Occupy Me


This article was written on 25 Feb 2015, and is filled under Design, Fashion, Multi-tasking.

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Petra Storrs: Set, prop and costume designer



Petra Storrs is another Occupy Me poster-girl; not one to be restricted by a single job title, she works in art direction, set design, costume and prop design and styling. You’ve probably already seen her work even if you weren’t aware of it- either on the pages of a high end fashion magazine, on a stage near you, an advert on TV or in one of your favourite music videos (Lady Gaga’s stained-glass dress in Born this Way was made by Petra).

So how on earth do you go from making stuff out of tin foil for your school play to achieving international acclaim as a set designer? Petra explains the importance of work experience, building your portfolio and managing clients’ expectations…


OM: Can you describe an average day at work?
PS: I wake up at 7.45am, go out for breakfast and a walk before returning to start work. I live at my studio, so have to have little routines to make it feel like a real job! At 10am I’m joined by Esther and Claudia to work with me till 6pm. Depending on the phase of the project we are in we will either be researching, designing, making or for the final days of the project be out at a photographic or film studio or on location. Then the cycle begins again.

OM: Have you always wanted to design sets and props?
PS: No, it’s been a journey through lots of different jobs to get here. I just fell into set design though a friend and it seemed to suit me so I stuck at it.

OM: What was the hardest part about shaping your career?
PS: Building up a portfolio and client base has taken me years and I’m still doing it now. With every project I try to push it a little further. I think it really takes time and experience to build up your ability and confidence; set design is only one aspect of it, there is also lots of project management which includes managing people’s expectations, being realistic about time management and knowing how to spend a budget to create the best outcome.


Petra Storrs’ chocolate dress

OM: And what’s the best part of the job?
PS: My favourite part is always the build days. On large projects we will have been planning for a month or two, designing away and then suddenly over the space of 12 hours a big team of people make it all come together. It’s so exhausting, there are always so many problems to overcome but seeing it grow from a sketch into a reality feels amazing.

OM: Do you feel you’re treated differently in your industry because you’re a woman?
PS: Perhaps, but it’s hard to say as I don’t get to see how male set designers are treated. I like all the people I work with, many of whom are female. Lots of jobs in the photographic film industry are almost all male; I’ve never met a female gaffa or rigger or set builder but I’m sure there must be some!

OM: What’s the best piece of career advice you’ve ever been given? And what other advice would you give to anyone looking to become an set designer ? What qualifications and experience do you need?
PS: I think the best piece of career advice I’ve been given was “Why do people think the world owes them a job? You have to get out there and make the job you want for yourself.” I remember thinking it was a bit harsh at the time but now I think its really true.
I would recommend doing a year of a mixture of work experience and paid art department work so you can get a feel for it and make lots of contacts and new friends in the set design world. There is a thin line between gaining work experience and being exploited for free labour so I think you have to draw your own line and make sure you’re getting something of value from it. At the same time, do a few projects by yourself so you are starting to make your own portfolio along the way. I think its really helpful to make a website even if you have almost nothing on it or you don’t think it’s good enough, because it gives you an overview and helps to motivate you to do more and more.

I don’t think you need to have any qualifications. I have a degree in furniture and product design but no one has ever asked me for my CV!

I think you have to have spatial awareness and be able to visualise things in 3D in your mind. It’s important to be able to evolve ideas, draw designs and problem-solve to make it happen. It’s also fairly vital to be able to use computer programs such as Photoshop, Illustrator, Indesign and some sort of 3D modelling program even if it’s just Google Sketch Up.


Petra Storrs’ set and costume for Rachel Snider‘s show ‘Camellia and the Rabbit’

OM: What’s the biggest mistake you’ve ever made in the workplace or in your career?
PS: There have been a good few cock ups along the way! When I was interning I was asked to withdraw £300 from the bank with the company card. It was a breezy day and somehow the wind blew the money out of my hand down the pavement and into the traffic at Hackney Central. Luckily passers-by took pity on me and we stopped the traffic and managed to get most of it back before it dispersed too far! Another time I was asked to make a clear perspex set, which I did. Once it was all set up and we removed the plastic backing to photograph it, we discovered it was totally invisible and there was no way to light it so it could be seen. It was a painful day… I wasn’t very popular.

OM: What does success mean to you?
PS: Success to me is getting to work on projects I find inspiring and exciting. I don’t mind working ridiculously hard if I think it’s interesting and worth it. It’s also about finding a good balance between working and spending time with my family and friends and getting to do lots of fun things so I don’t get burnt out.

OM: What’s your feminist wish for the future?
PS: It would be that the ratio of females to males in all workplaces at all levels of the paygrade become equal. All the talented women out there deserve great jobs which pay them salaries equal to those of their male counterparts.


Petra Storrs’ costume for Paloma Faith at Glastonbury


National Careers Service: Set Designer

Tweet Petra here.

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