Set design is also known as scenic design deals with creating scenes for theatre, film or television. It involves constructing a physical space according to the background of a story, playing a pivotal role in setting the mood or atmosphere to the style of narration. It could be of a cityscape, landscape or even something out of fantasy, an amalgamation of architecture, interior design and the arts. Set Design requires technical knowledge with an edge in creativity and great visualization skills that architects are already prepped for throughout their college years. 

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Several famous architects have been involved with set designing from Zaha Hadid to Frank Gehry, architects are known to produce high-end set designs. 

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Frank Gehry’s “Don Giovanni” crumpled paper set design inside his own Walt Disney Hall in LA_© Matthew Imaging

Introduction to Set Design as a field

Set design involves careful study and analysis of the script, the time of day, the period it is set in according to which the style of buildings and surroundings are influenced. When portraying a time in history careful research has to be done to get the details of the time period right. These small details can capture the audience and set the tone for the story to play out. The movement of the actors also influences the set design making sure that props don’t get in the way of the scenes.

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However, for scripts that involve unrealistic fictitious portrayals the designers’ artistic abilities are put to test to envision a never-before-seen world for the story to play out accordingly. With careful discussions with the director and design team, the design will be finalized and involves works by painters, carpenters and electricians to reach the desired outcome. Art direction as it is called involves the visualization of structures that are for temporary use, unlike architects that design structures to last. Architecture graduates can involve themselves in cinematic architecture, cinematography and other areas of the performing arts to get a clearer idea about set design.

Set designers use many modes to communicate their ideas, from elaborate sketches to models and the usual floor plans and elevations that architects produce. These drawings are used to guide the theatre artists and help them form an idea of the set and the functions that each of them plays so that they don’t get confused on stage. 

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Barkow Leibinger’s set design for Fidelio in Vienna_© Iwan Baan

Evolution in Set Design

Stage sets and architecture have been correlated for the longest time. The pioneer architects of Rome involved in the Renaissance, the Baroque and the Rococo were all interested in the architecture of the stage set. The theatre was a metaphor for life, a place where tabooed subjects could be put out in the open.  An intensified realm in which ideas about aspects of society such as politics, morality and ethics could be played out with a freedom that did not exist in the real-world space of the town square. Yet since the end of modernism, when the Bauhaus, the German expressionists and the Russian constructivists all used theatre to promote their radical aesthetic ideas, set design has become sidelined.

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The Greek and Roman theatres were the initial set designs that were widely talked about. Greek theatre consisted of a circular space which was the acting area around which the spectators gathered. Later it carved out onto contoured slopes to get the natural sloping seats focused onto a central area. Roman theatre however had a semicircular acting area, where it had an ornamental background that could be manipulated as a set. Here set design came into play.

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Roman theatre in Merida, Spain_© Wikimedia Commons [CC BY-SA 3.0].

How to Pursue Set Design as a career 

There is a huge demand for set designers in the entertainment industry where freelance is also an alternative. Theatres usually look for a full-time set designer so that they can also grab lucrative opportunities in the film industry, usually with large production studios. Many set designing institutes are offering long-term and short-term set designing courses in India. 

The prominent institutes are the National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad; Film and Television Institute of India, Pune; and Whistling Woods Institution that offers BSC / BA in Filmmaking with Specialization. It is good to complete graduation in any field along with a course in set designing. Employers are however more concerned with job skills as well as industry experience than with education.

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Career Guide: Set Design Sheet4
A basic model kit allows designers to visualize their design_© Cydney Scott

The top countries to study set design include Milan, Italy; the US; and London, UK. Several theatre design classes are available for study on MIT’s Open CourseWare online and platforms like Domestika and Skillshare also have courses for set design. 

The salary of a Set Designer is entirely dependent upon the type of work he gets and the Production house you are working for. Set Designer’s pay package can vary from Rs.5,00,000 per month to Rs.50,000 for even a single assignment. 

References

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  • Matthew Imaging. Frank Gehry’s Don Giovanni. [Photograph]. Archdaily.com
  • Allana, Nissar. “The Evolution of Stage Design, from Ancient Greece to Italian Renaissance to Modern India.” Scroll.in, 12 Sept. 2017, scroll.in/magazine/850304/the-evolution-of-stage-design-from-ancient-Greece-to-Italian-renaissance-to-modern-India. Accessed 15 Aug. 2021.
  • “Set Designer | AACT.” Aact.org, aact.org/set-designer. Accessed 12 Aug. 2021.
  • Iwan Baan. Barkow Leibinger’s set design. [Photograph].
  • “How Architecture and Set Design Are Blurring the Line between City and Stage.” ICON Magazine, 16 Sept. 2019, www.iconeye.com/design/features/architecture-set-design-theatre-stage-city. Accessed 15 Aug. 2021.
  • Seema Gupta. “Scope & Significance of Set Designing Courses in Mumbai.” Medium, 6 Feb. 2017, medium.com/@seemagup9/scope-significance-of-set-designing-courses-in-mumbai-d7bb94955660. Accessed 15 Aug. 2021.
  • Roman theatre in Merida, Spain. [Photograph]. Wikimedia Commons [CC BY-SA 3.0].
  • Cydney Scott. [Photograph]
  • “How to Become a Set Designer | Job Prospects | Job Description.” Targetstudy.com, targetstudy.com/professions/set-designers.html. Accessed 15 Aug. 2021.
Author

Mary is a final year B.Arch. student eager to find her place in the multiverse that is architecture. She believes that words have a hidden ability to inspire, providing an in-depth perception. Deeply passionate about preserving the natural world and its heritage, she also finds solace in penning down her thoughts, travelling and enjoys being cooped up with a good book.

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