Creative Lives — “Be open to all opportunities, no matter how scary” – set designer Gary Card on treating every working day as a new adventure

Posted 08 August 2017 Interview by Indi Davies

Set designer Gary Card has grown a reputation in ten years that many can only hope to achieve in a lifetime. His list of collaborators reads like a who’s who of the fashion, music and art worlds (including Balenciaga, Comme des Garçons, Lady Gaga, Frank Ocean and Dinos Chapman), while an extensive array of projects span editorial illustration, print design, installation and sculpture. At times playful, monster-populated and psychedelic, at others poppy, decadent or minimal, his designs have graced limited-edition watches, fashion-store interiors, major runway shows; he’s even published a children’s book. But despite all this, Gary doesn’t take anything for granted – he cites his earliest jobs as equipping him for the breadth of his role, whether working as a student counsellor or making paintings for supermarkets. From taking an important creative director to a Beefeater in his hometown to fulfilling childhood ambitions of designing toys, Gary tells us why his job is still a “constant adventure”.

Gary Card

Job Title

Set Designer (2006–present)

Based

London

Previous Employment

Print Designer, Pentland Brands (2004–2006)
Student Councillor for the Central Saint Martin’s Students’ Union (2002-2004)

Education

BA Theatre Design, Central Saint Martins (1999–2002)

Clients

Comme des Garçons, Lanvin, Loewe, Balenciaga, New York Times, Dazed & Confused, i-D, Vogue, AnOther

Collaborators: Lady Gaga, Nicola Formichetti, Katy Grand, Nick Knight, Dinos Chapman, Roksanda IlIncic, Tim Walker, Frank Ocean, Jeremy Scott, Harley Weir, Jamie Hawkesworth

Website
Social Media

Gary at work

Day-to-Day

How would you describe what you do?
I am a set designer for the fashion industry, mostly. But it’s a very broad term, because I’m also a painter, an illustrator, a graphic designer, a carpenter, a painter and decorator. Set design seems to cover so many different disciplines; many of the jobs we do are architectural and technical, or they can be abstract and painterly, physical and tactile. It can be anything.

What does an average day look like? 
There is no day like the last. At the moment, for example, I’ve actually closed my studio – it was knocked down recently and made into luxury flats, so I’m looking for a new one, and taking the opportunity to concentrate on my own work while it’s quiet. Currently my days are spent waking up, getting a coffee and sculpting out of masking tape from 10am to 7pm. That’s been my job for the last two weeks. Then the week before that, we were doing the cover for Dazed & Confused, so I was running around, going into every prop house and fabric shop in London trying to find the right objects and and backdrops for a shoot. I haven’t had a typical day since I was a print designer at Pentland.

Where does the majority of your work take place?
A lot of my work is sadly spent behind a computer looking at Pinterest, blogs and websites, or responding to emails. It can be quite drab really. Many of my workforce do the creative stuff now. Often I’ll be looking longingly at somebody making a really fantastic mask, while I’m drowning in a swamp of emails. 

How do your projects usually come about?
I’m lucky in that most work comes to me these days. Well, through my agency, Streeters. I would imagine this is all down to them talking to and meeting people; then when a job comes in, my agent will consider the best person for it. Also, through having a 10-year career, I guess people know me from other work. 

“Set design is a very broad term; I’m also a painter, an illustrator, a graphic designer, a carpenter, a painter and decorator.”

Set design for the Balenciaga SS17 shoot; photographed by Harley Weir

Set design for the Balenciaga SS17 shoot; photographed by Harley Weir

Set design for the Balenciaga SS17 shoot; photographed by Harley Weir

Set design for the Balenciaga SS17 shoot; photographed by Harley Weir

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Set design for Oxfam; photographed by Tim Walker, 2016

Set design for Oxfam; photographed by Tim Walker, 2016

Set design for Oxfam; photographed by Tim Walker, 2016

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Work for Vogue Homme, photographed by William Selden, 2009

Work for Vogue Homme, photographed by William Selden, 2009

Work for Vogue Homme, photographed by William Selden, 2009

Work for Vogue Homme, photographed by William Selden, 2009

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How collaborative is your work?
It can be solitary, but it has to be incredibly collaborative. Even if it’s just me making, I’ll be in constant contact with the client to make sure it’s the best thing for the project. But I wouldn’t be able to do this if it wasn’t for the fantastic people I work with, particularly my first assistants, Lydia and Tom. They’re fantastic; so loyal, incredibly hardworking and clever. I can send them off with a project and say, "Right, this is the general idea. Go for it." I trust their instincts, so there’s an awful lot of creative freedom in the studio. If people have been with me for a certain amount of time and there’s trust between us, I can let them go off on little creative tangents. Sometimes it won’t bare any fruits, but it’s important to allow ourselves that time and flexibility to make mistakes.

