Rhea Thierstein: The Apprentice

Sat at the desk of her small studio – an L shaped room hovering above an industrial neighbourhood in North London – the Art Director, Set Designer and Prop Stylist Rhea Thierstein cuts an unassuming figure when compared to her majestic portfolio including sets, costumes and props for various editions of Vogue, Vanity Fair and Pop magazine and the art direction of photographer Tim Walker’s first short film The Lost Explorer and his notable 2008 book, Pictures.

The German born Thierstein really began her education soon after completing a photography degree in 2005. Going on to work with eminent set designer Shona Heath, she found herself on an apprenticeship into a world she never knew existed.

How long have you been in this studio?

We’ve been here since December and I’ve slowly moved everything here now from my home; it’s nice to have the studio separate to my home and I have my bedroom back now; I’m not waking up surrounded by all of this stuff every day. I’ve only really been working on my own for a year, so now it’s really about trying to work out how best to organise stuff.

There must be a lot of it – do you hoard? I have this idea that all set designers and prop makers love clutter.

We don’t keep a lot of things actually, I mean, only the small nice things but that’s for decorative purposes. Only if I’ve made something and it’s really beautiful, I’ll keep it, but the whole thing about what we do is that a lot of the stuff falls apart – it’s not made to last. We did keep the house from Jessie J’s music video because I want to turn that into a cupboard.

Generally, I’m not attached to objects that much and hoarding isn’t that useful. Weirdly the things I have kept have never been used.

Waiting for a new lease of life?

Yes, I mean we reuse a lot of things as it’s nice to have a theme running through your work but that tends to be more fabric and stuff but certainly, I’m not a hoarder.

The theme for this issue is ‘Once Upon A Time’ – it must be a term you’ve heard a million times, right?

Once Upon A Time? I’ve not heard it that much actually, not recently anyway. I guess to me it means getting lost into something and drifting away. The word that gets to me is ‘magical’, THAT’S really overused.

Looking at your work, the role of a set designer is about creating a new world, rather than beautifying an existing one wouldn’t you agree?

Well, I used to love making things as a child but as I’ve gotten older and when I find myself working today, I’ve learned to be able to create something new, somewhere only your imagination can take you to and I think I’m reliving my childhood. When people look at my work I want to be able to take them back to somewhere they would have imagined as a child.

Where does this need to escape come from?

It’s not that I’m trying to escape; it’s more about being able to absorb something and surprise people with something they might not expect. I just really enjoy making things and creating worlds and getting really lost in my imagination. In everyday life we don’t do that so much because we’re so distracted by our friends and computers and stuff, so it’s kind of nice to be able to get lost in something, like you used to when you were younger. It’s easier for me to create a world that doesn’t exist than to have to make something up with tables and chairs.

The giant papier-mâché wasps you placed into the window of Selfridges looked very real, even though you knew they weren’t. It reminded me of a scene from Honey I Shrunk The Kids!

I really enjoyed doing that project because as a set designer, you contribute to a photograph or a film with another person but the window – that was just me. I went to go and look at the wasps a couple of times and it felt bizarre as I really felt that there was a real atmosphere in the window. I like creating something that is believable but unreal.

Who do you think taught you to think like that?

I studied photography but only because I was forced to choose something. I had always been more interested in making things, working things out and coming up with strange ideas, painting and drawing. I left my foundation course without finishing - feeling frustrated - and went to Munich for a few years when I was 19.

How did that help?

I lost my lost touch with my creativity for a while and didn’t know what to do but I had a lot of fun. When I came back to England, I went back to the same art college and got on much better with the course as it had changed and felt less suffocating. When I was asked to choose a pathway I wanted to follow, fine art didn’t seem like the right choice for me, as there didn’t seem to be any jobs available in it at the time.

That seems like very practical thinking for an art student.

I guess. It’s just that photography seemed like the most commercial choice – it was something that I knew I could make a job out of and potentially make money from, so I specialised in photography and 3D and then chose to study for my BA in photography.

I found the first year hard but then in the second year I started making little sets and photoshopping people into them and started making worlds with my photography; it felt much more creative than just taking photographs. I started to make work that was dreamy and fairy tale and by then I had not even seen Tim Walker’s work.

