August 21 2014

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Behind-The-Scenesters: Mary Howard


Designers design. Photographers photograph. Models model. That much—in broad strokes, at least—is clear. But what about the artists, technicians, and industry insiders, often unpublicized and underappreciated, who help to get clothes and accessories made and shown? Call them Behind-the-Scenesters: people who shape our experience of fashion but never take a bow on the catwalk or strike a pose for the camera. Without them—from pattern-makers to production designers—the show wouldn’t go on. And in a new series, sits down with a few of these pros to find out, basically, what they do.

Mary Howard is the set designer on virtually every key fashion photographer’s speed dial. She’s the consummate background professional, literally—she creates the mise-en-scène of a shoot. Howard (left works regularly with Steven Meisel, Annie Leibovitz, and Steven Klein, among others, and her sets range as widely as her collaborators’ styles. She does dazzlingly elaborate (Leibovitz’s 2008 Wizard of Oz shoot starring Keira Knightley), and she can make a set virtually invisible, too (Meisel’s Spring ’10 Prada campaign.) On any given day, you can find Howard mottling the gray backdrop at a studio shoot or packing up a selection of Art Deco lamps headed off on location. Here, she talks to about working with the masters, how much stuff is too much stuff, and learning when to leave the bobby pins in.

So, Mary: In one sentence, what do you do?
I call myself a set designer for print. Could be editorial, could be ads. In movies, they call someone like me a production designer; in fashion, the name “set designer” has stuck but it doesn’t entirely describe the job. There’s a lot of art direction involved; it’s not just about picking out a rug. But I guess if I have to boil down my job description to one sentence, I’d say—I create the world around the girl. I don’t have anything to do with the model, but I shape the physical environment that surrounds her and help the photographer and the stylist and everyone else involved with the shoot tell the right story and make the girl pop.

Why do you think the fashion industry has shied away from the title “production designer”?
I think some of it has to do with the fact that this is still an emerging field. It barely existed when I moved to New York; it wasn’t until recently that my studio even began getting credits in magazine. I work quite a bit with Grace Coddington at Vogue, and she’ll tell stories about sending her assistants out to just, you know, grab a chair. Or the photographer would send his assistant out to pick up props.

How did you get into set design?
I grew up in New Orleans, and after I got my MFA, I went back down there to build Mardi Gras floats. Then I came to New York City and built floats for the Macy’s parade. I was always making things—I’d make props for Saturday Night Live, for instance. Eventually I began working with a set designer—this was about 20 years ago, and it’s possible that she was the only one. We began working with Richard Avedon, and that led to other photographers and editors seeking us out. Then I went out on my own. Honestly, I feel like a grandma in this field.

What’s an average workday like for you?
I think that, like a lot of people in fashion, I do what I do because there isn’t really “an average day.” There are days on set, and there are prep days that involve a lot of thinking or researching or pounding the pavement looking at stuff. So there’s a routine, but the work itself is so dependent on the assignment—if I’m working with Annie, her process is totally different from, say, Steven Meisel’s process.

How so?
Annie sees it all in her head. I’m there to coax out the vision. Like, the yellow brick road on the Wizard of Oz shoot—Annie decided she wanted it to look like the Appian Way, a golden brick road with lots of moss. And then my job was to execute that. Whereas other photographers want to see everything; they want lots of options. I’ll send over a ton of images that seem to describe the world they’re talking about, from film stills to pictures of tables, and then we go back and forth, refining and refining and refining.

How much stuff do you usually bring to a shoot?
I’m comfortable with one cube truck’s worth of stuff per shoot. Even on a really elaborate shoot, I tend to feel like more than that is a recipe for trouble. By the time you’re getting on set, you should be confident enough to have, say, two sofas, not 30. You do need the options, of course; you’re really not going to know what works until you’re in the space and the set is lit. The sofa you liked going in may not work, as it turns out. And then, if you’re really pressed, you have to know your resources, so you can run out and find the right thing at the last moment.

Not that I’m asking for trade secrets or anything, but where do you find your props?
Everywhere. I’m a big flea market fan—you’d be amazed at how well a dirty old chair will show up in a photo. I’m actually wary of using things that are too new and too pristine. That said, many of the furniture stores in New York are willing to rent, and we’ve got relationships with pretty much all of them. And there are the prop shops, too. You have to be careful there, though—in New York, there just aren’t that many prop rental houses, and you wind up seeing the same props over and over again. Like, a few years ago there was a particular chair that was getting shot a ton. Clients recognized it when it came in.

You say you’re wary of things that look too new and too pristine. Why?
I want the final image to be believable. Even the really elaborate stuff I do with Annie, where she’s creating a whole fantasy world, it has to feel real in some way; specific. It’s like, Irving Penn had this thing—sometimes he’d be shooting and bobby pins or safety pins would be on the floor, and he’d say, leave it. Don’t make it too clean. When you let things be a little off, you’re allowing some reality in and it gives the image texture. I like to do wrong things. If I’ve got a statue on a table by the girl, I don’t face it to camera, because then it looks staged. The walls shouldn’t look like they’ve just been painted, even if they have been. And we try to fabricate as little as we can.

Do you prefer working on location, given all that?
I can do either. I studied painting, I love to paint a backdrop, and I’ve got a whole studio so I can build sets. I like making things. I can make a wall look however we want it to look, but there’s a certain weight that a real room has that you just can’t re-create. That said, there are times when it’s better to be on a set. It just depends on the job.

What’s the biggest misunderstanding people have about what you do?
I think that a lot of people don’t comprehend that there’s set design even when the set is barely there. Sometimes what I’m doing is taking away. Sometimes I’m on a very basic, gray backdrop job that just isn’t working, and I’m the one suggesting, let’s have the model lean against a ladder, instead of sitting on a stool. Or I’m throwing a rug down, to bring in some color or some dimension.

What’s your favorite part of what you do?
I love seeing what everyone else brings to the shoot. As the art department, we’re the first ones in and the last ones out, and there’s always this torturous part at the start of a shoot day when the set is pretty much built and the photo assistants are starting the lighting, and the clothes have arrived, and the girl is hidden away in hair and makeup, and I’m wondering, is this going to work? I’m just one piece of the puzzle. It’s not until the second photo of the day that you begin to see it all come together. I dream about that moment—the moment the set comes alive.

Prada Fall ’10 campaign. Set by Mary Howard.

Lanvin Spring ’10 campaign. Set by Mary Howard.

Alberta Ferretti Fall ’09 campaign. Set by Mary Howard.

Photos: Courtesy of Mary Howard (portrait); Courtesy Photos (ad campaigns)



  1. georginacookie says:

    wow very interesting piece, literally behind the scenes, these sets are incredibly beautiful !

  2. CommeArtiste says:

    really great piece! love to see more like it~

  3. lindsayt says:

    Great piece! Mary, you are so incredibly talented and you make our alma mater (McGehee’s) look good with all the talent you ooze.

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