Interview: NYC Event Producer David Stark Reveals The Secret Behind Designing The Whitney Museum Gala, The National Design Awards, And More!

David Stark

Interview: NYC Event Producer David Stark Reveals The Secret Behind Designing The Whitney Museum Gala, The National Design Awards, And More!
By Neesha Arter

As the President and Creative Director of David Stark Design and Production, David Stark runs the world of event production and design in NYC. His clientele list ranges from big names like Beyoncé, to Condé Nast and Target. With the motto “elevating ordinary events to extra extraordinary experiences,” it is no question that Stark is the king of design. He’s written five books on design with his most recent book, “The Art of the Party,” hitting stores this spring. We were lucky enough to sit down with the design maven for an exclusive interview to discuss upcoming projects and the secret behind his success.

You started working in floral design after attending art school at RISD. How did you take that to event design?
It’s really funny how this happened. We were invited to interview for the job of designing the NYC Opera’s gala, and Carolyne Roehm was the evening’s Chair Woman, a noted floral designer in her own right. The production was a re-staging of Macbeth in industrial England at the turn of the century and Carolyne took a look at our portfolio and said, “There is no question about it. You make the most beautiful arrangements, but this evening is not about flowers at all!”
She probably doesn’t even remember this (or me!), but that sentence was a game changer. All of a sudden, Dorothy’s door to Oz opened and the world of materials became my palette. Of course, I adore flowers. They are a first love, but they are not always the right tool in the tool box for every single occasion.
You know, it took me so many years to shake the term “florist” off the back of my name, and now we do these events, and people say, “Wow, your flowers are so beautiful! Who does them!?” I am always proud to admit that we do them ourselves.

Your tag line for the events you create is “elevating ordinary events to extra extraordinary experiences.” What are three essential things one needs to do this?
Three things that I think about for every event large or small are:
1. Embed surprise within the event.
2. Make art, don’t decorate.
3. Be gracious. Give the most extraordinary service. Regardless of what a space looks like, how you welcome and take care of your guests really is key to an extraordinary experience.

Congratulations on your fifth book, that’s a great accomplishment. How did you first get your start with writing books and was that always a goal of yours?
I have always loved books, but it was never a goal of mine, per se, to create them. That said, as I have become the kind of artist that creates ephemeral art work in the form of events, books have become a brilliant way for me to hold on to something tangible in our work.
Event production and design moves at break-neck speed, and you have to be an athlete or a warrior to keep up with the hours and demands of the industry. It’s such a wonderful gift for me to slow down and really look at what we are doing artistically within the pages of a book.

What other designers inspire you?
I tend to look to the world of fine art for my inspiration. Of course, I love all of design as well, but when in my head, my design work is more akin to art making. Now, of course, I know it is technically ‘design’ because I am making it for someone, answering design problems along the way, but the distinction is that I am not decorating the room. Rather, I am filling it with art that people interact with. It comes alive when the people enter the space.
To that end, I think a lot about various artists, from painters to installation artists, and I don’t think about their work in terms of personal taste but whether it works really, really well within its own parameters — Yayoi Kusama, Yves Klein, Tom Friedman, Matisse, Sol Lewitt, Ellsworth Kelly, Vik Muniz, Keith Haring, Les Lalanne, my list goes on and on. I am pretty voracious in my art appetite.

What makes a room special? Is it a piece or the colors? Everything?
Most often for me, the space is magical when it is unlike anything I have ever seen before, made out of materials that are unexpected, conceptually tied to what an evening is about, and there are layers of meaning built into the décor.
Recently, we planned and designed the U.S. State Department’s 50th Anniversary Gala of its Art In Embassies program at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington D.C. and that event remains very special to me. Looking at basic geometric shapes, the building blocks of all design and art making, we created a series of interactive, wild installations out of donated materials from companies like Benjamin Moore, Crayola, and Post-it — a 20 foot tall viewing platform made from thousands of Post-it note pads and a 16 foot tall pyramid made from a millions crayons, for instance.

What does your own home look like?
My home is eclectic, an ever changing gallery of ephemera and art pieces from the events that we do, art that I love and collect, and items from my travels around the world. I love hand-made things, and while I very rarely wear color, my apartment has a lot of it. I love the juxtaposition of things that should not necessarily go together, but do.
In my head, I aspire to be a minimalist, but that takes a huge amount of discipline. And you know what? I don’t have it.

What are your favorite stores in NYC that people may not know about?
I look to my own backyard in Brooklyn for my local shopping fix. Luckily, there is a lot of cool stuff going on there. Many of the antique stores on Atlantic Avenue are great fun and chock full of inspiration. I love City Foundary, Darr, and Holler and Squall. In Manhattan, I love Mantiques Modern and Liza Sherman Antiques in the West Village.

What’s the best way for young people in NYC to design their apartments on a budget?
Young designers are lucky because the zeitgeist says that over-the-top is out and ingenuity is ALWAYS in and to that end, one can be very inventive about the materials that are used to decorate a home. I never buy a “table cloth,” for example, but I often use a canvas drop cloth from the hardware store as a super chic table covering.
Recently, due to Hurricane Sandy, we had to move the Whitney Museum’s Gala from its planned location on the Pier to the actual Museum. Our creative solution to budgets and time? We “drew” all kinds of designs on the walls of the galleries with painter’s tape. Be open to using materials in ways and for things that they weren’t necessarily intended for and you can make a gorgeous apartment on a budget. Lasso creativity.

What is the best advice you have for young designers?
Work really hard, and break the rules, but when you do so, make sure you do it BRILLIANTLY. Also, another thing that I think is really important: I never forget, for an instant, that I am in the service business. Yes, I am an artist/designer, but at the end of the day, I run a business that is first and foremost about service. Focus on that.
You can be the most brilliant artist in the world, but if you are a pain to work with, if you don’t finish on time, if you come in over budget, if you lose your temper, if you are a diva, people will not want to hire you. I play a lot of roles: advisor, confidant, best friend, therapist, designer, artists, business person, teacher, and many more. Focus on balance to ensure a successful creative career. It’s critical.

You have five books, including “The Art of the Party” coming out this spring. You’ve designed some of the biggest events in the city, and are constantly working on multiple projects. What can we expect to see from you next?
I have some new product ideas bubbling away in my brain. The recent store ambush we did last February of Soho’s Haus Interior with our Wood Shop collection was great fun and so rewarding. I would really love to create more products within innovative contexts.

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