Photographer Jacob Sutton and set designer Hana Al Sayed's collaboration for 10 magazine.
Set design is on the up, according to Gary Card. And he should know – aged just 28, he’s now working for many of the world’s leading fashion magazines, including Pop, Vogue and T, the New York Times’ style supplement, as well as leading designers such as Stella McCartney.
Undoubtedly the industry’s latest wunderkind, he attributes his quick success to joining a wave at the right time. He’s being modest, but he does have a point. Once the unsung heroes of any major shoot, the most elite set designers now get properly credited for their work, and they’re often represented by the same agencies as the photographers.
“I remember when you were never credited,” says Simon Costin, who started out working with filmmaker Derek Jarman after graduating in theatre set design. “It was a big deal when that started to happen.”
Andy Hillman, who’s a regular on fashion shoots for Tim Walker and Miles Aldridge, says set designers are more like production designers on film shoots these days, directing a team of people to create often fantastical scenes. He works closely with photographers to tease out imaginary landscapes, and although he’s occasionally still treated like an ordinary set builder, the photographers in question “don’t know how to use me properly”.
He started his career assisting set designer and art director Shona Heath, and says she was instrumental in the shift in attitudes.
“Before the 1980s, photographers built sets themselves or got their assistants to do it,” he says. “Then there was so much money around that it got separated out. Shona [who started working in the 1990s] is great to have on board because she gets so excited about things, and she pushed it towards art direction.”
Heath is a bit of a regular for Showstudio, the website that’s done most to push innovation in the fashion industry online. And the fact that high profile photographers such as Nick Knight, who began Showstudio a decade ago, are so interested in set design doesn’t hurt the designers’ cause at all. Knight utilises complex sets for much of his studio-based work, as does his protégé Sølve Sundsbø.
But set design isn't confined to the studio. It's increasingly poular on location, whether in warehouses, stately homes, artists’ studios or the great outdoors, as Tim Walker’s acclaimed fashion images attest. The designers bring a filmic sense of place, adding to the story with an environment that helps to push the photographer or art director’s vision.
And, given the fact that locations shoots are much harder to keep under control, set designers also bring their expertise to bear on organising space, taking care of detail, and being constantly on the look-out for potential copyright infringements. In short, they’ve become an essential to photographers such as Walker, who brings them in on ideas at the beginning of the process.
Hana Al Sayed
One of the fast rising stars of set design, Hana Al Sayed is still in her twenties but already working on shoots for Dazed & Confused and Jalouse. She’s also represented by D+V, a prestigious agency based in London and New York with a roster of high profile photographers and fashion stylists.
She’s worked closely with photographers such as Lacey, Dan Tobin Smith, Blinkk, Jonathan de Villiers and Vivienne Sassen, but her closest collaborator is Jacob Sutton. She exhibited work created with him at Spring Projects late last year, in an exhibition titled Bermuda Triangle that also featured set designer Gary Card.
Most of Al Sayed’s work has been in-studio, where her training in theatre design allows her to build entire new worlds, but she’s also created “wild” designs with Sutton, in cavernous old warehouses or outdoors in the countryside. “It feels much more free,” she says. “When you’re working at Spring or Big Sky [two big London studios popular with fashion photographers] you’re always aware that you need to be considerate. With Jacob we go to much more raw spaces, where we can do completely different work.”
Their edgiest shoot to date was on a farm in the Cotswolds, where they used materials they found lying around and pushed them to the limits. “There were ready-made piles of junk everywhere,” she says. “It was challenging. If I wanted bigger tyres I couldn’t have them, because I had to work with what was there. But that was also what made it such good fun.
“The whole shoot took five days and it really showed how creative you can be with a limited [palette]. One of my favourite images is of a wooden see-saw. We had to find the different elements to make it work as an object in its own right as well as achieving what we wanted visually.”
“We wanted to explore balance and tension, and use a really rough aesthetic,” adds Sutton. “I like building things with really raw, tangible materials. Some of it was my idea and some of it was Hana’s, but we don’t really think of our projects in those terms. We just go on walks and chat. We’ve been working together for a long time and we’re friends.”
