Representing the creative future

Breakfast With:
Shona Heath, the industry’s most celebrated set designer

Behind some of the most magical sets crafted for fashion editorials, shows and stores is one visionary: Shona Heath. Having been at the forefront of the industry working alongside notable photographers including Tim Walker, Paolo Roversi and Craig McDean, Shona – who actually graduated from fashion design – has experience that makes anybody starting out feel really quite humble. While her oeuvre exhibits a distinctly soft and dreamy character, having a conversation with her at Dishoom ensures us of her solid decisiveness and a presence that exudes confidence. Over a porridge, americano and orange juice, she shares her smooth strategies for convincing clients of one’s vision, the danger of assisting somebody for too long and, most importantly, what it’s really like to work as a set designer.

What is the hardest part of being a set designer?

I think it would be very different for everybody, but for me it’s flying. I’m trying to tell myself that I love flying, but that’s one thing I don’t like about my job. It also means that the things I build are either not with me (they are in a different country) or have to come with me on a sort of very tricky course. That often gives a lot of stress, because it means that you think: “Shit I have to build something massive over there.” It’s what causes most of the problems, really.

How do you transport the massive pieces that you build?

If the budget is low, we sometimes have to flat pack it in boxes and put it in freight in the Eurostar, and then I carry the rest of it with my team. If there is a big budget, there’s a big truck that drives us there, or it gets shipped over, but generally there’s not enough time for that. Everything is always really last minute, no matter how organized you are – there’s always some really time-sensitive things. We pack a lot of things in suitcases, it’s really not practical.

Can you describe the preparation process from start to finish for a typical window display? How do you manage your time and how long does an average job take to complete?

It usually starts with a plan, so they come and say they want an installation with this, this and this. They could be promoting a new perfume or a new handbag. I would normally have an open mind and also prepare three ideas I would like to do. Sometimes they can be quite similar, or very different, and they are not well-formed at this point. It’s so that I’m not stuck already. I find it easier to work on loads of things at once, so I normally do the three designs, show them, and then they pick the one they want. Then I go back and tighten it up, making adjustments based on their responses, and present the next bit. Then I get down to researching materials, talking to the set builders, and visiting the site – that’s always very important. People might send you these pictures of amazing windows or a location you are going to go shoot at, and you go there and it’s such a different experience from what the pictures are. Then I do some sketches and really make it. The making is really the longest part, and I spend a lot of time with the set builders. I don’t really design it as a drawing and say: “Here you go, can you make it?” I go having in mind what I want to make. When we start building, I make sure I’m there during the process, because quite often that is when I see something I like better than what I wanted. Quite often I stop the process and change it a bit during the making. I love the materials and the mess, the scale of it and the actual working on it.

In the beginning (with the three ideas) I normally make mood boards with pictures from artists, from myself, other projects, paintings or references from old Vogues. A real mishmash of different things. Sometimes the things you want to do don’t exist yet, and you can’t just moodboard it. It used to be way easier, because I would just turn up and explain myself, but now everyone just expects an amazing PDF that should say everything. That’s the part that I lament a bit. It used to be an open bit where that person would say: “Oh I love this sketch, I want to do this”, and they don’t really understand what you are talking about. I think that’s a really good thing. They can’t quite imagine what you are going to do. Now it feels like you can Photoshop it up to make it, probably even better than you could [in real life]. I think there’s a discrepancy there that I don’t like. I kind of realized this five years ago and I’ve tried my hardest to sort of rein it back in and sketch rather than use a computer – leaving things a bit more open. I don’t know whether that’s working, because I’m older and people trust me a bit more. They see the quality and caliber of work that I do, so I don’t have to prove so much. But I think it must be really difficult for younger people coming up, they want really every centimeter of material described and represented.


When you work with the set builders, how do communicate with them? Do you ever use CAD?

No. I have a set builder that I’ve worked with for nearly 20 years and it’s always the same people. We have a language, I could almost just beep and they’d know what I’m talking about; I try to use them all the time. But sometimes I’m working on stuff in Milan or New York, and the clients insist that I use their company to produce it. That’s often when I get somebody in who can do CAD or a 3D walkthrough. This is very new for me, but I’ve sort of embraced it.

In terms of the process with the set builders: it’s always a conversation, nothing can just be handed over. I like to visit them just to see that they understand what I mean when I say: “I don’t want it to be perfect, it really needs to be as thin as possible.” That’s always a thing that I like, really thin legs. Thin to the point where they are almost structurally not sound. Often if I just hand over my drawings they will just make them structurally sound, so I have to be there to say: “Look, I know it’s going to be really wobbly. Let’s do wobbly and if the wobble becomes a problem, we will deal with it in a design way later on.” It’s really a process.