Did the idea of becoming a set designer come soon after?

Oh my god, when I discovered Shona Heath I was shocked, I had no idea that this world existed! The job of a set designer and all that could entail for me was so new, but I felt relieved, at college we were always led to believe that the photographer would do all of the sets.

Were you looking at photos differently from everyone else around you? Really dissecting the images?

Not so much because I think that if you don’t know how a photograph is put together, you don’t look at a photograph and think about how much work has gone into putting it together. When I was younger I don’t think I really knew enough to think about that.

Doesn’t that kill the magic a bit for you? Knowing how an incredible image has been constructed?

No…it adds to it. Each job is so different and sometimes you’ll have a very strict and tight ship with so many legalities that you will have to adhere to and so many people you have to pass things through so you have to be more creative. But when I am working with photographers like Tim or Viviane Sassen, we talk and they’ll give me pictures and I’ll turn up on the day – and that’s when the magic happens because you don’t really know what you’re going to do.

Does it ever become really stressful?

When you’re all good at what you do, you can’t really predict what’s going to happen and sometimes it’s astounding what can happen in front of the camera so it can be stressful to a point. For example when I was working on the flower people for Tim’s Italian Vogue shoot, Tim didn’t know what I was coming to the shoot with and I’d made these figures in a slightly different way to how he’d asked me. I was so worried but I’d taken a bit of a risk and I was only four months into being solo and it was my third job with him. But you know, when we put it together, it just worked and it looked amazing.

The level of trust you have to have with the people you’re working with seems immense…

There is a lot of trust yes, but a bit of luck too. Every job so far has worked and it’s weird because every job has been better than I’ve hoped for…it feels like I should be doing this.

What’s been the hardest part?

Difficulty comes when people you’re working alongside have a different vision to you. My stuff isn’t super slick and there were some jobs I did when I had just started with great people but their vision was very different to mine. I now really make sure that I’m right for the job before I take it on, as it’s such a painful experience if you don’t share the vision of the other people on the job. It’s soul destroying having to explain why your ideas make sense or should be tried.

It’s an obvious question but where are you looking?

I look at paintings or other things! We do random research when we have a specific brief but often something will just be ticking over in my head, but honestly I don’t really have much interest in current things because I think it taints you slightly. I think it’s good to be slightly unaware of what is going on to save yourself from subconsciously doing things that are already out there. At university I used to have to reference people all of the time and that annoyed me as I wanted to remain individual – it should be all your own.

So what are you into?

I’m really into nature and bugs and that sort of thing…natural things.

Food too? I noticed a lot of that in your personal work.

After I finished working with Shona I really thought that I wanted to get into food because I didn’t think I could be a set designer. Shona had taught me how to make things and how to use traditional materials like cardboard and glue and string, but I wanted to know how Bompas & Parr were making their amazing jelly sculptures and really looking at showing and using food in a different way. I wanted to do craft but using food as a material.

Wait, you didn’t want to be a set designer?

When you work with someone who is the best, you never imagine doing it yourself, so my plan was never to go into set design, it was to do something with food! But it didn’t work out as food is actually very different, it doesn’t hold shape…

So you were defeated by food!

Well, you know when you think you have this great idea and then…you realise you don’t? Soon after that though all of these jobs came up and I was a set designer before I’d realised it.

During the final year of your degree, you worked one day a week for nine months at SHOWstudio with Penny Martin. How has this experience and also the photography background you come from made you better at what you do?

SHOWstudio was scary for me, I was from Bournemouth and I was coming up once a week and I was surrounded by all of these amazing people – it was a crash course into the fashion world – I got to know who’s who and what’s what and it was brilliant that I was able to learn so much from them. I thought I wanted to be a fashion photographer but then everything changed.


Our degree show was meant to be on the day of the London bombings in 2005 – we’d worked for two years and suddenly there was nothing to show for it, the show was postponed and it really made me take stock of everything. I really thought about why I wanted to do photography because it never felt quite natural to me, to hold a camera. So then I started to work with Shona through a friend who had left SHOWstudio to go and work with her too. I loved it and ended up being there for four years.

