The Designer as Storyteller
Billy Butchkavitz weaves original plots using color, fabric, pattern and light.
Original programming. High definition. Full color. Groundbreaking. All describe HBO, the cable television network that in 1983 produced the first made-for-pay movie. It went on to become a pioneer in original programming that catapulted to total acclaim in 1997 when The Sopranos began its Emmy run—nominated for 111 during its six seasons, and winning 21 of them.
Every year, these awards (along with many others) are feted by HBO with a totally original, high-definition, full-color and ground-breaking after-awards event that, since 1999, has been designed by Billy Butchkavitz.
Butchkavitz is as original as HBO. Like the cable channel, he too has earned cult status among his peers. The reasons are myriad: One main client for whom he designs beautiful and high-profile events; leisurely lead times; total custom design of furniture, tents, even the carpets; and an envious travel schedule.
A wandering troubadour of design, Butchkavitz roams the globe; he of no company name, no web site, no Twitter account, and no entourage, just a lean operation of four people (two of whom are his brother and sister). In his travels he soaks in the fabric (literally) of different cultures, bringing back memories of color and swatches of texture and patterns which he then translates into wildly Technicolor “stories” for those HBO events. But these stories weren’t always so epic.
“When I was first involved with HBO, there were no large-scale events,” Butchkavitz says. “They were usually held in a suite at a hotel. We grew together.” HBO’s Golden Globe after-awards events, which Butchkavitz also designs each year, found a home poolside at the Beverly Hilton Hotel where they are held each January. In the early years, the Emmy events moved to Spago in Beverly Hills, expanding there until they spilled out onto the street in front, and the parking lot in back with tenting. In 2003 HBO moved the events to a fully custom tent frame in the courtyard of the Pacific Design Center, and Butchkavitz’ canvas expanded.
From the beginning Butchkavitz incorporated what would become a design signature—custom tents. The first one featured sidewalls with high-resolution digital reproductions of the lush garden images from the film What Dreams May Come. The second year, he dove headlong into color, designing a custom all-red opaque vinyl tent in 2004 with a custom leopard print carpet and furniture.
Working with Town & Country Event Rentals, Butchkavitz now orders a clear vinyl top and sidewalls every year in a new custom tint to complement his design. Anyone driving up San Vicente Blvd. in September (sometimes August) when the Emmys are held, only has to look over at the 100-by-100-foot structure and instantly knows what color mix is on Butchkavitz’ event design palette. Sometimes it’s shocking pink or bright blue; other times a more mellow green or amber tone.
“I’m all about color,” he says. “Many events today are monochromatic—all black and white. I love color and pattern. Part of it comes from the fact that these events take place in a forest of glass buildings [the Pacific Design Center is comprised of three glass structures, one blue, one green and the newest is red]. I have to go for that ‘look at me’ factor.”
An Outlier …
Butchkavitz could be described as an outlier; a person who, in his book, Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell describes as men and women of extraordinary talent and accomplishment who work outside the realm of ordinary experience. In Butchkatviz’ case this would mean day-to-day event business. Yet he’d be the first to put his position in humbler terms. “I’m not the talent,” he says. “I’m in the service industry. I’m a worker.”
And true, although he might travel to South America, Thailand or India he’s not above traveling to places far less exotic like Sylmar (a non-descript suburb of Los Angeles) to drop off a Pantone chip for matching. The satchels he carries burst with fabric such as large swatches for an upcoming True Blood premiere that are neutral in tone, and not-so-neutral in their Cajun tribal art patterns. There is also a notebook of ideas, such as a page on which four Pantone chips are taped. These will set the tone for the next after-Emmy awards event. They are banana and lilac with blue and green accents.
“I start with two colors and add from there,” he says. Also in the notebook are photos of upcoming designs he is working on. There is one of various bold prints from a mill in Turkey, another of a proof showcasing a four-foot diameter flower that is being considered for printing via old-school cylindrical screen printing.
These types of design explorations have fueled Butchkavitz’ aforementioned cult status in the industry. There are whispers of large budgets, both financially and in terms of time. Certainly there is time on his side, but Butchkavitz quickly dispels any notion of an overblown budget. “I’m what they call a jobber in the interior design industry. I buy a lot of fabric with no middle man and get a good price. I know people think I must I must being spending a ton of money to do a custom carpet, but I’m buying 50,000 square feet of it. It costs me less to buy it than rent it.”