My usual workforce can range from two to seven people, depending on how big a project is. Then if we use people for set build, our team can be close to 20 to 30. Every job comes with its own design philosophy in a way. Often a client will have a particular idea for what they want, and it’s our job to get it as close as physically possible to that vision. Every so often a client will give us total creative freedom and we give them options; that can be really fun. Sometimes the client doesn’t know what they want, so we’ll suggest what we think would work.

What are the most and least enjoyable aspects of the job?
The best thing is the worst thing simultaneously, which is that no job is ever the same. You’re always learning and it’s a constant adventure. This means you sometimes take an approach you’ve never tried before, and that can be very scary. But, again, that’s what keeps you motivated.

Car sculptures for Frank Ocean’s magazine Boys Don't Cry, photographed by Frank Ocean, 2016

Car sculptures for Frank Ocean’s magazine Boys Don't Cry, photographed by Frank Ocean, 2016

Car sculptures for Frank Ocean’s magazine Boys Don't Cry, photographed by Frank Ocean, 2016

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Gary’s zine Happy Breakfast, 2017

Gary’s zine Happy Breakfast, 2017

Gary’s zine Happy Breakfast, 2017

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What would you say have been some of your most exciting projects?
It's hard to say. Sometimes things are exciting because it’ll be an amazing client, or they give you complete creative freedom. I made some headpieces for Comme des Garçons a few years ago, which was a really proud moment. It was the perfect mixture of art and commerce. It's a huge client, but one that embraces creativity and wasn’t afraid to go with some very nutty ideas. 

Also, the Comme des Garçons shirt campaign, which was entirely my creation – in that the set builder was my dear old dad, the photographer was my best friend and the paintings were by myself and another best friend. We even shot it in a massive studio space two minutes away from my childhood home – so my mum would bring sandwiches. This was all down to the fact that it was easier and cheaper. Ronnie Newhouse [who was working for Comme des Garçons] even drove down to my little sleepy hometown. To have this really famous creative director there, and take her to the local Beefeater restaurant during the biggest job of my career, was the most surreal experience.

What skills are essential to your job?
Patience, probably. I also draw a lot. An ability to translate the 3D ideas in your head onto paper is essential; you don’t have to be the most accomplished draughtsman, but an idea of how to draw three-dimensionally is important. Then, making. You need a grasp of how to put things together in logical steps – like creating from cardboard – and a willingness to experiment. Everything else (like CAD, SketchUp and Photoshop) you learn along the way.

What tools do you use most for your work?
I couldn't do anything without my laptop, whether we're sketching something quickly, creating a three-dimensional shape on SketchUp, doing a render on Photoshop, or emailing. I'd love to say something like my hacksaw is very important to me, but it isn't.

“It’s important to consider narrative: things have a reason and tell a story. That all comes from theatre design for me.”

Set design for Camper, created in collaboration with Daniel Sannwald, Romain Kremer, Isamaya Ffrench, Anna Trevelyan and Charlie Le Mindu, 2016

Set design for Camper, created in collaboration with Daniel Sannwald, Romain Kremer, Isamaya Ffrench, Anna Trevelyan and Charlie Le Mindu, 2016

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Puppets created for Uniqlo in collaboration with Nicola Formichetti and William Selden, 2009

Puppets created for Uniqlo in collaboration with Nicola Formichetti and William Selden, 2009

Puppets created for Uniqlo in collaboration with Nicola Formichetti and William Selden, 2009

Puppets created for Uniqlo in collaboration with Nicola Formichetti and William Selden, 2009

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Created for The Telegraph, photographed by Jacob Sutton, 2009

How I Got Here

What did you want to be when you were growing up?
When I was little I was always drawing toys and wanted to be a toy designer. When I was older I really wanted to be a comic illustrator. Then I studied theatre at Central Saint Martins, which was an extension of everything really; what is a set designer if not just a toy designer for grown-ups? My dad is a builder by trade, so I also spent a lot of time on building sites when I was a kid, and that’s had a huge influence on my work as well. And it’s gone full circle: I’m working on a range of toys at the moment!

How have your studies been useful?
It sounds trite, but what we do is try and tell stories with what we make – it’s important to consider narrative: things have a reason and tell a story, even if it’s just to sell a product. That all comes from theatre design for me.

What were your first jobs?
After graduating I worked at Central Saint Martins as a student counsellor for two years, issuing NUS cards and helping students. While I was there I started working on a magazine, Less Common with Matt Irwin, who became a very famous photographer. I did a lot of the graphic design and illustrations for it, and then when he went onto Dazed & Confused and kind of took me with him. That was the beginning of my career working in fashion and magazines and editorial. 