More recently Al Sayed worked with Blinkk on the current French Connection ad campaign, which was shot in a country house. “We all went to look at it together but I had very different questions to everyone else – I was thinking about storage and access and looking for things like power supplies,” she laughs.
She was also looking out for copyright-protected elements, which includes furniture and fabrics as well as more familiar objects such as paintings. Classic pieces by designers such as Charles and Ray Eames can’t be used for commercial projects unless they’ve been licensed, for example, so the estate’s “exquisite collection” had to be bundled out of sight.
Location shoots throw up other problems, particularly if they’re based abroad. Al Sayed recently shot a story in the US with Lacey, using a set she’d built in London. “The deadline was really tight so I had to start making it in London as soon as we got the commission,” she says.
“It was completely built-to-camera, with false perspectives and angles and an incredible amount of details, but we had to dismantle it and fly it to New York, then ship it again to LA. By the time we arrived, we basically needed to build it again.”
Set designer Andy Hillman and photographer Miles Aldridge recently worked together on a shoot for Paradis magazine, collaborating with the painter Chantal Joffe and supermodel Kristen McMenamy. It turned into a project in its own right, though, Kristen, As Seen by Miles Aldridge and Chantal Joffe.
“I’ve been known to change the carpets on location,” laughs the photographer, who is married to McMenamy. Fortunately he didn’t take it that far this time. Inspired by images of Francis Bacon’s chaotic studio, Aldridge opted to shoot the images in Joffe’s workspace, playing with the idea of the artist’s model.
“Joffe’s studio was perfect, very painterly and rough, but I still took Andy along to help,” says Aldridge, who worked with Hillman on the current Lavazza campaign (BJP, 21 October 2009).
“We turned the canvases around, and positioned brightly coloured gloves in-shot. I also asked him to bring some yellow foam, and he got this great colour then worked on it with paint. I especially love the drops of red paint – they’re the colour of blood and add a fantastically sinister element. I pay a lot of attention to colour in my images, and he really understands that. We make a great team, working on Macs connected together.”
“I work a lot with Miles and I work a lot with Tim Walker,” says the set designer. “Their images are at opposite ends of the scale but they both really appreciate sets and films. I’m more like a chameleon. I’m not promoting a particular style or aesthetic, I’m part of the process.”
Hillman originally studied furniture design, then assisted Shona Heath, and now runs his own studio with one full-time member of staff and a coterie of regular freelancers. When I
met him he was mid-preparation for another shoot with Walker, with 13 people in the studio and an extremely hectic day ahead. He relishes the challenge. “Furniture took too long and I didn’t have the patience for industrial design,” he says of his choice of career. “Set design suits me just fine.”
His work with Walker is often very complex, featuring full-size model Spitfires, for example, or larger-than-life swans and feathers. Either way, he says, his role is the same – he takes the photographer’s ideas and expands them into an imaginative world, inspiring enough for a whole story.
“Through sets you can create worlds that don’t exist, and are therefore beyond the boundaries,” he says. “Anything could take place, so the photographer is free to play.”
Hillman always works to a specific camera position, liaising early on with the photographer on how a shot will be placed and then arranging his set around it. “They’re not complete environments, there are rough edges beyond the limits of the photograph,” he says.
“It hardly ever happens that you have enough budget to build whole scenes, so you have to make decisions. That’s true whether you’re working in the studio or on location – there are always things you’re trying to take away or hide.”
Having first studied theatre set design, Simon Costin worked on films and pop promos before focusing on fashion, bringing his vision to film and the catwalk as well as photography shoots.
A long-term collaborator with the late Alexander McQueen, he’s just finished a video for another fashion designer, Gareth Pugh, shot with fashion filmmaker Ruth Hogben. To him there’s little difference between 2D and 3D sets. “You’re still dealing with space and light, colour and form, and how a human relates to that form,” he says. “It’s almost irrelevant – my interest is producing the visual references.”
Costin’s style is informed by myths and legends (he also founded the Museum of British Folklore, which tours in a caravan), and he is currently working with Paolo Roversi on a book of English folk tales. But his twisted English aesthetic also made him an obvious pairing with Tim Walker, and they’ve worked together very closely over the years, wrapping entire buildings in cellophane, filling them with balloons and decorating them with hundreds of broken mirrors, to name just a few.