I get to know about a job about six weeks before, and then it all goes really quiet. No one gets you to do anything, and then you think at some point: “Mmm, that’s getting really close.” Then a few more weeks pass and you think: “Oh this is getting really close, can I speak to somebody?” Nobody will speak to you, and then suddenly you get an email like: “We need to see some ideas for….” but then you think: “Yes but nobody spoke to me, nobody sent me anything, I don’t know where it is, or who it’s with.” So there’s a lot of messing about, but for a typical fashion shoot it comes down to a couple of weeks when it really should be a couple of months. We did a Harrods job that we had known three months in advance, but we couldn’t get approval until two weeks before. It always boils down to a few weeks, if it takes any longer than that, you spend so much money. I actually prefer the shorter. I say I don’t, but I like working in the time crunch, I make really good decisions or have good ideas in that situation.

I imagine you must be juggling multiple jobs at any given time? How do you organize your workflow?

I have really good assistants. Normally I like having two, and then when it get’s really hectic, three. Any more than that I don’t enjoy so much, because I just spend my life telling people what to do and I do nothing. And actually I prefer to be one of the people doing something. Normally I have two girls in the studio and I delegate jobs to each one. As I’m working on one thing, I have ideas for the other one, more than if I just sit on the one thing and try to think about that one. I think it actually helps to free your mind from something. I really like that, but I can’t remember if that’s a skill that I had or something I developed over time. I never do jobs where the shoot dates or set up dates overlap. It’s really important to me to be there for every job; I feel like I really do something other than deliver stuff.


How do you balance your own creative vision to that of the clients?

I try really hard to put as much creativity and as much as I can bring to what they’d asked me to do. You can feel quite quickly whether they want that or not. Sometimes they don’t want it, they just want you to produce a terrible mood board. I just try to do the job as well as I can, but I can’t put anything in it. You sort of have to gage it, because in the end that job isn’t about me, it’s about that client. Whereas if someone has come to me for help or they say: “We really need to lift our brand, or do something really creative,” I would push quite a bit harder in that situation. If they are worried it might be too much for them, I would really push. But I think every single job is so different, and it’s much easier to speak with somebody than the endless revised PDFs smacked around by seven different people. If you can really be with that person, you can get quite far, if you are diplomatic.

Do you ever have to convince collaborators or clients of your creative vision? And if you do, what are some negotiating tricks you use to get clients on board with your direction, or keep your creative voice heard amongst a group of strong minded collaborators?

I listen to every word people are saying and write it down. If you can use their key descriptive words in the way you describe what you are doing, people tend to feel more at ease and agree more with your ideas. If you can really put confidence in them that you have taken on board their problems and their issues, you can get a lot further with your creative vision. I’m really involved during shoots. I’m not afraid of people saying: “No, don’t do that.” I just do it and I see how they react. For a set designer, if you want to put something in or change something, it’s quite an imposition on a shoot. They sort of have to stop everything for you to put in a different wall or a different prop, and you either have to do it really fast when somebody is changing so no one notices you, or you have to ask. I’ve gotten more and more confident in that. If I have a thing in my mind that I think would work, I do it, even if it risks disturbing everybody a bit. It’s really about the confidence to step in a bit and say what needs to be said. The hierarchy of shoots can be intimidating, you almost have to not be afraid of making a fool of yourself. The funny thing is, don’t imagine what they are thinking, because they could be thinking something positive about what you are doing; it’s not always negative. I think if you don’t make your presence known on shoots, you might as well not be there and then why would they pay me to be there? I’ve done shoots where maybe the set is not a big component, so I turn up with a stool or a box. It’s so silly that you are even involved, but the photographer might want your help on how the model sits on the chair, or the lighting, the feeling or even the hair – it could be anything. I get really involved in the picture, not just the set. You just have to make yourself useful in whatever you are doing.


What is it like being a woman in set design? Do you think being a female has an effect on the way you are perceived?

I don’t know whether it’s because I went to a girls school or maybe I don’t think about political issues, but I’ve gone quite far without knowing about feminism really. It never occurred to me to think about whether I’m a woman, I always just felt I was a person. Weirdly it comes up more and more. I like working with men, they are so different, but I like an all-girls team for day to day. There are some people you work with where it’s clear that you are a woman, but I think it has its advantages and disadvantages. There are some people who are just so wrong, you kind of just have to get on with what you are doing and ignore it. I think it has to do with your presence, not with being a woman. There are days when I’m feeling really rubbish and I’m really tired, or I’m not feeling so good, but you just need to walk in like you’ve got some kind of force field around you, that you mean it, that you mean what you are going to do.