Butchkavitz’ success rests squarely on the fact that his work is always about the brand, and the integrity of the event. “HBO knows I get what it is looking for, what it wants to achieve,” he says. “I present my designs in this light and get approval. I show them what I’m doing and there is trust. There is always a budget in place. It’s set up well in advance. I’m in it for the long haul, not to make all my money on one event. My goal is to make them happy.”
The road Butchkavitz took to HBO calls to mind another Gladwellian tenet—success is often a matter of preparation meeting opportunity. “Simply, I was in the right place at the right time,” Butchkavitz says.
With a degree in broadcast journalism from Temple University’s School of Communications in Philadelphia, he headed to Hawaii for the waves and an internship at a local TV news station. The internship expanded into set design for local advertising campaigns along with stage design for hotels and resorts throughout the island. “They kept asking me to do more and I kept saying yes,” he recalls. This eventually led to a job with a catering/event firm. “It happened fast—boom, boom, boom,” he says. “My first breakout event was in honor of Prince Phillip. Between 1987 and 1993 I began doing corporate and society events. My first international event was in 1990 and in 1994 HBO and I met in Hawaii.”
In addition to experience and great clients, his time in Hawaii also gave Butchkavitz a love of floral design that remains to this day. He makes sure there is a devoted floral production room and creates many of the larger designs himself. “I just always want a look that no one else has,” he says, pinpointing the reason he travels the world.
“Although nothing is really ever new,” he says, citing a party from the 1700s that used cutouts of tall ships as one of his earlier inspirations. In a crowded world of ideas, to make one’s own mark takes a remarkable point of view. And so while Butchkavitz explores new technologies such as digital mapping, he doesn’t discard the beauty of a gobo if it works best for what he’s trying to say through design. He understands he can tell his story fast through high-tech printing, but can also appreciate the slower, more tactile story a drum scanned image might weave.
Both HBO and Butchkavitz understand what it takes to create something truly original—having a vision, and then committing fully to it. That commitment gives viewers and guests permission to happily and willingly enter and engage in a new world, be it that of a mafia don struggling with his conscience, or an event that each year travels deeper into an exploration of color and pattern.
2005: A Passage to India.
In 2005, Butchkavitz took attendees visually inside the jewel in the crown for this event in India. A custom turquoise tent was created for the turquoise and silver color palette. The custom carpet was covered in a decorative Rajasthani pattern and the table centerpieces, furniture, perimeter decor and wait staff uniforms were all custom made. Five 24-foot domed structures inspired by the architecture of Jaipur defined the party space.
2008: Art + Architecture.
The design of the 2008 HBO event was influenced by the work of Oscar Neimeyer, a Brazilian modernist architect. The event’s focal point was a 37-foot tall torch tower reminiscent of Niemeyer’s Cathedral de Brasilia. When lighted, it illuminated the night sky. In the dining pavilion, the focal point was a 27-foot diameter silver chandelier. Other highlights included a gallery showcasing the work of South American artists and a second-level area with lounges accessed via grand staircases in the dining pavilion. The color palette for this event was topaz blue, tourmaline green, citrine yellow and silver.
2009: Fashion as Decorative Art.
Against a bold color palette of black, taupe and red, the design and lifestyle of French designer Paul Poiret (who worked in the early 1900s) unfolded. The aim, says Butchkavitz, was to “capture a mere fragment of the frivolity and bohemianism of the decadent parties Poiret threw during his heyday.” A 20-foot- diameter by 28-foot long red chandelier set the tone. The event also featured a rose garden created by more than 100 8- and 10-foot rose-covered topiaries (the rose was Poiret’s personal logo), a dining terrace with a 160-foot long red carpet and four performance stages based on Poiret’s decorative designs.
2011: A Circular Motion.
In 2011, Butchkavitz explored spherical shapes in an environment that exploded with lavish bursts of tangerine and raspberry. The look began at the perimeter. “Twenty four-foot-tall upholstered walls outlined the space, creating a powerful backdrop for art and projections,” Butchkavitz explains. Elevated cylindrical lounges gave guests a “bird’s eye” view of the proceedings. Repetition of spherical shapes was the name of the game with sculptural metal spheres on the dining table centerpieces and 18-foot-diameter chandeliers. Literally, everything popped—from the vibrant custom textiles and carpeting to the dessert—Peanut Butter Fudge covered with Pop Rocks.
Event Solutions magazine
by Liese Gardner
Liese Gardner is editorial director of Event Solutions magazine and an industry consultant.
She also writes the blog, Fuel: Passions That Drive Us.