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Tom Bell - Set/Prop designer - The GROUND Magazine

Tom Bell – Set/Prop designer

By On October 4, 2011 In Editor's picks, Interview, Print

Tom Bell has quickly emerged as one of the most sought-after set designers in the industry, working with many leading fashion magazines such as Italian, British, Japanese and American Vogue, L’Uomo Vogue, W, Harper’s Bazaar, Flair, Numéro, GQ, Details, and Allure.

© Tom Bell, Yann Faucher, The GROUND Magazine

The GROUND: Did you study art?

Tom: I went to art school in London, but I hated it — loathed it — so I never completed it and sort of fell out. I was also sort of incredibly young. They all try to slot you into something. I just didn’t understand, so I fell into design, basically designing furniture and interiors and stuff. And I suppose in the end that’s my real set design. It comes from that period of my life, which was a long time ago. I dropped out, and the art scene was … I just thought I was way too young. I was 17. I needed to know life before I could say that I was an artist. And I fell into working for designers, and then eventually started doing stuff on my own. And I always had this pull to go back to creating sculptures and different things.

The GROUND: How did you first get into set design?

Tom: The set design was just a part of my artist life. Basically when I first moved to New York 10 years ago, I had a very good friend, a photographer. He said, “Why don’t you do a set for me, I know you would be great at doing it.” So I did, and that is sort of when it started.

Tom: But you know the funny thing is, as an artist you have to make a living. And in New York at that time there were quite a few artists. If you look at tradition, a lot of artists do that, set design makes sense because it’s creative and it’s all to do with trying to create an atmosphere that has to do with proportions and getting it right.

© Jed Root, Michael Thompson

The GROUND: Do you consider set design part of your art making?

Tom: When I lived in New York, I always kept them totally separate. I had sort of two separate lives. It’s a weird crossing; sometimes you see artworks in galleries and you think, well, this looks more like a set. For me they are completely separate: One is being creative for something. Making a set is to complement a product or a model or whatever she is wearing. It’s not there for its own purpose; it’s not the start of the show, that’s for sure. And a bad set for me is when the set overpowers that which it should complement.

The GROUND: Do you still build things yourself?

Tom: No, I don’t. When I moved back to London a year ago, there was a tradition of people making things themselves, while in New York it’s very different, it’s a whole different pace.

The GROUND: What city do you prefer?

Tom: New York, because it enables you to go on to different things. It enables you to do a lot more, and in way London is becoming that, too. It’s a tradition that a set designer does every single thing, and you know a lot of photographers are looking for a lot more quirky things here [in London].

© Jed Root, Flair, Jenny Gage & Tom Betterton

The GROUND: So is it fun when you do actually have to build something?

Tom: Yeah, of course it is; you are presented with a problem that you’ve got to resolve. Coming up with something that is going to work and you don’t want to fuck up because it’s a big part of the project even in an editorial. It’s more than turning up with a suitcase of makeup: If it’s wrong, it’s really wrong. The set has to stand up.

The GROUND: Any stories of things actually going wrong?

Tom: Of course; lots of stories – exploding sort of acrylic pillars that filled an entire studio. It certainly wasn’t funny at the time, but afterward it was. Everyone cleaned up; there was water and electric lines everywhere. After the power was turned off, the photographer, the model, and everybody swept the water up, which I was sort of shocked by. After 10 minutes, we were back to shooting, which is also very New York and very fashion.

© Jed Root, Numero, Michael Thompson

The GROUND:What did you want to do growing up?

Tom: When I was very young, I wanted to be an artist. I really did just fall into set design. I am very glad that I did because I had the history of interior design and furniture design; I knew exactly what I was doing.

The GROUND: Do you bring many extra things to the set? Has a window been in the wrong place that needs to be fixed?

Tom: Windows have never been in the wrong place, I can assure you. Luckily there is none of that. I am not one of those people who bring 500 alternatives to the set. Thankfully, my reputation was that I always brought the right things! That is what a good set designer is, it’s not like here is your choice; choose.

© Jed Root, Italian Vogue, Patrick Demarchelier

The GROUND:You are working with some of the world’s greatest photographers, who usually have budgets, but do you still work on projects without large financial backing?

Tom: The funniest thing is that sometimes working with a low budget can be quite interesting because you have to be super creative. Once, they wanted Vermeer-exact interiors, and I said, “you have to be kidding.” This was a few years ago on a pathetic budget, but for me, that was a Julian More photograph with Michael Thompson and that was having to do three different Vermeer painting rooms direct from paintings on a budget from hell. And, you know, it worked.

The GROUND: Who are some of your influences?

Tom: In sets I wouldn’t have a clue what to say because I wasn’t [influenced]; I just started doing it. So I wasn’t actually looking at set design per se. Influence-wise, it’s basically one’s entire history of looking at art and looking at films and looking at everything, really. I am thankful to the photographer who basically asked me to do the first set. Because I was like “Piss off; I am not doing that,” and he was like, “you can do it; you can do it,” and that opened a lot of doors.

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