Dreams have always lived in her head. Ethereal visions of light, texture, shape and sound. In the electronic dance music scene, Heather Shaw is known as a creative soul unbound by bureaucratic constraints and blessed with a restless imagination able to turn abstract thought into a functional design experience.
Vita Motus, Shaw’s nine-year-old L.A.-based design firm, has transformed the stages of artists like Pharrell, Janelle Monae and M.I.A. into combustive hives of energy that dazzle the senses and push personal expression to dizzying heights. “It’s about connecting with an artist,” says Shaw, “and creating a concept that … extends who they are as a person.” In February, her new project, a four- story cube of interactive musical experiences, debuts on a rooftop in downtown Los Angeles.
The cube—which will chart technology’s evolution from analog to digital through live performances—is a whimsical, smart examination. Told through music, media and design, it accentuates every aspect of her skill set. It’s all at once subtle, straightforward and accessible. Inspired by the work of inventor Ray Kurzweil and other futurists, it also represents her most ambitious effort to date.“I hope we bring a different experience to the nightlife community,” says Shaw. “One that pays homage to the past and inspires the future by communicating that technology has enabled strong collectives.”
Growing up in South Pasadena, Shaw can’t remember a time when she wasn’t drawn to the arts. Her grandfather was a sought-after house painter who worked on Elvis Presley’s house in L.A. When she was 8, her mother enrolled her in art classes, where she excelled working with clay and pencil drawing.
She eventually pursued a fine arts degree at nearby USC. One afternoon she was standing in a freshman art class where projects were being judged. In that moment, she decided she was on the wrong path.
“Painting a picture, hanging it on the wall and having people critique it just wasn’t enough,” Shaw remembers. “I was totally over that. I wanted all that effort to have a bigger purpose. I wanted my art to be more functional.”
She shrugged off her USC misfire, enrolled in Pasadena City College and got a job managing an art store to make extra money. Being around a like-minded community was what she needed. The salary, quite generous for a college student, also allowed her to buy her first new car—a life-changing decision.
She surprised herself by diving into her car search so voraciously. She visited showrooms, went for test drives, attended car shows and asked hundreds of questions. She fretted over comfort, practicality, ergonomics, style and function. “I became obsessed with cars,” she remembers.
And then a light went on. This was the real-life application of an artist’s inherent curiosity. She enrolled in Art Center College of Design in Pasadena to major in automotive design. The classes were small and there were few women. She devoured every lesson.
Immediately upon graduating Shaw landed a job with Audi’s Los Angeles– based design studios, where she focused on designing concept cars (the slick ones you see at car shows) and ways to make future generations of automobiles more energy efficient. She thrived and found insight and inspiration everywhere, even in futuristic dystopian fiction.
As she hit her stride in the male-dominated industry, she arrived at work one day in 2008 to find that she’d been laid off. The auto industry was tanking and she was now a faceless casualty.
It was a crushing blow, but her time with the German carmaker gifted her two things: 1) a thirst to see her vision come to light in a megacompetitive field; 2) spare time to take on passion projects.
She had dabbled in designing festival stages for several years but usually did the work out of passion and didn’t get paid. Now she was unemployed and, after a few weeks stressing about her future, her friends threw her a house party to cheer her up. They posted her résumé all over the house, stapled to the walls, in a tongue-in-cheek, symbolic gesture.
Shaw brought her parents, who couldn’t understand why this was a cause for celebration. Now she’d have to get serious about her own design firm, a side project to this point. “I hustled every day,” Shaw remembers. “I took every job just to do it. Just to make ends meet. I did everything.”
She began to turn heads with her collaborations with event productions company The Do Lab, like the continuous “Misting Oasis” stage, a 360-degree dome that aims to deliver an otherworldly experience. The elaborate designs shaped the feel of major music festivals like Coachella and The Do Lab’s own Lightning in a Bottle. One of her first signature designs with Do Lab co-founder Josh Flemming was a cardboard-tree DJ booth—they came up with the concept while on vacation in Milan—whose branches spread to the ceiling of the dome.
Shaw “follows a different process than most designers,” says Flemming. “She does a lot of pre-work, research and study. Before she even puts pen to paper, she knows how it’s going to work.”
Her early focus was the EDM scene, where she was drawn to the upbeat, communal vibe, tinged with hope and self-expression. As the scene became a movement and evolved from basements to major festivals, Shaw sought to keep the original spirit of the booming sub- genre intact. The sense of community, freewill, adventure and, of course, staying up all night are core values she’s tried to preserve. But she wanted to move past the traditional truss-and-light aesthetic that defined early festivals, by merging stimulating sculptures with pulsating, seemingly living light configurations.
“Light is definitive,” says Shaw. “It’s the lifeblood.”
As she talks about her creative process Shaw caroms back and forth from abstract prose to specific design elements. When collaborating she wants to know what the artist sees—what inspirations, mood or stories the concept started from.
“The process changes with every project, every artist,” says Shaw. “I think it’s always evolving.”
After four years of creating festival structures with The Do Lab, it was her own company’s collaboration with EDM artist and sound designer Amon Tobin that really showed the way. Her cubic, pulsating set design for his 2011 ISAM Tour lit the EDM world on fire and pushed the boundaries of what a live experience could feel like.
“That was a game changer,” says Flemming. “It was the first set that incorporated video-mapping technology in a show like that. And now every artist is trying to do something similar.”
The global festival design community took notice. Her name began to smolder in artist’s ears. Hip-hop acts called. So did corporate America.
She was even summoned by TV behemoth American Idol to freshen up its design to appeal to a younger market. Shaw never saw her work on TV, though, as she doesn’t exactly own one. (She’s all about Netflix and movies on her laptop.) More recently, one of Shaw’s most ambitious projects was a series of shows in New York City with Absolut vodka, which included an updated 5,000-pound disco ball—an iconic club mainstay—and an 85-foot re-creation of an Absolut bottle that transformed the world-famous skyline.
But this month it’ll be L.A.’s skyline that’s transformed. “This is me taking my vision to the next level,” says Shaw. “My goal each time is to create something that’s never been seen.”