Here's how Heather Shaw spent 2012: She was production designer on her first TV show, a little singing competition called American Idol. She had three installations on various stages at Coachella. She designed and fabricated a “water chandelier” for the poolside club at the Cosmopolitan in Vegas. She created and built an 80-foot-tall, 30,000-capacity “dance temple,” graceful and neon-colored like a raver's Angkor Wat, for a music festival in Portugal. And she took her parents to their first Burning Man. (“They loved it,” she's happy to report.)
So what does she do in her free time?
“I don't have any,” the 35-year-old CEO of Vita Motus Design Studio admits with a laugh. It's early evening and she's sipping coffee at Swork near her home in Eagle Rock, fueling up for the latest in a never-ending series of late nights with her CAD software. “If something comes across my table, I want to do it.”
The South Pasadena native founded Vita Motus in 2006, a few years after graduating from Pasadena's Art Center College of Design. But it didn't really take off until she lost her day job making concept cars for Audi/Volkswagen in 2009.
“Really, it was the crash of the economy that helped me build up my own company,” she says, brushing her dark hair back from her forehead to reveal her startlingly pale blue eyes. “It's been a blessing.” With a shy smile, Shaw adds, “When I got laid off, my friends threw me a party.”
Many of those friends she met through the Do LaB, a downtown L.A. party collective turned event production company that she joined in 2005. With her co-designer, Josh Flemming, Shaw is responsible for most of the Do LaB's signature structures, tents and art installations, which mix industrial materials and organic shapes into soaring, ethereal wonderlands. They've made the Do LaB look a hit with everyone from the Burning Man crowd to hip corporate clients like Scion and Red Bull.
The secret to Shaw and Flemming's design aesthetic is “tensegrity”: the use of compression and tension (achieved with carefully deployed cables and rigging) to take the place of conventional support structures. “We want things to look like they're defying gravity,” Shaw explains.
As the Do LaB's profile rose, thanks to its annual Coachella “Misting Oasis” tent and its own festival, Lightning in a Bottle, Shaw began establishing Vita Motus as her outlet for even more ambitious projects. Her breakthrough gig came in 2011: designing and fabricating the massive stacks of Tetris-like blocks that are the foundation of electronic musician Amon Tobin's ISAM tour. Since debuting in 2011, ISAM's sci-fi cubist set and 3-D projection mapping effects, which play dazzling images with laserlike precision across Shaw's sprawling structure, have been the talk of the concert industry. It's made Shaw a hot commodity among festival producers and electronic music acts in search of over-the-top visuals.
“I have an agent now,” she says, downing the last of her coffee, “and the agency's putting me in front of new and bigger artists. But I think I still need a bigger array of concerts under my belt before they're willing to jump in.”
Even after American Idol? She flashes another shy smile. “That does help a little bit.”
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