Noted: Inside the Studio of David Korins, Set Designer of ‘Hamilton’

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Noted: Inside the Studio of David Korins, Set Designer of ‘Hamilton’

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On a recent morning, the Broadway set designer David Korins gave a tour of his tchotchke-filled studio near Pennsylvania Station in Manhattan. In a room with miniature models of stage sets, a conversation about staircases ensued.

For the 2010 production of “The Pee-wee Herman Show,” Mr. Korins designed each step to be 10 inches high, so that the star Paul Reubens “clomped up and down like he was a small child,” he said.

For the 2012 revival of “Annie,” he designed a grand staircase in Daddy Warbucks’s mansion after his 6-year-old daughter persuaded him that a man with zillions of dollars ought to have one.

And most recently for “War Paint,” he imagined a pink staircase for Christine Ebersole to make her dramatic entrance as the beauty titan Elizabeth Arden. It helped earn Mr. Korins his second Tony Award nomination for scenic design.

Judging from the certificates on his walls (including in the bathroom), Mr. Korins is among the most-decorated set designers working on Broadway. In addition to “War Paint,” he has three musicals in full bloom at the moment: “Hamilton,” “Dear Evan Hansen” and “Bandstand.”

He also designs sets for movies, television (Bravo’s “Watch What Happens Live”) and music performances (Kanye West, Lady Gaga and Sia). He even dabbles in restaurants, including Bond 45, a trattoria that is reopening next month at the Hotel Edison on West 47th Street.

But if all of this has Mr. Korins, 40, feeling overextended, he is not showing it. “I’m really not busy,” he said, looking unflappable and preppy in a heather-gray crew-neck sweater and jeans, his purple socks showing through.

He has a work ethic that would impress Thomas Edison. Starting in 1997 as an intern at the Williamstown Theater Festival, he said, he had the weakest drawings skills and keenest ambition of any of his peers. Five years later, he was directing the design program.

In 2001, he and Carolyn Cantor founded the Edge Theater Company in New York. One of his feats was putting an actor belly down on a skateboard and sending him off to perform as a shark.

Part of what distinguishes his set designs is the cathartic use of space.

In “Dear Evan Hansen,” for example, the musical about adolescent anxiety and mendacity, Mr. Korins suspended computer monitors to create a dark, pseudosocial atmosphere of crawling digital texts and images. Only in the last scene did he treat the audience to a much-needed breath of sky.

Jeffrey Seller, the lead producer of “Hamilton,” recalled seeing Mr. Korins’s set for the rock musical “Passing Strange” at the Public Theater in 2007: a white curtain pulled back to reveal a wall of gridded neon light. “It surprised me in a way to win my love,” Mr. Seller said.

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For “Hamilton,” Mr. Korins introduced the turntable that dominates the stage as a metaphor for the whirlwind of 18th-century American politics. That set earned him his first Tony nomination.

Mr. Korins is also known for what Michael Greif, the director of “War Paint” and “Dear Evan Hansen,” calls understanding “the poetic movement of a play.” For “War Paint,” they agreed that beauty products “were the nuts and bolts of the musical,” Mr. Grief said. Mr. Korins installed a wall of luminous glass bottles with shifting colors that performs like a second chorus.

“David hears the story, he pictures the story, he implements it,” said Shelly Fireman, who owns Bond 45. At the reopened restaurant, the story will transport visitors to an Italian village with black-and-white tiles and a simulated piazza under a ceiling of light-bulb stars.

“Doing a restaurant is like doing a piece of theater that never opens,” said Mr. Korins, who previously designed Florian, another trattoria owned by Mr. Fireman.

Though technologically fearless, Mr. Korins doesn’t always succeed in translating ideas across media. For the 2014 art show “Picasso and the Camera,” at the Gagosian Gallery in Chelsea, he installed slanted columns covered in blown-up photographs. Karen Rosenberg, a former arts writer for The New York Times, found the installation to be “a messy, fragmented affair, with as many angles as a Cubist painting.”

Such criticisms are rare, though. “Auteur directors can bat .500: have a really big hit, followed by a really big miss,” Mr. Korins said. “Designers have to hit 95 percent. You really have to know what you’re making because you can’t fail half the time.”

Thomas Kail, the director of “Hamilton,” who is Mr. Korins’s friend and frequent collaborator, said their relationship came down to a single question: “Who do I want to sit in the dark with and try to solve problems?”

Take “Grease: Live,” a three-hour televised remake of the 1978 movie that Mr. Kail directed and Mr. Korins designed for Fox last year. It involved an outdoor stage, overcast skies, a live audience and no second chances.

Mr. Korins, he said, is the person “you want in your theatrical foxhole.”

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