So in some ways you shed your photography experience and started again?

It’s interesting you know, because someone called me a ‘polymath’ the other day and really, I think now there are so many boundaries to cross. With the lack of work around, people just have to adapt and be good at different things, mixing media all of the time too as photographers are going into film et cetera. But when I was at university, we were told, ‘don’t be a jack of all trades’, but that’s really what has kept me busy and in work.

So you don’t get the chance to be bored on the job!

I can’t do the same thing twice! I get bored, I just can’t do it! I love working something out from start to finish in immense detail so I can completely immerse myself in the project every time. What we do has a shelf life as it’s fast – it adapts.

What was the first job you did after leaving Shona?

It was for POP with Viviane Sassen and then I did some things with Tim Gutt for *Wallpaper. After those shoots I did a job for a band called Future Heads, which was fun but I was so terrified not really knowing if I was doing the right thing, working solo.

You designed Tim Walker’s award winning book Pictures (May 2008) and some of your most emblematic work has been with him behind the camera. How did your collaboration come about?

Well really, the turning point was the job I did with Tim - I never ever thought I could ever do set for him – the thought was terrifying but he asked me to make some props for the shoot he did of the Monty Python Comedy Troupe for Vanity Fair in 2009 – I’d made some bowler hats that were to be set on fire and stuff. The next job we did required me to blow images up and stick them to the walls, two metres high in this stately home. When we went to see the location, there was this amazing 5 metre high staircase and Tim said to me, ‘it would be great to hang one here’ and I thought – OH MY GOD – not having any idea about how we could do it but you know, I said ‘sure’ and we did it. It turned into this huge job but it was so great for me. I learned so much.

You’ve said that you were apprehensive to go it alone – I guess having worked with some of the best provided you with some intensive training.

It was a huge education. Both Tim and Shona spent time opening my eyes to things that I’d never seen. When you work with the best in their field, it’s an apprenticeship, like the old school painter’s used to have to do – you’d learn from the greats and go off and do your own thing.

Simon Costin and Shona basically invented this job about 12 years ago and it really is a whole new way of working. What we do crosses so many boundaries it could be film, TV, photography, a music video – anything and I think I’m more of an artist because set designers do work to briefs and adapt their style to the photographer they are working with, but I’ve been very lucky because people have come to me and asked me how I would like to contribute, rather than asking me to do something specific. That’s a great position to be in.

For me there has to be something selfless in creating these images because once the image leaves the camera, it’s passed on to someone else – it becomes the viewers. Would you consider picking up the camera yourself?

To do that and the set is so much to think about, but if you have a good team then maybe it’s not too bad…it is always in the back of my mind to try taking my own pictures.

What were the images you grew up looking at? So many creative’s of our generation recall visiting Charles Saatchi’s incredible Sensation exhibition at Royal Academy of Art in 1997.

Yes! I do remember looking at lots of paintings and works by the YBA’s when I was younger. People like Francis Bacon and Jenny Saville. That exhibition was a turning point for me and it was when I discovered the work of Gary Hume and Ron Mueck. I quite like shock tactics, something that stirs a reaction and with my work, I like being able to get a reaction from someone.

Have they affected your style? For example a lot of your work with Tim Walker has this romanticism to it and a sense of grandeur.

I think I’m only just starting to find my style and now I look at it, I think there is a real soul to it, a real feeling. I don’t know if it’s romantic, I think it’s very sensitive. I like things that are beautiful and sensitive, because they entice you in.

Maybe my work can seem romantic to some people because of where I grew up and the affect growing up near the sea has had on me. Bournemouth has lots of old ruins around it too and I went to college in The New Forest, with all of that amazing open land and space. I don’t think I’ll stay in London forever.

Published in TIGER MAGAZINE ISSUE 3 A/W 2011/12

Constance Spry Flower Project for Italian Vogue photographed by Tim Walker
Rhea Thierstein photographed by Retts Wood
W Magazine, March 2012 photographed by Tim Walker
Rhea Thierstein Hermès Christmas windows, 2013
Eric Idle photographed by Tim Walker, Vanity Fair, 2009
Sensation, 18 September – 28 December 1997, Royal Academy of Art