Rhea Thierstein’s job looks like a lot of fun. As an art director, set designer and stylist, she has done shoots for British, American and Italian Vogue, often collaborating with the famed photographer Tim Walker. She recently worked on his first short film, The Lost Explorer, and designed the Claridge’s launch event, with diners like Helena Bonham Carter crawling through a tent to their seats. Thierstein’s design leans towards the romantic and the theatrical and there’s a childlike, fantastical feel to it – candied colours, ice-sculpture ships and flowers trapped in jelly. We caught up with her to find out more.
The ice sculpture ship is stunning but must have been a challenging material to manipulate. What materials do you most enjoy working with to create sets/props?
The great thing about this job is that each project is very different, therefore I am constantly exploring new materials. Its a great learning process and I try to use different materials as much as possible, but also keep it simple. In the studio it could be we’re using anything from papier-mâché to doing plaster life casting.
How do you start a project and build up a narrative for shoots?
I don’t really do storyboards, it’s usually just sketches that I use to develop and plan the ideas. I draw inspiration mainly from the environments around me. Nature is a big influence, so exploring in the rainforest has been a recent expedition, but I’m just as much inspired by the forms of the cranes I can see from my studio window.
You’ve obviously collaborated with Tim Walker a great deal. What’s the dynamic like and how much communication do you have prior to a shoot?
Mine and Tim’s relationship is a relaxed one. We have an understanding of each others’ style, so even though we do communicate a lot before a shoot, he trusts me to bring unexpected design elements to the projects.
What is your favourite of all the projects you’ve worked on and why?
I’d say the Constance Spry, Flower project was one of my favourites. It came together so beautifully and was such an enjoyable project. I now know a lot about flowers! The wasp window was also really great. It was completely me and a real joy to make and put together.
What advice would you give to people starting out in the industry?
Be true to your style, be willing to give a lot of your time and energy. Be persistent and aim high.