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Features / Set Design

Set designer Gary Card on the importance of being a chameleon

Words:

Bryony Stone

Photography:

Elliot Kennedy

“This is, I think, the generation of the polymath. Everyone’s a polymath! It’s a word that’s thrown at me quite a lot.” Meet Gary Card, a multi-talented set designer, illustrator, artist, and lately, sculptor. Adaptability is part of the territory for a set designer. “Every day is completely different. It’s a great thing being a set designer: you’re constantly making new things, you’re constantly shifting. By our very nature we have to be chameleons to be able to apply a brand new set of skills to each job.”

Gary’s Hackney Wick studio is messy, littered with the skeletons of past projects. Some are instantly recognisable, others unrealised and forgotten. In one corner I spot a baby pink tissue-paper covered card decorated with a white swan: a fragment of an arch which once lined the catwalk of designer Ryan Lo’s AW16 LFW show. Gary’s signature monster toys lurk on a nearby shelf, and by the door is a miniature mountain of bin bags and paint pots belonging to Gary’s friend, fashion designer Charles Jeffery.

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“We’ve usually got about three jobs on the go at once,” Gary tells me cheerfully as he surveys the chaos around him. A glance at Gary’s Instagram account confirms this, with posts leaping from project to brilliant project with hyperactive energy. One image displays his rainbow-hued LFW set for designer Marta Jakubowski, the next a Tim Walker-shot, Charles Jeffrey, Matty Bovan and Katie Grand-styled John Galliano special for Love magazine, the next a trio of enormous pantomime-like sculptures crafted for Charles Jeffrey’s AW17 show. “[Projects] do overlap, particularly with something like Fashion Week where you have three different shows happening simultaneously and we’ve got to split our brains into three compartments,” Gary admits. “Sometimes they’re very different styles, and that’s we like: we like to do a bit of Ryan [Lo] which is really glitzy and cute; Marta [Jakubowski] — her shows are usually more material-led; and then Roksanda which is my big show each season, a lot more mature and a lot more epic in terms of scale.”

That royal “we” is “me and my assistant Tom”, Gary’s “right hand man” who, Gary tells me is with him every day. With an average of three projects on the go at any one time, a third brain is required in the form of Lydia Chan. “She’s the most wonderful maker. You can literally just say ‘Make us a massive hand’ and she’ll just go and do it, and it’s a beautiful thing. Both of those guys I trust completely now in terms of their instincts, so I just let them get on with it and then I pitch in when necessary.” The three work on 3D CAD software Sketch Up before sending their designs off to a set builder who will then construct it. “I work with big set build teams like Karmer and A Construction Production or Andy Knight for bigger projects and then we oversee them,” Gary says. But that’s not to say the trio are above getting their hands dirty. “This week we’re poly-carving,” Gary tells me. “In the past I’ve always got people to poly-carve but because of the budget for this and because there’s so much we need to do, with my little team, we’re learning how to be poly-carvers. And it’s such an amazing adventure.”

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Gary’s is a world constantly sliding between two poles: the detached, slick, mathematical process of designing in 3D by way of a computer program, and the messy, visceral art of making. It’s a duality that reveals both Gary’s desire and need to adapt and learn new skills. “I try a bit of this and then I get a bit frustrated and bored, so I think fuck that, I want to try a bit of drawing again, and then the idea of being an illustrator is baffling because it’s so tedious and lonely, so I want to get back on working with a massive set build team again.”

While his contemporaries commit to a particular aesthetic and with it a financial stability which allows them to upgrade ramshackle studios into sleek showrooms of stripped-back modernity, Gary, now in his mid-thirties, is still working in Hackney Wick. “I have a theory that I would probably be an awful lot richer and probably an awful lot more successful if I was better at honing in on something that was a particular thing,” he notes. “But for me half the fun is not having that and still trying to figure out what I want to do with my life, which is an insane thing to say being that I’ve been a set designer for ten years or more — which is scary — but I’m still kind of figuring it out. It’s both lovely and frustrating, this weird cross-section of a career that’s constantly contradicting itself. It’s like being constantly manic, both delighted and furious in minute by minute blows. And that’s the job: it’s both entirely frustrating and terrifically fun.”

Recently, Gary was able to translate the mania of his own brain into one mammoth project for Campaign Design. “This year we’ve had an awful lot of projects that have got to a certain point and for whatever reason they’ve decided not to go forward with it,” he explains. “And Campaign approached me to see if I wanted to design some stuff for an augmented reality project. I was like, why don’t we take all the really sad moments of this year, all the stuff that we’ve left behind, and actually make a weird theme park out of them? All these projects lined up, stacked on top of each other, and then you can see it through virtual reality and augmented reality.” Among the ghosts of unrealised past projects was a ten-metre high head originally designed for Diesel, some aborted Roksanda show ideas, an Urban Outfitters window idea, and much to Gary’s joy, an Absolutely Fabulous gay pride float. “It was really cathartic for me to be able to take these disappointing projects that didn’t go any further and give them a weird new home.”

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Next, Gary is working on a fantasy project, one which showcases yet another of the seemingly endless edges to his creative brain. For his second solo art exhibition, he is planning to make 100 figurative sculptures out of masking tape. “For years, I’ve made things out of masking tape, everything from headpieces to props to set pieces,” he says. “I’ve done it for years but it’s a weird skill.”

“I’ve always been a bit scared about showing people how the masking tape looks, but I actually love the way it looks: I love the folds of it. The guys who are backing me now gave me confidence by saying ‘Why are you prudey about telling people? Why not celebrate the fact that you are a masking tape sculptor?’ It was really wonderful to hear from someone else, because I’d had that in my head.” Why the sudden need for verification, I wondered. “The intimidation of it was being called an artist. To this day being called an artist feels like a very weighty name.”

With an restless, endless need for experimentation, it’s hard to predict what Gary will do next. In an industry where so many strive to confirm to their own limitations, Gary Card sticks out — and is all the better for it.

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