Creative Lives — Prop maker, set stylist and textile homeware designer Mariel Osborn on the joys of physical making
Working within the creatively collaborative, Manchester-based collective The Engine House, prop maker and set stylist Mariel Osborn creates images, objects and accessories for a range of commercial clients including JD Williams, Cloudwater brewery and Very. Despite graduating from Manchester Metropolitan University’s BA Embroidery course amid a recession, Mariel’s determination, proactive attitude and dedication to craft has led to a wide range of work, from commercial fashion shoots and music videos to putting together an interactive drive-through experience. In addition, she also runs homeware brand Covet Interiors. Mariel talks us through the realisations and realities of life post-graduation and enduring the “hell” of admin to get to the ‘pure joy’ of physical making.
Prop Maker, Set Stylist and Textile Homeware Designer
PINS, Very, Bestival, Cloudwater, Abandon Normal Devices Festival, JD Williams
Freelance since 2009
BA Embroidery, Manchester Metropolitan University (2006–2009)
Mariel at The Engine House
How would you describe what you do?
I currently have three major projects on the go which all focus on different aspects of my practice. I’m working on the dressing for someone’s wedding (making a lot of the decorations, and planning how the venue will look), working on some props for a museum, and also making some very textural prop pieces for another client. This is all on top of running my own homewares business, so I’m a little stretched at the moment!
As a freelancer, what kinds of clients do you work for?
I work for a variety of clients, from commercial fashion to DIY music videos. Sometimes a brief will be very specific and I have to make and source exactly what they have asked for, but every now and then the client will want your creative input. The current prop job that I am working on for Cloudwater is my dreamiest project by far – I have total free reign to create the imagery I want, as they trust me and like what I do with my work. I’ve never had so much in control of a project before, so it’s really exciting for me.
What does a typical working day look like?
I try to get in the studio as early as I can each day, but I don’t beat myself up if it’s 10am rather than 9am. I’ll sometimes stay until 10pm as I work better later in the day – but it varies depending on my workload. The majority of my work happens in my studio. I have a desk and a shared, adaptable working space. It can vary but I often spend half the day on my computer or my phone, either emailing clients or stockists, and promoting myself and my work on social media.
Typically, commercial clients will book me very, very last minute, and I’ll have to rearrange other projects to fit around them, often within very tight deadlines. It can feel quite fragmented and some days you can’t do what you had planned because your head isn’t in the right gear. I’ve had to learn to be strict with myself, but you also have to remember that you are your own boss, and if something isn’t working that day you should move on and do something else.
“A client won’t book you again if you do a bad job; it’s likely that they’ll be able to find someone else.”
Inside The Engine House
Inside The Engine House
Mariel with fellow Engine House collective members
Inside The Engine House
How does your freelance work usually come about?
I work very hard at making sure that I get things right. A commercial client won’t book you again if you do a bad job; it’s likely that they’ll be able to find someone else. There aren’t loads of prop makers [in Manchester] who do it as their only job (some are fashion stylists too), so it’s good to use that as a unique selling point
Talking to people and surrounding yourself with different types of creative people also really helps. Someone might see what you do and realise that you’d be the perfect person for a certain project. I’ve been recommended for jobs in the past and then subsequently been asked to work on a variety of different things for a client because they like the way that I work. That’s really reassuring and helps you build quite a diverse portfolio. My skills base is quite wide as I have had to do a variety of things to make ends meet.
How collaborative is your work?
Generally speaking, my work isn’t that collaborative anymore. I usually work on my own for a client, but sometimes I’ll need someone’s help to facilitate making something, or figure out the best way to do something. I used to be in a performance collective where we made all of our own sets and costumes based on joint ideas and aesthetics. However, as time has passed and I have gained confidence, I am happier working on my own and with my own ideas. I also definitely want things to look how I want them to; working on my own means there’s no clash of creative egos!
I do work with a few of my friends (Aliyah Hussain and Caroline Dowsett and Stina Puotinen) on a pop-up shop. We create the look of the shop and curate the content. We try to treat it like an art installation which looks very different with each incarnation.
“The reason I do everything that I do is so that I can physically make things with my hands. It’s pure joy.”
What are the most and least enjoyable aspects of your job?
I hate admin. It’s a big part of what I have to do, but planning a timeframe or a budget is hell for me; it makes me very stressed. If I have a full day in front of the computer, I’ll generally feel quite deflated by the evening. When I’m doing a lot of planning, photo editing or website building, I often use “making” days as a treat – that’s the best therapy for me, although things always takes longer than I think they will, so even that can be stressful as I am always pushed for time!