At the same time, I still needed to make money, so in the daytime I worked at Pentland Brands where I was a print designer and shoe designer for almost two years. I’d be creating print designs for the likes of Speedo, Ted Baker and Kangaroo. In the evenings and weekends I was working on my own editorials for Dazed & Confused and AnOther magazine, plus I had a very active social life. When you’re young you can kind of stretch out every conceivable droplet of time – I don’t know how the hell I did it.

“Sometimes creative tangents won’t bare any fruits, but it’s important to allow ourselves time and flexibility to make mistakes.”

Design for AnOther magazine, photographed by Erwan Frotin, 2009

Design for AnOther magazine, photographed by Erwan Frotin, 2009

Design for AnOther magazine, photographed by Erwan Frotin, 2009

Design for POP magazine, created with with Daniel Sannwald and Tamara Rothstein, 2012

Design for POP magazine, created with with Daniel Sannwald and Tamara Rothstein, 2012

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Gary's work for the Comme des Garçons shirt campaign, 2009

Gary's work for the Comme des Garçons shirt campaign, 2009

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How did your early jobs help your development?
I think you could argue that the students’ union work helped with people skills and problem solving; it was an important step for me. When I was working for Pentland (who own companies like Lacoste and Ted Baker), I was always jumping between projects, whether designing print for the inside of shoes or creating an advertising campaign. It was a great experience, having to adapt and be a chameleon with every job. 

That’s what I do every day now – you have to switch gears and change your brain. You might be creating something sombre and pared back one week, and the next you’ll be making something bonkers and multicoloured.

Was there an early project that helped your development?
The best example of something I knew I was going to do more of, but wasn’t quite there yet, was a Santa’s grotto I made for Dover Street Market and Comme des Garçons. I made a big gigantic, walk-in Santa head, entirely made out of masking tape. It was such an insane feat; I made it entirely by myself in my kitchen. Actually, I’m making stuff in my kitchen right now, so not much has changed!

What’s been your biggest challenge so far?
There have been so many, it’s almost impossible to say. I think one of the scariest projects was when I was starting out, around 2010. Loewe asked me to do some Christmas windows and of course I said yes. They wanted a different concept for each of their shops around the world (Madrid alone has something like six), so it was a terrifying amount of work for just me and one other person. I had no experience with making anything that huge and technical.

Is your job what you thought it would be?
Yeah, it really is. It’s exactly how I imagined it. 

“I have done loads of crap stuff: terrible puppet shows, paintings for supermarkets… But without doing those things you never know how far you can go.”

One of Gary's illustrations

An installation inside Dover Street Market, 2014

An installation inside Dover Street Market, 2014

Gary's COS pop-up store design for Salone del Mobile Furniture Fair, 2012

Gary's COS pop-up store design for Salone del Mobile Furniture Fair, 2012

Gary’s grotto for Comme des Garçons and Dover Street Market – an early project that took the form of a walk-in Santa head

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Thinking Ahead

What would you like to do next? 
Loads of things… At the moment I’m making sculptures which I’ll launch this year. My ambition is to make sculptures the most important part of my work. I’m also excited about a side project I’ve been working on called Happy Breakfast – a small zine, which has taken on a life of its own: I’ve been in talks with a toy company about turning it into actual toys; I’ll have large prints in an exhibition; a company has asked for a film inspired by it. Suddenly all these opportunities have just popped up just from exploring my own idea. So, that’s really exciting.

Do you think you could do this job forever?
No, I don’t think so. I love to think I’d be able to be a sculptor in the future. I like working with people and the variety of the job, but when I’m older I don’t think I’ll want to have the creative constraints of working with clients. I can see myself in my retirement, just making my own stuff. That would be awesome. 

But that’s in the future – right now it’s great.

Words of Wisdom

What would your advice be for a young creative wanting to become a set designer? 
I think it’s very important to be open and excited about all opportunities when you start, no matter how precarious or scary they sound, because you never know where they will take you. Chucking myself into everything is exactly how I started. I’m surprised when I have new people working with me who are reluctant to throw themselves into situations – it puts a dampener on the whole thing. Sometimes you have to put your life aside and immerse yourself wholeheartedly into a project, because it’s the only way you’ll learn. And you’ll probably learn more from the rubbish experiences than the fantastic ones. I have done loads of crap stuff: terrible puppet shows, paintings for supermarkets… But without doing those things you never know how far you can go. Just make sure no one takes advantage of you and stick up for yourself.

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