FormDecor got together with Senior Designer for MTV, Ed Coco for a one-on-one Featured Professionals interview. Well known for his creative special event planning skills, Ed Coco has also been involved with theatre design for major Broadway shows as a scenic designer. As a well-rounded individual in the special events industry, he continues to push the envelope when designing and planning events. But we don’t want to give it all away in the introduction! FormDecor invites you to get to know Ed Coco!
FormDecor: Were you always creative as a child? What was the first creative project you did?
Ed Coco: You know, I really don’t think that I was any kind of “exceptionally creative” child. I just had a really normal, fun childhood and I was very fortunate to have an incredibly supportive family. I would say that I was always VERY curious. I would take things apart and put them back together (or sometimes not). When something became of interest to me, I would find out as much as I could about that thing.
As a child, I started playing the piano when my brothers were taking lessons and ended up teaching myself, and I would show their teacher when she came over for their lessons. Eventually I took over those lessons, and I think I was like that with a lot of things as a child. Once something caught my attention, I became absorbed in understanding that thing.
FD: Your biography on www.ecocodesign.com says that you were the Associate Scenic Designer for the Broadway productions of Spring Awakening and Green Day’s American Idiot. That sounds like an amazing opportunity! What was your experience like in the theatrical industry?
EC: I love being involved in theatre! I have a Masters Degree in theatrical design and I continue to teach in the graduate programs at NYU and Rutgers University. It has taught me so much, and still continues to teach me things today. I’ve been fortunate to take part in eight Broadway shows and they were all brand new experiences.
Most of my professional theatre experience has been through my long association with Scenic Designer Christine Jones. Christine has always told me that it’s important to always have at least one project that you’re doing “for your soul”. Theatre is what I do for my soul!
FD: You are well known for your party planning skills for television channels such as Comedy Central, MTV, MTV2, Nickelodeon, VH1, Spike and many others. Are there particular steps you take from concept to actualization? What is your favorite part of the process and why?
EC: I think what keeps me in this business is that I’ve been able to throw the recipe book away. I approach every project very differently, and I have the luxury of getting to work on a myriad of vastly different projects… So it always feels fresh and new. Sometimes I get the opportunity to get really detailed on a design in isolation where I can create a wonderfully intricate 3D model and research materials and technology before revealing anything. Other times, I’m creating things very quickly on the fly, and I’m calling a scene shop to collaborate with the actualization as ideas come into my head. I love every part of the process no matter what kind of process I end up having to utilize. Sure, things drive me crazy at times, but when I walk into the office every morning, I think about how lucky I am to be doing this for a living.
FD: At what point in your career did you realize you wanted to plan special events? How did you start?
EC: Well, honestly, I came into the events world at a bit of a late age. I was purely designing for theatre and broadcast when another designer brought me on to help with some large events for McDonalds. I was blown away at the opportunity to apply my skills to this brand new world.
Designer Evan Alexander brought me into MTV Networks. Like me, he was from a very hardcore theatre education and had discovered the opportunities in events. I think the appeal for many of us was the chance to show our skills to so many people. The theatre world can be a little insular, and there aren’t as many opportunities. The field of Special Events has grown to involve so much these days; from parties and concerts to sponsor activations and integrated marketing events. It’s exciting to think about all of the things in which I can participate.
FD: Out of the many special events you have planned for MTV, which one is the most memorable for you? Do you have photos to share?
EC: I don’t know that I’d say that any one in particular is the MOST memorable. I have so many great memories from so many events. That’s one of the benefits of working in a Special Events department, with so many fantastic co-workers and friends. But the post party for the Comedy Central Roast of David Hasselhoff is a great example. It was really a wonderful collaboration between the events area, the production area, and the design area of our department.
We were at Sony Studios and turned the lawn outside of the cafeteria into a giant beach/boardwalk/lounge. It was all on such a grand scale, from the 30 or so giant palm trees to the full scale lifeguard station that served as the DJ Booth. It was great to see the studio employees pass by during our load-in and look impressed. They’re a tough crowd to impress! But what made it memorable for me was the collaboration across the board, from our internal staff to the producers and clients at Comedy Central.
Careful and non-intrusive sponsor integrations, unique food and drink offerings, fun activations, and clever technical enhancements all came together with the design elements that I’d help create. When you have a lot of amazing people working together and hitting their stride at the same time, it’s pretty cool! Those are the productions that I remember the most.
FD: When you take on a new event planning project, where do you draw your inspiration from?
EC: I suppose my theatrical training has taught me to try and look for clues from the source. In theatre that can mean the Director, the performers, and the script.
In the events world it can mean properly listening to and asking questions of your clients, producers, and collaborators. Don’t get me wrong, sometimes I like to try and design something “cool” that comes purely from what I’m interested in at a particular time, but for the most part I look for the little inspirations that are hidden in what people are saying about the project. Whether they know it or not, they’re leaving those clues behind to be found. They can be mentioning a cool club they’ve been to, a movie they’ve seen recently, or an artist that they admire. The key is to try and listen, and not jump in too quickly or jump to conclusion. Otherwise you’re designing just for yourself and trying to talk someone into something they really don’t want. There is a delicate balance between getting input and guiding a client. But as a designer you just know when you’ve hit the points correctly. Things just start to fit and come together.
