Welcome to the final installment of “What makes you, you?”, a three part conversation with David Korins. Particularly in this section, part 3, we dive into mentors, longevity, light and leadership.
Jane: Is it better to get older? Do you feel like when you were younger you had more creativity or do you feel like you’re more settled in your work now?
David: I remember feeling kind of like a hot shot early on, mentally and imaginatively. And I remember thinking like oh, I can’t believe they’re passing me over for this grand master designer… I could do that! Now as a person who’s 41 and having done this for 20 something years, 100% you get better and better and better and better. There’s no doubt that right now, I could run circles around that 27 year old kid who was like I can’t believe they passed me over for that guy or that lady. At all. Your bag of tricks gets filled up. The people who I really love in the world… I have like 5 or 6 mentors, really the the people who I try to spend the most amount of time with are really old. High 70’s, high 80’s and I try and find 80 year olds who are still using iPhones. You know if you’re 80 and you’re still using an iPhone, you’re relevant. Because they’ve got the 80 year old bag of tricks filled up with all these life things but I think the thing that I was feeling at 27 that I couldn’t put my finger on was “I’m cool.” or “I’m relevant” or “I’m here.” and that can wane. But your knowledge, unless you start slipping emotionally or mentally, there’s no doubt you’re better as you get older. I’m really going to challenge myself to stay on trend. 41 is a weird age… I’m old enough to have some cred and young enough still to be kind of cool. But in 5 years, I will not be young enough to be cool. That really is a thing. I always charted myself and my success in life [by] how long could I be the youngest person in the room? And I was the youngest person in the room for a very long time. And now, I am no longer the youngest person in the room but I’m still young enough to be like no no no, I know that this thing is cool. But ya know, there’s a shelf life on that and so I think the challenge is, how are you 80 but when I’m 80, knocking on wood, what will the version of the iPhone be… the thing that plugs into my spine and tells me all the things I want. If I still want that. You could at least still have the conversation of cool.
Jane: Who are a few of your mentors?
David: Manny Azenberg is a guy whenever I see him, talk about theatre legend, he’s been there done that 7 times over. I try and sit by his side. Shelly Fireman, who’s a restauranteur who I’ve collaborated with frequently, is a guy, again who has been there done that. I have 6 or 7 people in my life…
The first time there’s a financial crisis, I’m talking like the stock market plummets, and you see this thing.. people jump out the window. If you’re a stock broker, they jump out of the window. Then, 10 years later, a financial crisis happens again and if you’ve made it through the first one and you’ve made it through the second one, ya know? You sorta go, oh I understand this. The 3rd or 4th dip in the market, raise in the market.. you kinda go, oh this is life. Again, if you pull back this huge pothole, if you pull back the lens, you realize, there’s tons of potholes. They even out as you get more of them. I try and fill my day talking to as many people as I can who have experienced a lot of potholes.
Jane: You build homes and safe spaces for other people to create and be. How do you do that for yourself? I have a friend who is a designer and it was so interesting to see his studio, which was an explosion of his unique creativity and then to see his home, which felt like a stark hotel room. I always wondered why he didn’t carry it into his personal…
David: It’s a funny thing you say because years ago, 20 years ago, I was approached by someone who wrote for the House and Homes section of the NY Times and said, “I want to write an article, I’m sure your home is so amazing.. walls must flip open and spin around.” And I was like, you’re crazy. I had no money, everything was Ikea, at best…
For the last 15 years, I’ve not had my studio in my home. It started with my studio in my apartment and obviously there was a drafting table and model making supplies and all those things. But since I’ve moved my work space out of my home space.. I’ve also become fairly obsessed with artist processes. Which is interesting to see. You go and see people’s studios and it is in some way, a reflection of them. I’ve always had a hard time with what my work space should be because I’m not just a set designer in theatre so my collaborators are not just writers and composers and other designers and directors. Theatre is probably 25% of my business and I do a whole lot of other things for much more corporate brands, I do things for experiences and intellectual property and restaurants and architecture and other stuff. So my office has to toe the line between making a theatre director feel really comfortable to come here and think it’s a creative space but then also I have to have people who want to spend 20 million dollars show up and feel ok. And those worlds don’t always necessary overlap… We make huge messes, massive huge messes [in the office] but we clean up every day.