“A lot of Tim’s props are enormous – a larger than life Pentax, for example, based on his first camera,” says Costin. “It’s a mix of being quite hands-on and working alongside polystyrene sculptures.”
Walker is “very open and creative”, says Costin, so they generate ideas together. If Costin sees a good location (he once spotted a derelict building with a tree growing through it, for example) he’ll take photographs and discuss it with Walker.
They’re currently working on an idea based on Tesla Coils, high voltage transformer circuits that discharge bolts of static charge. “Apparently people in America build human-shaped coils and stand inside them when the electricity bolt hits,” he says. “It would make a fantastic couture story.”
It sounds fanciful, and Costin openly admits to being bad with figures, but he’s also a steely pragmatist, especially on location. “Practical considerations become very important when you’re on location,” he says.
“If you run out of hot gluesticks in the middle of the Western Highlands you’re screwed. You have to pack really well and find yourself becoming a manic list-maker. If you’re taking half a dozen Victorian sofas into the location you have to check, can you get the truck right to the door? If not, and it’s pouring with rain, do you have something to cover them? Have you measured the doorframe and are you sure they’ll fit?”
Costin sketches out his set designs then, if he needs to get elements made, gets a 3D render done and a full size sample built. His regular set builder is based in Camberwell in south London, and he is “much more confident” if he can use him and oversee the process, even if it means transporting kit abroad. He’s found out the hard way that working with a new team in a foreign country can go wrong, but if all else fails he will just find another solution, he says.
“I was doing a shot with one photographer when he suddenly decided he needed a new set for the next day,” he says. “We did it but it was expensive because we had to hire people through the night. You have to be very clear about how much things cost. If not, the client will ask why you went over budget and you could even end up having to pay yourself. On editorial shoots there’s no budget so we all just hunker down.”
“You could use CGI, but where would be the fun in that?” says Jacob Sutton. “I really like building things.”
He shares his mischievous sense of fun with set designer Gary Card, who was a housemate at college. So when the New York Times asked Card to interpret the iconic T logo of its quarterly fashion magazine, he naturally turned to Sutton. “It was an issue with the theme of England, so we decided that we wanted to go to a farm and we wanted to use the elements,” says Card.
“Then we remembered The Wicker Man and that was it – ‘Let’s make a wicker T and set it alight’.”
Card got a welder to make a 10-foot metal T frame then the pair headed to the Cotswolds and a farm owned by Sutton’s friends (the farm he used with Hana Al Sayed too).
“We asked if they’d be up for it and they were just the nicest, coolest people,” says Card. “There were all kinds of things that could have gone wrong, but they just said ‘Absolutely, can we help?’.”
Card and Sutton headed for the local garden centre and bought supplies of sugar cane and methylated spirits, enlisting the family’s children to help them build the T then setting it on fire with a blow torch. It was fun, but they were terrified, says Card – they only had one chance, and they were at the mercy of the elements.
“It was a real concern,” he says. “What if the wind direction changed or the T was immediately engulfed? Amazingly it worked. It burnt for about 60 seconds and Jacob kept his finger on the trigger. There was retouching afterwards, where we chose the best bits of flame, but pretty much what you saw was it.” Sutton also made a stop frame animation out of the best shots, viewable online on the New York Times T blogspot.
Card’s work is often based in-studio but he’s done some impressive outdoor shoots too, including a story with Norbert Schoerner for Another Man magazine, which led to a commission from singer Patrick Wolf for his The Batchelor album cover. The concept was a man at the end of the world, carrying his possessions and protection on his back.
“The original idea was to make it transform from shot to shot, from a paraglider to a throne and other really ridiculous, far-out things,” he says. “But we pared it down to, ‘it’s his home, he can fold it out to sleep on it’. The second day I stayed up all night and pulled the whole thing apart to transform it. It’s a fabric and bamboo structure, with bits of balsa wood. It had to be very light – both so the model could wear it and we could get it over to Italy.
“Shooting on location is fraught with difficult things – it’s so much more difficult than the studio,” he adds. “You’ve got the elements, the terrain, you’ve got to get it through customs. It’s super scary, but that’s also what makes it fun.”
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