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Anatomy of a Set Designer

A look at the role of the set designer in bringing a production to life

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Anatomy of a Set Designer

A look at acclaimed George Tsypin's set design for a scene in Spider-Man Turn Off the Dark. The Set Designer plays a vital role in creating the world of the production onstage for the audience.

Courtesy of Spider-Man, Turn Off the Dark

The Set Designer conceives of the overall design for a show, and also oversees the creation of most (or all) of the scenic elements that make up that design, depending on the size of the production.

The job of the Set Designer can require an incredible amount of knowledge ranging from basic design skill and terminology to an encyclopedic knowledge of historic periods and styles, from ancient to modern, and from fine art and interior design, to architecture. One production may require a Depression-Era jalopy and a dusty protagonist, while another may require a mod 1980's flashback, or still another the splendid overkill of the Baroque or Rococo eras.

Working Relationships

The Set Designer typically works closely with the Director, to bring the visual elements of the production to life in a way that meshes with the director's overall vision. The Set Designer also works closely with the Costume and Lighting Designers, to ensure that all three major design elements work together (for instance, to ensure that all elements show up as desired under the lighting designer's chosen lighting, and that sets and costumes work harmoniously together instead of clashing visually.

Tasks and Challenges

A set designer may be given the formidable task of creating a sense of immensity and limitlessness within the relatively small space of the stage. She may need to fill every inch of visible space, or conversely, make the emptiness sing. It’s all a matter of creating the appropriate world. Todd Rosenthal’s beautiful design for August: Osage County, for instance, created a warm, cluttered, three-story microcosm for its characters to roam, both vertically as well as across the stage itself.

Some productions require a space to be filled. For others, the empty spaces are just as important. Sometimes less is more, as with Christopher Oram’s powerful, Rothko-inspired elements and canvases filling the darkness in Red, 2010’s Tony-winner for scenic design, or John Napier’s monumental, splendidly minimalistic scenic design for the 2008 Broadway revival of Equus.

Creative Process

To create the set design, the set designer will typically begin with hand-sketched drawings and approaches, moving on into more finished, drafted renderings of sets and elements. This can be generated as an intricately drawn or drafted set design by hand, or can also be created via CAD and other graphic design or digital software to generate renderings and designs via computer.

Many set designers also build scale models of their designs so that the set can be experienced in a realistic, albeit miniaturized, 3D atmosphere.

Notable Set Designers

Notable set designers of yesterday and today include all those I've mentioned above, as well as such names as Antony McDonald, Russell Patterson, Boris Aronson, Jo Mielziner, Peter Larkin, Oliver Smith, Franco Zeffirelli, Raoul Pene Du Bois, Sean Kenny, Ming Cho Lee, Inigo Jones, Josef Svoboda, Ken Adam, Nathan Altman, Robert Wilson, Tony Walton, George Tsypin, Christopher Oram, Todd Rosenthal, Robin Wagner, Scott Pask, John Lee Beatty, John Napier, Bob Crowley, Tony Straiges, Maria Bjornson, Heidi Landesman, Michael Yeargan, Anna Louizos, Derek McLane, and many many more. Just the images alone of many of these productions are a feast for any young set designer's focus, education, and inspiration.

Set designers working in film or television may also be known as production designers or art directors, and may work collaboratively and intensively with the set decorator to achieve the overall look of the production before it reaches film.

For more information on the set designer’s process, check out my interviews with set and production designers like David Rockwell, Douglas Rogers, Guy Hendrix Dyas.

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