set design

set design
   Design jobs in the performing arts include theatre designer, stage designer and, increasingly the European term ‘scenographer’ (with sub-categories of set designer, costume designer, lighting designer and sound designer). Taken together, these describe a relatively unsettled and developing ‘profession’. The development of set design as a specialist theatre discipline in the UK (as distinct from the prevailing orthodoxy, established in the 1920s by the design group Motley, of theatre design (or stage design) where the designer’s responsibility is for set and costumes), was probably precipitated by the impact of the theatre design work of the architect Sean Kenny in the 1960s (for example, Oliver (1960) and Hamlet (1963), and by the influence throughout Europe of the innovative Czech designer Josef Svoboda, who first successfully incorporated slide projection into set design. Kenny was trained as an architect (managing a successful architectural practice throughout his career), conforming to the historical model of set design established in England by Inigo Jones in the seventeenth century. Svoboda began as a carpenter’s apprentice.
   The number of specialist set designers has increased concurrently with the rapid development of the technology of computer controlled stage mechanics, lighting and sound. Research and development of these technologies has been propelled and financed by the demands of extravagant stage presentations of live pop music (for example, the Rolling Stones and Pink Floyd). Television and film design have always been separated into the two disciplines of set and costume design, with costume designers generally being the poor relations in a rigid hierarchy; witness the credits for any television programme or feature film. Set design in these media, usually credited as production design, has been dominated by practitioners often trained as architects or interior designers, and whose practice naturally focuses on the output of comprehensive technical drawings, rather than the atmospheric, coloured and textured scale model so central to a theatre designer’s language. Most theatre designers still elect to design both settings and costumes to ensure a visually coherent whole for their productions. However, Ralph Koltai, John Napier (Starlight Express, Cats, Les Misérables, Miss Saigon) and William Dudley are distinguished British theatre designers regularly confining themselves to set design.
   Further reading
    Allen, K. and Shaw, P. (eds) (1994) Make Space!, Theatre Design Umbrella in association with The Society of Theatre Designers (a copiously illustrated catalogue of British theatre design between 1990 and 1994, including 135 designers’ biographies; each design is accompanied by a brief text describing the underpinning ideas).

Encyclopedia of contemporary British culture . . 2014.

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