
I don’t have a favorite go-to medium per se, because I pick materials that have a conceptual relationship to the experience. Recently, though, the décor we made for the Cooper-Hewitt’s National Design Awards gala was created out of tape, and that was great fun. Because the institution is closed for construction, we could not hold the gala at the Museum. At Chelsea Piers instead, we created a giant model of the Museum’s Beaux Arts building as a centerpiece of the room out of orange tape. It was surprising, fun, reminded the guests why we were all there in the first place, and the transformation of material was a magic act simpatico with an event that honors design for its magic powers.

5. Did you ever have a situation where a planned “reuse” just didn’t work?
We have certainly had challenges that we had to figure out. Once, also for the Cooper-Hewitt, we created the décor out of a year’s worth of recycled waste paper that we collected from our and the Museum’s offices, creating a “garden of Versailles” out of the paper shreds. The Museum has very stringent rules on “flame-proofing” paper that resides in its facilities so we needed to figure out how to treat six tons of shredded paper so that it became compliant. That was a tricky brain teaser, but we did it!

6. What has been your best or most memorable design-related encounter?
Wow, there are so many. I don’t have a “best,” because if you create the perfect piece of art, then you are essentially finished, right? One of the projects that is very meaningful to me, though, is one we did a couple of years back for the Robin Hood Foundation. For their annual fundraising gala, we created the décor out of a million dollars worth of donated products from various companies that the program’s participants needed—everything from canned food to clothing, shoes, blankets, school books, even alarm clocks. You can’t get to a job interview or to work on time if you don’t have an alarm clock, right?! The design challenge was to create the décor on a scale that it could command a space for a 4,000-person seated dinner and not screw into, glue, nail, or destroy any of the donate-able items. There was no waste. After the party, everything went into the hands of the people that needed it most and conceptually, the purpose of the evening was implicit in the décor. To me, that is when décor really works.

7. What do you consider your proudest design moment?
Even though my book David Stark Design (Monacelli) came out in 2010, I am still amazed at what my team has accomplished when I look through those pages. My team is really incredible. I am moved, inspired, challenged, impressed, and most proud of the them. My team is my proudest design moment. Definitely.