I’m a light whore. In my home and in my office, we have windows on all the sides, and it’s one of those things. I guess when you asked me the question “What’s my one non-negotiable” I gotta have light. My screen on my iPhone is turned up to the full brightness, same thing with my computer screen… I want light in my life.
Jane: That’s metaphorical…
David: I really do! Pull open the shades. So my space here is pretty utilitarian and has to be a thing that can get messed up but it has to be kind of high brow, low brow. We have to be able to service a lot of different kinds of people.
My home.. is like a really, really comfortable hotel. Recently, I would say in the last 5 years, I’ve kind of created things that.. I start to R&D things that I will use in my work or I mess with new methodologies and I put them into my home. I’ve started to create a bunch of art objects for my house that are kind of toiling away at little ideas I may use in my work but it’s kind of like the nicest, most comfortable hotel. It’s very spare. No walls that flip around, nothing hugely theatrical. Who doesn’t want to be comfortable in their home? It’s not austere or pretentious. It’s just comfortable. But clean lines.
Jane: Colors? Just white?
David: No, my couch which is probably a mistake is a pretty light color but it has some poppy green and grey and silvery pillows. It’s well pulled together. My bedroom is grey and pretty serene.
Jane: Tell us about lime green.
David: When I founded the company, the kind of cool colors at the time were florescent orange and… it was going to be black and white and something. Green is the color of life. Green is new life. It wasn’t going to be red. Too severe. Too on the nose. It wasn’t going to be blue, too serene. Wasn’t going to be purple or yellow. I knew it was going to be something, something and a pop of color and green was new life. The color of new life.
Jane: What would be the most simple advice you could give someone?
David: Learn a lot. Be nice. Have fun. We have two rules here at the company. The work has to be excellent. Not good, not really great, it has to be excellent. And we will work tirelessly to do that, around the clock, at all costs. And no one gets hurt.. emotionally, physically, spiritually or mentally. That’s it.
Jane: While you were learning leadership in your business, did you have any books or resources or was it just trial and error.
David: My ex-father-in-law, is a guy, he’s about to turn 80, he’s got the iphone. Huge mentor in my life. He is a financial consultant and really helps lots of people manage their financial lives but when you’re dealing with someone’s financial life, it becomes emotional and it becomes personal, obviously. Because who you hope to be in life can only be helped or pushed one way or the other given your financial bracket. He was big because I was able to understand that road with the potholes much easier. He had been through those financial crashes, through those ups and downs, and [always said] ‘don’t let this get you down, brush yourself off’. And we are really, really close and I was able to understand the kind of scope of a career much earlier than I think I probably would of without him.
And in 2001, I founded a theatre company with Carolyn Cantor, a director. I was a designer and producer and she was a director and producer and when we combined forces to do that, I learned really early on in life how to be a producer. And by that I mean, advertising, marketing, building, acquiring scripts, dealing with agents, pulling together resources including people resources but also material resources and all the things that go along with that. When you only are responsible for being a designer or creative director or one little silo amongst this huge operation but you know what the operation is, that is invaluable. So early on, having both that mentor but also the ability to be in charge of the whole operation and understand if we spend more money on scenery we’re going to have less money to pay actors or costumes or whatever the thing is…
Understanding a holistic approach to something was huge and I did that when I was 20 nothing years old. So, now I can’t help but think about shows and projects much more holistically. And I think that’s a lot of the reason why people come to me to collaborate. Yea, I am a pretty good designer but I can not help but see the whole picture.
Photos & Interview by Jane Jourdan.