Immersive Event Design With Darling & Edge

TOAST chats to 'Experientialists' Darling & Edge about their incredible events and pantomime spectacular Beauty & Feast

“There’s a lot you can do with an open mind and an open mouth” – quite. TOAST chats to immersive event design pros Darling & Edge to hear more about their incredible work and their first ever immersive dinner party - Beauty & Feast.

The delightfully named Darling & Edge, or Harriet Darling and Elise Edge to you and me, are self-confessed ‘experientialists’, and you’ll find them creating incredible immersive experiences and unforgettable events from their small studio in Hackney Wick.

After a chance encounter on Gumtree, we began making shows together. Everything from live art, to sculptural installations, fashion shoots to epic dinner parties – you name it, we tried it!” laughs Elise.

We came from a messy background of chemistry, illustration, spatial design and special effects and then we somehow made it into the world of TV prank shows…you can definitely say we’re women of diverse interests!”

Indeed, and it wasn’t long before this talented duo quickly realized that they couldn’t do everything (as hard as they tried) and so they decided to narrow it down and specialise in what they really cared about most: set design.

Even then we had to start by doing everything ourselves – sourcing the props, scenic painting, carpentry, costumes, lighting… We even wired all our own lights to start with! laughs Harriet.

6 years ago Darling & Edge won a competition to design the bar at The Old Vic Tunnels and became their designers in residence; Harriet and Elise happily quit their jobs in TV and made an enormous stretched grand piano that could actually be played – ‘the ultimate piano bar’, as they refer to it.

We try and foster the weird and unusual! We’ve created and nurtured a culture in which we question everything, try new things and continually make work that is original and interesting,” explains Elise.

The freedom of being our own bosses was, and is really important to us. We want to keep making fresh ideas and taking risks.”

And these fresh ideas and exciting risks are clear to see in the incredible immersive environments that Darling & Edge regularly create; they’ve worked on various events with immersive supper club geniuses Gingerline, creating everything from a ‘flying saucer dining room’ heading to an intergalactic planet, to their smash hit Chambers of Flavour which involved intrepid guests travelling through an incredible steam-powered machine and visiting a set of fantastical alternate dimensions, and all created by Darling & Edge no less. They also created 13 distinct environments sprawling through a warren of underground tunnels for a large scale immersive theatrical production of ‘Goosebumps Live’, transformed the Selfridges iconic window displays and brought the life and soul of Mexico to a grand platform with all the attitude of underground London for Wahaca’s Day of the Dead festival.

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In the immersive environments that we create we make sure that everything from the set to the sound design feels like it’s part of one cohesive world. On a day to day basis that means everything from making meringue mushrooms to sewing costumes, loading vans and trawling the markets for interesting props explains Harriet.

We’re maximalists! We love pushing an ascetic to the furthest exaggeration it can be and making it as theatrical as possible. That’s come from working on events that envelop our audience, you don’t sit in a seating rake and watch it in a frame, it’s not a pretty picture, it’s all around you, and we want peoples’ eyes to wander, find layers of intricacy and details that reward them

Recently Harriet and Elise have also been working on the Channel 4 series ‘My Epic Room Makeover’ – taking a handful of lucky people’s living rooms and transforming them into their ultimate fantasy for an unforgettable party.

We had such fun shooting that show! We were given a lot of artistic freedom so we made some really playful spaces – a Bollywood spaceship, a miniature Tokyo out of cardboard for a giant Godzilla to come and crush – it was hilarious explains Elise

We used everything we had learnt from working in theatre so that we could come in in just one day and transform people’s rooms – without them really realizing that we were there. Watching the faces of the contributors as they walked in for the first time was so joyful

Darling & Edge’s new exciting venture is called Beauty and The Feast; their very first immersive dinner party described as a ‘palatable pantomime’. Just off the graffiti-laden tunnels of Waterloo is a secret passage through the Magic Mirror that leads into a fabulous ‘Pantoland’, set in a grand old French chateau on the night of a magnificent feast. The compere is of course Fairy Liquid, who's busy matchmaking beautiful Belle and the Beast and she needs some help from the audience, naturally.

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It is basically a big gay panto with food! It has got gorgeous set design shoehorned into the dirty underground tunnels of the vaults, and it has got fabulous panto characters with equally dirty undercurrents, taffeta, powder wigs, fishnets and 8inch heels!” laughs Elise.

