Australian-born production designer Jonathon Beck abandoned an ambition for theater for the wacky world of fashion—and thank goodness. Some of the most awe-inspiring sets in the history of runway are his brainchildren, including Moncler's four-tier scaffolding construction, Hermes' dusty horse corral and Y-3's icy arctic runway. Strangely, though, working behind a silver curtain means that any information on virtuosos like Beck is shamefully scarce. After scouring the web for insider scoop, we were able to hunt Beck down to get his first-hand perspective on what goes into making the most mesmerizing sets in the business.
What first attracted you to set and production design?
From a very early age I thought I wanted to be an actor. Then I began to realize my interest was larger in scope than simply being on the stage; I wanted to create the overall visual and emotional experience. From that point on I became singularly focused on becoming a production designer.
Did you always think you'd be a production designer?
Oh yes, absolutely. Since I was 10 years old. I was one of those children who always knew what they wanted to be.
What training, if any, did you receive?
My technical training was as a production designer for theater. I studied in Australia, and after 6 years spent working in the theater I was given an opportunity to design a one-time event. The contrast of budgetary possibilities between the two forms -- theater versus luxury events -- was instantly apparent. Consequently, I don’t work in the theater at all any more. Careers find you, it seems.
You've helped create some of the most memorable sets in the business, from Hermes to Moncler's mammoth presentations. How much creative control do you typically get when embarking on a project? How much comes from you and how much from the brand?
It varies greatly. Sometimes you can receive an extraordinary amount of leeway from your client. For example, clients such Y-3 allow for a wide interpretation of an initial brief. The Fall/Winter 2008 "ice show" is a great example of this.. The brief was relatively loose—detailing a collection loosely based on 1920’s mountaineering and ski equipment. From this, we created the wall of ice. However, clients such as Thom Browne have a very clear and strong idea of exactly what they want to achieve. The overall brand identity is obviously crucial in terms of a jumping off point, but more than anything, a luxury brand client wants to create magic.
Aside from the purely conceptual, what other considerations go into your designs? Do the clothes themselves play a role? Do you look at the collections first?
It may seem strange but I hardly ever get to see the looks beforehand, as the collection doesn’t tend to come together until the final weeks before! More often than not I tend to be shown mood boards; creative images collected by the designers which have inspired their collection. These images in turn can serve as direct inspiration for the production design, or more often serve as a jumping off point for me to go further in a specific direction. I think of my role as to expand upon and distill a brief, which hopefully crystallizes the brand identity. Occasionally there exists a crossover between the runway design and the client’s follow-up advertising or store window design, which is always intensely satisfying!
Walk us through your typical design process, from inspiration to execution.
My work is often created within the collaborative framework of a team. For clients such as Hermes and Moncler, I work with the master Belgian creative director Etienne Russo of VillaEugenie to develop a visual metaphor for the event. For clients such as Proenza Schouler or Target however, I work with the various event production companies and producers. In all cases, my role as Production Designer is to create a visual metaphor for the event and then oversee the execution.
The process almost always begins with mood boards, an almost ritualistic search for tens or even hundreds of images that connect in some way to what you want to convey emotionally. The design is then created from a mélange of these images; expanded upon and developed into the overall concept. You then create digital drawings and detailed renderings to convey the look, feel and emotion of the design. The process is often extremely fast-paced and highly fluid as we endlessly refine. Eventually, the renders then become the visual basis for the look of the event. Getting the concept in place is only the first hurdle. Then you battle with the budget! As with anything creative, the budget battle can be best summed up with the phrase ‘best idea wins’.
What sorts of difficulties might you encounter when starting a set design project?
Time zones can become both your friend and your enemy. Working both in the U.S and Europe means you have to learn to be extremely disciplined with your schedule but also highly adaptable. Skype has become a vital tool for my business!
Is there a favorite set that you've built? What about it makes it stand out?
Moncler Fall/Winter 2011 is a highlight, for its simplicity and impact. We built a four-tier tower of scaffolding standing opposite the four tiers of Chelsea Pier golf driving range, stood 120 models on the structure and lit them individually, like ‘Hollywood Squares’. It ran as a static installation for over 2 hours. I find that being routinely quoted again and again in various events worldwide.
If you had to do anything other than set design, what would it be?
Something completely different. Something involving dogs.
What was the first set you remember working on?
Probably a cardboard model I built in my bedroom as a 10-year-old. It would have almost certainly been a musical and I’m sure it would have had a soundtrack of some kind which I would listen to while moving Star Wars figurines around it.
What do you think people would be surprised to learn about set design?
That it’s really more than set design. It’s really about creating complete physical worlds which can transform an audience while creating an immediate emotional reaction to an idea, space or moment. In this world of instant brand identification, the power of the visual image is stronger than ever, and no one is more important for this than the creators of the visual world.