Set Design: "I breathe life into the impossible," an interview with the fantastic Rhea Thierstein

13 May 2014

Rearranging the furniture with Tim Walker and having a fully-grown lion wandering around in a room that looks like something out of a Tim Burton movie is just another day at the office for set designer Rhea Thierstein. London-based Rhea is whizzing through a stellar list of clients who are begging for a drop of the magic she sprinkles on to shop windows, fashion shoots, adverts and editorial features.

Her work, although eclectic, is infused with a wild energy and curious magic that is balanced equally among her varied clients and projects. Working for the greats such as Stella McCartney, LOVE, Bombay Sapphire, Vanity Fair, POP and W Magazine and collaborating with the likes of Viviane Sassen and Tim Walker among many others, Rhea’s on track to be the best in the business. Here she is telling us a little more about what she does…

Can you sum up what you do in one line?

I breathe life into the impossible.

Set design is a strange branch of creativity as it’s rarely taught in schools. How did you find yourself as a set designer?

I came across Shona Heath after my photography degree a few years back. I had never heard of that branch of the industry. I worked for her for four years, which paved the way for me to become a set designer.

We recently wrote up a Freunde von Freunden trip to your studio. Tell us a little about your workspace and why it’s important.

My workspace is a calm melting pot for creativity. It’s important because I can escape and lose myself in my books and images, which I have around me. It’s where I can concentrate and feel I can experiment and nurture my creations and ideas.

You’ve done a lot of work for different clients across publications, adverts and campaigns. Do you think your approach differs with each different platform?

Not really. There’s the research, the ideas, the planning and then the execution. I am always creating something, be it an event, a shoot, a window or a TV commercial – it’s always follows the same formula.

You do a lot of work for LOVE magazine, can you tell us a little about the making of the shoot you helped on with the lion?

The LOVE shoot was something that not very many people will ever be able to experience. It was surreal but real, if you know what I mean? Having such a “monster” in front of you and feeling the excitement and fear from everyone was something you can’t describe and, in a strange way, was very special.


Rhea Thierstein: Kate Moss for LOVE Magazine. Photography by Tim Walker

We love the Hermès windows, can you tell us a little about how you created them and how that collaboration came about?

I was asked to do their Christmas windows after I’d met them as they were looking for new artists to collaborate with. They were really happy with them, so asked me to do their windows again. The windows I created are little portholes which transport you to a little world of tranquillity and beauty. It took weeks to create all of the elements and make sure it had a luxurious but real feel to it.

Who do you currently love collaborating with most, and who would you ideally love to collaborate with in the future?

I really enjoyed collaborating with Hermès and Selfridges as I had complete free reign and felt the installations reached out to a very different audience. It’s an immersive experience for everyone rather than something on a magazine page or a TV screen. It felt a lot more personal. Of course I also love collaborating with Tim Walker and Viviane Sassen who bring something very special to the projects we do. I’d love to collaborate with Björk. I love her being a fine artist and pushing the boundaries between music and art.

Do you feel set designers and stylists get enough credit in the industries they work in?

That’s a hard question! There are a lot of people involved in all of the projects I do – it’s hard to credit everyone. I think it’s starting to change and the roles are evolving. Set designers and stylists are starting to get more credibility for their work and their input.

What do you love most about what you do?

The unknown, being able to experiment, being creative every day and seeing things come to life on set. I love it when objects or ideas evolve in front of me and they become real.

For any budding set designers out there, can you give them some sage advice?

I would say try and work for other set designers you admire as you’ll learn the ropes that way and get to know people in the industry. Be true to yourself with the type of work you take on and make sure you have a strong style so people want you for what you do. It’s a tough job and you need to devote a lot of hours to it.


Rhea Thierstein: Photography by Tim Walker


Rhea Thierstein: Tilda Swinton for W Magazine. Photography by Tim Walker


Rhea Thierstein: Bright Young Things for Selfridges. Photography by Andrew Meredith


Rhea Thierstein: Hermès Chaîne d’Ancre Window Display


Rhea Thierstein: Hermès Chaîne d’Ancre Window Display


Rhea Thierstein: Stella McCartney Adidas SS14. Photography by Viviane Sassen

Share Article

About the Author

Liv Siddall

Liv joined It’s Nice That as an intern in 2011 and worked across online, print and events, and was latterly Features Editor before leaving in May 2015.

It's Nice That Newsletters

Fancy a bit of It's Nice That in your inbox? Sign up to our newsletters and we'll keep you in the loop with everything good going on in the creative world.