We always wanted to take on the pantomime genre, and this is our homage to panto – we wanted to make something fun and lighthearted for grown-ups, that looked great and that you could go to with your mates or your mum!”

Pantomimes, for most, are a bit like Marmite – you either love them for their nostalgic charm and British eccentricity, or they can literally be your worst, nausea-inducing nightmare. I have to say that I sit in the yes camp – a Christmas without a camp panto and a bit of ‘HE’S BEHIND YOU!’ just isn’t Christmas in my opinion. Although Darling & Edge’s version, I should point out, is strictly for adults.

We also love pantomime, so we are biased. They are a British tradition! And gammy bad acting and clichés are a perfect environment for friends to let it all hang out and have a good old-fashioned knees up. That’s how we differ from other dining experiences – it’s about fun and frolic!”

When it comes to creating an immersive environment there are of course plenty of senses that need considering, but visually the surroundings really need to make an impact if guests are going to get well and truly truly lost in the event. Obviously Darling & Edge have got this covered, but just how do they go about transforming completely empty spaces in to such an extraordinary environments?

We do a lot of research into other designers, painters and artists and then we pull together a page or two of images and workout a visual identity. From there we work out how to make it fun – what are people going to interact with and be occupied by in the space?” explains Elise.

For Beauty and the Feast we’ve really gone to town referencing really sumptuous theatrical scenic painting, and Disney on this one. We’ve done loads of lovely hand-painted fabric drapes, which are super effective and a playful take on traditional theatre techniques. We’ve also installed about 60 chandeliers - that’s A LOT of light bulbs!”

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The food has also been carefully considered too; a big, seasonal, sharing fairytale feast will be served up with gusto and everyone is encouraged to serve each other. Expect tasty treats such as whole roasted pumpkins with oozing black bean stew, warm blue cheesecake with pear salad, and rich and tender venison sausages served on the string.

We love the traditions and ceremonies surrounding food – it has the power to create community. For Beauty and the Feast we’ve created a sharing banquet that obliterates formalities - with huge whole pumpkins that guests have to share with their neighbours, dreadfully dissect and make a big mess. We want everybody to feel at home and put their elbows on the table!” enthuses Harriet.

It’s a big glutinous but accessible menu that you can really and truly feast on. It’s rustic, unpretentious and plentiful - we pride ourselves on no one going home with an empty belly!”

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As per any good old-fashioned knees up there is of course a dress code to be adhered to - ‘Rocking Rococo’, done your own way. Darling & Edge encourage guests to dig deep into their creativity, pile high with bows, tassels, lace, roses, rouge and glitter and as they say - ‘stuff car sponges into your hair for height, glue gun Christmas decorations to your shoes, ruffle doilies around your neck, swap trousers for tights, or try wearing some furniture. If in doubt, remember more is more - keep it sexy, keep it inventive, keep it wild’!

The audience are part of the set design for us! It makes such a difference to the atmosphere if everyone dresses up. It’s absolutely not compulsory but if people enjoy making costumes it can really make them feel part of the show! We also really believe in the power of costumes to make you feel different – to make you feel different from the everyday and to play!” explains Harriet.

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Immersiveness is of course Darling & Edge’s middle name – and what a booming business to be a part of. Over the past 5 years immersive and experimental experiences have taken the UK events scene by storm and are now considered relativity mainstream activities, as well as enduringly popular. Boundaries continued to be pushed, and Darling & Edge believe that the future may lie in tech.

We’re really excited about the future mix of technology and theatre. Oculus Rift head sets and tech that enable shows to be tailor made to each person in the audience are becoming much more affordable and flexible now – when that starts to make a big impact on events it’s going to start getting really interesting…” explains Elise excitedly.

We feel so lucky that we’re part of such a healthy, booming scene. When we first started no one had any idea what an immersive event was but now we get enquires about immersive product launches, birthday parties and even weddings! We’d love to keep pushing and see where it takes us, and it’s wicked that there’s so many people that are up for coming with us!”

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Beauty and the Feast is on at The Vaults from now until 14th Jan. For more info and tickets visit https://www.thevaults.london/beauty-and-the-feast 

For more information on Darling and Edge, check out their profile in our Little Black Book or head over to TheEDIT to read Darling and Edge's top tips for immersive party fun!

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