FD: What has been one of the most challenging events you’ve worked on since being in the industry? Please share with us how you overcame those challenges. Do you have photos to share?
EC: Well there are certainly various levels of “challenges” in this business. I feel like my biggest challenges come from dealing with producers, clients, and sponsors because they can be hard to read and interpret at times. With any project you, really have to determine what you’re trying to do and what you’re trying to serve before you can succeed. And there often isn’t an easy answer to that; especially when you have to please various parties who you can start off with completely different ideas about an event.
One example is our MTV Upfront event. It’s a business meeting, a product reveal, a sales event, and a PR opportunity all in one. Oh, and there are at least two musical performances thrown in and it’s usually being taped in the same manner as an on-air production. The final twist is that at the end of the program it has to turn into a party for two thousand people. You have outside sponsors, corporate executives, and internal producers to please. And they aren’t even your clients; that’s the Press Department and Integrated Marketing area. So you walk the line between creating a design that has a lot of built-in flexibility.
For two years, I designed sets that could be lifted into the air to reveal the party that was hidden in the backstage area. I was particularly happy with the 2011 Upfront where we created an intimate thrust stage in New York’s Hammerstein Ballroom. I think the set served all of its purposes equally well; which at one time seemed impossible. But, again, you overcome those obstacles with close collaboration between various areas. And having an internal events department here at MTV allows all of the elements to really stay in touch.
FD: What “words of wisdom” do you have to share with young professionals entering the events industry in this day and age?
EC: I’m probably biased since I work at two major universities, but if it’s possible I would really encourage young professionals to make sure they’ve had a good education. It’s really invaluable. I won’t pretend to know what programs and schools are best suited for this field (that’s a very personal choice and match), but I feel like too often we’re an industry that’s very in-bred.
People get a job working on an event when they’re young and they eventually stick around and move up the ladder by being available. They know how to get a specific type of job done well through repetition, but not because they’re creating something new and challenging. I think that’s what often leads to the “cookie-cutter” type events that happen so frequently and sometimes give “special events” a bad reputation. I know great designers with degrees in Art, Philosophy, and Theatre (I have an undergrad in English Literature, for heaven’s sake). And I know wonderful Event Producers who have degrees in things like Psychology and Media Studies. The point is that they went to school, learned “how to learn”, and then applied their skills to our field. Plus, college is just fun! It’s one of those few times in your life when you can just apply yourself to random new things without having a lot of worries and obligations. It’s important to go through that experience.
FD: If you had the chance to design any event in the world, what would it be? What is significant about that event that makes it your dream?
EC: I think what I would do is assemble all of my favorite collaborators from every area and create a charitable event from scratch. Look at some of the stuff that Joe Lewis from the Joe Lewis Company is doing with charitable events and self-initiated projects; it’s really amazing to be able to use your professional skills to give back something.
When you get to a certain point in your career, you stop worrying about the “next great project”; you just have a sense that if you stay true to your calling the next great project will be right around the corner. What you instead try to do, is create the opportunity to share that project with those that make it worthwhile. Through our pro-social initiatives at MTV Networks, I’ve been lucky to work with some great charitable organizations such as VH1’s Save the Music Foundation, Lifebeat, and Comedy Central’s Night of Too Many Stars, a benefit for Autism Education. Those are the events that I really love to design, and the people with whom I like to collaborate.
FD: If you could choose one design of FormDecor’s for your home or office, what would it be? Why does that one design stand out among the rest for you?
EC: I’d have to pick the Mies Van der Rohe Barcelona furniture. I’m an old school fan of Bauhaus style, and I think that line of furniture is beautiful. There’s such amazing complexity in a design that at first appears so simple and clean. One of the things that constantly amazes’ me is how easily it can blend with a multitude of other design styles. It’s so versatile. Not to mention comfortable. At a big party, they are always the first chairs to be claimed.
Now if you mean “what DESIGN created with FormDecor’s line of furniture” I would have to say that I’d just want John Calkins of John Calkins & Co. to come and design my office with anything from your inventory that he wanted. I’m always stunned at how good he makes everything look. I’d ask him to make my office look like one of his Comedy Central Roast designs. They always feel like places where you’d just love to hang out with your friends.
FD: What haven’t you checked off your bucket list?
EC: You know, I don’t have much of a bucket list. I would love to travel Europe extensively; meaning without any obligation whatsoever. I find that when I travel I’m often locking myself into schedules like I do at work. It would be fantastic to just travel, experience and discover as things happen. I think everything on my bucket list would have to do with traveling. I’m still so curious about so many places and things. Also, my parents are retired and they’ve been traveling a lot. It makes me jealous to hear about all of the places they go.