Founded by Paul Collette in
1999 as multi-genre music and
arts venue. Now co-owned with
organizer AEG Live.
It grew out of a 1993 concert
at the nearby Empire Polo
Club thrown by Pearl Jam,
which was then boycotting
venues controlled by
The concert established the
area as a viable concert venue,
with its remote location part
of the allure.
579,000 spectators and
$78 million in 2014, according
She’s one Coachella of a designer
Portrait of Heather Shaw, designer of concert stages
Taking place in April in Indio, California, Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival is known for its vibrant music. But it’s rapidly become a mecca for whimsical and immersive art installations and stage designs. Los Angeles artist Heather Shaw—a former automotive designer and one of the industry’s few women production designers—tells K how she brought her background and technical discipline to the electronic music scene.
Coachella revellers may be drawn by the music but, once inside, encounter a wonderland of colourful installation art, whimsical structures, set designs, and sonically synchronised lights.
Among the chefs of this visual feast is Heather Shaw, who has emerged as one of the scene’s few female lead multimedia production designers.
Since founding her Los Angeles immersive design firm, Vita Motus (Latin for ‘life vibrations’), in 2006, she has created installations not only for Coachella, but also for TV’s American Idol; performers such as Crystal Method and Pharrell Williams; and corporations like Absolut and Audi, where she began her first career in automotive design. Earlier this year, Red Bull featured her as an emerging artist in its Red Bull at Night brand campaign.
“It was always my intention to have a design business at some point,” says Shaw, 37. “While vehicles were fun to create, they were most often confidential to the company, so they weren’t seen by many people. These side projects fed my passion for music, community and friendship. They had to be created at hyper speed, and they were something people could experience and use right away.”
At this year’s Coachella, Shaw, alongside Michael Fullman from LA-based VT Pro Design, debuted the set design for American dance DJ Kaskade’s touring show, on the main stage at sunset.
“Heather has a talent for mixing structure and architecture with unconventional uses of technology to create unique concepts,” says VT Pro Design CEO Vartan Tchekmedyian. “Her background in automotive and industrial design, unusual for production designers, breeds a clean and sophisticated aesthetic. She constantly pushes the envelope and never attempts the same thing twice, which keeps things challenging and exciting.”
Shaw’s route to installation art was atypical. Growing up in Los Angeles, she graduated from the prestigious Art Center College of Art and Design in Pasadena in 2004 with a degree in transportation design. She then spent the next five years at Audi in its Los Angeles offices researching and designing concept and alternative energy family vehicles.
Shaw’s blonde braids and offbeat outfits were a bit of an anomaly at Audi’s more conventional studios. I went to my first burning man in 2000 and I was a little 'burnerific'. I aimed at gaining respect for skill, and what I could offer to projects, not what I kooked like.
That came with not just mastering her craft, but keeping pulse on emerging trends in fashion, underground art and alternative communities, and learning how to communicate with different sectors. She began to curate and lead design symposiums for Audi and create week-long experiences for visiting executives, which fostered her producing skills.
Being a woman gave me a different point of view
Her disparity became her distinction. “Being a woman gave me a different point of view. Most of the male car designers were living in a different reality, engineers not extending out into the world in ways that I was.”
That strategy also helped define her niche in the production design world, where women, though increasing in number, are still in the minority. In 2006, while at Audi, Shaw began co-designing and building large whimsical structures with The Do LaB, a Los Angeles event production company that creates immersive pieces for Coachella and other festivals.
Their different design styles complemented one another. “The Do LaB was more organic, creative and adventurous. I was more refined and techy, and was able to bring in a CAD (computer-assisted design) and 3D background,” says Shaw. “Working things out in computers enabled us to add bigger and crazier elements that were not previously designed for this kind of environment.”
“We executed our first project—a large, layered cardboard tree in a dome—in the middle of a field,” she says. Subsequent Coachella installations included The Cloud, Pagoda, Misting Oasis, and Triad Structure.
Shaw struck out on her own in 2009 when the automotive industry downsized. “It was a difficult time in the economy,” she says. “Somehow, we pulled ourselves out of that by working really hard and building a sustainable business. It’s more than doubled since last year.”
The alternative music scene would offer Shaw her major break. In between her work with the Do-Lab, she worked independently on stage sets for music producers in the EDM (electronic dance music) scene. In 2010, she designed her first touring stages for Brazilian musician Amon Tobin.
“There was a lot of global press and his brand received a lot of attention, which helped put us on the map,” she says. “From there, we got hired to do a lot of musical touring stages.”
As a result, her design sense incorporates an interaction between structure and environment. In the case of Kaskade’s latest Coachella show, “He’s playing on the main stage which carries countless other acts also with their production,” she says. “Part of our job is figuring out the logistics and how to work around the other productions and still have the most powerful show we can.”
“Coachella is a difficult and extreme environment,” she adds. “It’s hot, and you’re working around the clock to nail the production. The job isn’t just designing, but working out transportation, construction, and teardown logistics. Although we hire crew, we’re all out there building.”
I would like to go even further, like using non-toxic materials, but it can be prohibitively expensive.
In keeping with Coachella’s, and her own, values about recycling and sustainability, Shaw tries to repurpose materials from project to project.
“I would like to go even further, like using non-toxic materials, but it can be prohibitively expensive. One day I hope it can become affordable,” she says. “The scale of these projects is too large for a solar grid. The energy source has to be really reliable, because it’s live and nothing can cut out.”
Designs on the future
Her firm now juggles a half dozen or so projects at any given time, with a core staff of five that balloons to as many as 50, depending on the project, and partners with other media houses and tech companies.
“As the business grows, we are focused on designing as much as we can, so it makes more sense to keep projects moving,” she says. “We have many amazing relationships with fabricators, animators, musicians, producers. In the past, we have been heavily involved in the installation.
I was in there with the guys driving the boom lift and heavy machinery to get the project finished. If I didn’t have all of that hands-on experience, I couldn’t tell the fabricators how I wanted something to be built or specifically communicate what needs to get built.”
Despite her business shift, an artistic cohesion between her two careers persists. “Part of my work in the automotive industry was studying the future. I was making vehicles for the year 2020, and analysing what communities would use for transportation. This art is the same, in that I’m imagining things that haven’t happened yet and marrying types of art that aren’t yet connected.”
VT Pro Design
Red Bull installation video teaser
20 min doc on The Do Lab that includes Heather’s involvement
Photo credit: Carlo Cruz