Does being a woman have an effect on your management style, your work, your physical abilities on the job or the people who intern with you?

Well, I don’t really get a lot of boys applying to intern with me, but it could just be because my work is quite feminine. I do tend to like having female interns better, just because I haven’t had a male one that really stood out. Females just tend to be better at multitasking.

I’m really happy that I can’t lift a full timber board. I’m actually really strong, but somehow the size of it just isn’t something I can handle. That’s enabled me to step back a bit and watch and make sure it’s been done right. So actually, it’s good. Had I got lost in the construction, I may have let some design things go by. But being less invested in the physical process means I can make more unbiased decisions about what is being done. I’ve noticed ‘being a woman’ more since I’ve had a child. It’s almost like no one cares that you have one. They get you to work through the night and they do not care if your child is waiting for you. That’s quite weird, you are almost very quiet that you are a mother and you tend to pretend that you aren’t one.

But in terms of the physicality, I’m quite tall, so it’s really become my advantage. But for smaller people, you just have to get on with it, carry a small step ladder around or a nice box. It becomes part of your tool kit, and it’s not stupid, it’s just how you get on.

As a student who’s interested in set design, what do you think is the best way to break into the industry or get your work shown?

This is where I’m a bit out of my depth – I never assisted anybody. I didn’t get in via that root. I’m a bit older so it was different back then. It used to be a bit like: “If you get into this magazine then people will contact you for jobs and things.” It was a bit more simple then. Now there’s so many platforms, social media and magazines. You could set up your own Instagram account, it becomes so popular, and you get your career from that. I think you need to shout louder now, and you have to do work of your own that is really extraordinary and stands out from the crowd. That will get your foot in the door. I really believe that the most important thing is your creative vision. If you only want a career in set design because you love doing it, but your vision is not the important thing, then I think assisting or working for department stores doing windows would be better. I also think the impression you leave on people you work with is really important. If you leave a good impression on a job that you are assisting, they might bring you in for a smaller job. You can make your own relationships with people when you are assisting. If your creative vision is really important to you, make sure you keep your work going, even when you are assisting other people. Even if it’s small bits of still lives or going out to the woods to make sculptures one afternoon. Even if they aren’t very good, it’s important to keep your work going. Sometimes when assistants leave, they find it hard to gather what it is that they like themselves.

People tend to stay for five years max. It’s not normal for younger people to move on quicker – you sort of do jobs for two years and you move on… I like people to be around for a bit longer. If I was just starting out, I wouldn’t stay with people for that long, but it’s different for everyone. Sometimes I meet assistants who are leaving and they ask me: “Oh what should I do?” and I say:  “Just go and do it, just do it.” Then there’s some people I say: “No, go on and assist someone else or get a job doing windows in a store.” Some people have the drive and are self sufficient and some people just don’t have that, they sort of need the drive of somebody else. I think everybody is different. I think there’s a danger of learning too much from one person. Then you basically get on and do what they did. I’ve experienced that and I think it’s better to leave, because you lose your ideas as you’ve done somebody else’s work for so long, that you start to think like them and then your voice isn’t so strong. It’s really a different advice for every single person.

When you make the pieces by hand, what kind of techniques do you use the most to create your work?

The glue gun is my friend. Also tape, you can make all sorts of structures with tape. Fabric and stitching. It’s really lo-fi. We just work with what we’ve got. I have a lot of crap in my studio, and it’s quite good because we just try to get somewhere with all the bits and bobs.


I read in an interview that you never keep any of the set pieces you create. How do you dispose of them?

I often think about the environmental impact of what I do. All the props that have creative implication for the clients, something they would probably not want in the window of a charity shop, I either give them to somebody maybe on set or one of my assistants. If not, we break it up. We give any sort of fabric or furniture to the Children’s SCRAP Project. They come and pick up corridors full of stuff every week, and they are very happy with it. It can be sort of a full time job trying to get rid of the stuff.

Compared to other handmade things like fashion or jewellery that is meant to last and be passed on, does the disposable nature of your work ever leave you feeling empty or like it wasn’t worth the effort?

The answer truthfully is ‘yes’, and I’m working on a project now which is exactly me going: “Okay, I’m not going to produce all this labour and love to create fleeting images that are seen really tiny on screens or swiped with a finger.” I’m glad that magazines are still alive and that people still have shows, but there are less and less of them. So I’m doing this show that is somewhere in-between sets, interiors and installations. Creating things that sort of don’t belong in photography, which for me is really sad because I love photography – it’s magic. But now, I need to make sure I can make magic as you see it.

A special thank you to Dishoom (and Septimia for serving us!)

House porridge: £3.90, Americano £2.70, Freshly Squeezed Orange £3.90 – Total including service: £11.81