Careers

Broadway set designer behind 'Hamilton' and 'Beetlejuice' says this mental habit is key to creativity

David Korins Design

Broadway is brimming with creative minds, but David Korins' still stands out.

He's responsible for dreaming up the sets behind some of the biggest hits on Broadway, transporting audience members from the coziness of their theater seats and into a different world entirely. He's created the sets for award-winning musicals like "Hamilton" and "Dear Evan Hansen," as well as for performances from stars like Kanye West, Lady Gaga and Bruno Mars. And on Tuesday, Korins was nominated for a 2019 Tony award for the set design of the new Broadway show "Beetlejuice the Musical."

Korins says that in order to become inspired, it's essential that he let his mind wander to the brink of boredom. Creativity, he says, is all about shutting up and letting your brain take over.

"Boredom is the moment before inspiration," Korins says. "And I have tried really hard to just shut up. Just shut up. People don't do it. People don't trust silence, they don't trust boredom, they are so self-conscious…and if you just shut up, you'll have an idea."

Technology, he explains, makes it hard to sit in a contemplative state, alone with your thoughts. But Korins urges that it's time to change that paradigm.

"You either talk to people and you build up that well of ideas, or you shut up again and think about it," he says. "When was the last time you sat there and actually thought, and didn't hear that ticking clock in your head or that desire to touch your phone...and just let that wave of boredom become meditative? That moment is the one right before the light bulb goes off."

Korins, 41, didn't get involved in set design until he was around 18, which he says was "tremendously behind" for the industry. He describes an environment in which his peers had grown up taking art classes, but at that point, Korins says he "basically had never even picked up a pencil."

David Korins
Donna Ward / Contributor | Getty Images

Being late to the game did not deter Korins, though; he just used that as motivation to work harder. He recalls a shoe commercial that he saw when he was around 10 years old, in which a boy is dribbling a basketball in an empty gym. "Right now," the commercial said, "the other guy is practicing." The message stuck with him.

"There were seven of us at an internship program in which I was probably the least experienced person," Korins tells CNBC Make It. "I thought, 'Oh gosh, that "right now someone else has been practicing" thing has been true my whole life, and I've got to go make up some ground.' And so from that point, from 1997 to 2005, I did more all-nighters then any person I've ever spoken to. I would stay up all the time and work tirelessly."

While he hustled, Korins' path to success also included some serious self-examination. In order to grow, he explains it's important to ask yourself what your true strengths and true weaknesses are, and then find people to work with who can cover your weaknesses and accentuate your strengths.

"I really had to think, 'What do I do better than any of my peer groups?'" Korins says, adding that you also have to be careful about who you're comparing yourself to.

David Korins Design

"I had someone in my life tell me, 'Look outside, look at all the buildings. Every one of those buildings is owned by somebody. In 30 years, every one of those buildings will be owned by somebody else. You cannot compare yourself to someone 30 years in front of you. You can compare yourself to your peer group, but you have to be honest about those comparisons," he explains.

"I realized pretty early on in my career, that probably within my peer group, I was somebody that might be lucky enough and ambitious enough and connected enough and good enough at a job to get a building," he says. "The question was, what neighborhood would that building be in, how tall would that building be, how fancy...and would it be a building that I wanted to live in?"

Korins is now one of the most–decorated set designers working on Broadway, and while his sets have been nominated for Tony Awards and won an Emmy, he says his greatest work so far has been building David Korins Design, which he founded in 2004. The experiential design firm's credits include everything from Broadway blockbusters to restaurants like Manhattan's Bond 45 and commercials for Target.

"The project I'm most proud of is building this business," Korins says. "My work is made possible by an incredibly talented, totally committed, ferociously loyal — [and it's] phenomenally humbling that they all show up — group of people."

CNBC

Though Korins' success is certainly a testament to hard work, his advice to 20-somethings striving for success is to strike a balance between working hard to push your career forward and finding new ways to explore life.

"Your imagination is like a fountain," Korins explains. "Any time you travel anywhere or read a book or see something, you fill up that water level a little bit so that the fountain can work beautifully. And then you work, and you use those ideas and the fountain depletes. And you've got to fill that fountain up. [Your] 20s is that decade when you should fill it and fill it and fill it, so that when you really get the opportunity to use your ideas, they're full."

Don't miss: UN ambassador, designer Rachel Roy: Nothing happens alone, 'no matter how hard you work'

Like this story? Like CNBC Make It on Facebook!

David Korins Design
make it

Stay in the loop

Sign Up

About Us

Learn More

Follow Us

CNBC.COM