What has been the most exciting project of the last twelve months?
The last year has been so exciting – I have worked on such a diverse array of projects. I created some immersive theatre pieces for a drive-in movie in September which was great. The film Rear Window is all about surveillance and a suspected murder, so I worked with the festival producers to create an experience that made the audience feel like they were inadvertently spying on people during the screening. I had to figure out how to make it work with the film, and in the building itself. I had never done anything like that before, as we started the project thinking that it would be prop based, so that was exciting!
Would you say your work allows for a good life-work balance?
This is the hardest question for me, and something I am always thinking about. I love my job, and I have to be making things or I get really depressed. It’s important to earn a living, but the fact that I get to work hands-on with materials and make some really imaginative things for a living is my life. This does mean that I don’t spend as much time with my friends or partner as I probably should.
What tools do you use most for your work?
My iMac for emailing, designing work, planning mood boards and researching projects; my Canon 100D camera for photographing work in progress, research, and final pieces in situ and my trusty second hand Bernina sewing machine. I also use Photoshop and Permaset Aqua textile paints.
Mariel’s styling work for Kirstie Maclaren's De Vence collection
How I Got Here
What did you want to be growing up?
I always wanted to be a fashion designer. I did my foundation year at London College of Fashion, where I discovered surface textile design, and then machine embroidery. I was obsessed. Manchester was one of the only places that you could study it, so that’s what I did.
How (if at all) is the subject you studied useful to your current role?
My degree was quite flexible and geared towards fine art and experimentation rather than product design, so I ended up turning it into 3D textiles and heading down an over-the-top-accessories route, like making giant props for the body.
What were your first jobs?
I graduated during the recession and it was pretty awful. There were a few bad years in there. It was hard to even get a job in a bar or shop, so it took me a while to get on my feet. I ended up training as a textile technician for a clothes manufacturer, and being bullied by the person who was training me. I was absolutely miserable, but it made me try as hard as I could to get out of there and do something more interesting.
Was there anything in particular helped you the most at the start of your career?
Some lovely friends got me a job at Common Bar, which meant I either had my days or nights free, which made me start making again. That’s when we started our performance collective, and I developed a clearer aesthetic and drive for my work. It’s definitely not a traditional way to start a career, but that’s what happened! It was very DIY, low budget and thrifty. I never had any money, and it wasn’t glamorous, but it improved my drive and the quality of my work. I also wouldn’t have figured out half of this ‘job’ if I hadn’t done some intern work for [Creative, Set and Art Direction Studio] Lord Whitney.
“There isn’t a promotion, you just have to work to figure out what you’re going to do next. It’s cynical but you are only as good as your last project.”
Work for JD Williams’ spring/summer 2017 kidswear
Was there a particular project you worked on that helped your development?
Being in a large studio with my creative peers really helped to advance my work. There are people who will lift your spirits, give advice, help you problem solve, or show you a new medium or tool.
What skills have you learnt along the way?
I have learnt too much to know where to begin. Being strict with myself and being able to manage my time properly have been major achievements.
What’s been your biggest challenge?
Creating my own career path. Your portfolio of work is what people see of your career and your work. They’re not there in your studio to see what you’re doing all of the time; they’ll see your website and maybe some of your work in the real world. You improve over time, so your most current work is usually your best.
Is your job what you thought it would be?
Not at all. I was very naive leaving uni – I thought that it would be easier to get a job and for people to find me. My course wasn’t vocational, so there wasn’t an industry for me to go into, I had to find my own role. I have to show people what I am doing all of the time so that I can get work and stay current.
Mariel’s styling work for Cloudwater brewery
What would you like to do next?
I want to gain experience, make my work bigger and better and get advice from people in my field about how to do just that.
Could you do this job forever?
I have to, yes!
What do you feel is the natural career progression for someone in your current position?
No idea. I’m taking each month and year as it comes. Taking work where it comes in and trying to mould a bit of a future plan. Not sure if I’ll get there, but I’m trying!
Words of Wisdom
What advice would you give a young creative wanting to move into the same line of work?
Ask questions, experiment with your work and find your strengths. Be kind, be professional and passionate. Get experience working with people who are doing what you are interested in. Believe in yourself, but don’t expect anything to be handed to you on a plate, and don’t let people who seem 'better' than you make you feel inferior. Keep going!
This article is part of our In the Studio With feature on The Engine House.