Exclusive Interview with Set Designer Sarah Parker

It’s a work day for Sarah Parker, and she is knee-deep in paper, glue, and half drunken cups of tea. While this East London-based creative may have studied primarily with pen and pencil, graduating from Illustration at the University of Brighton, she is most known and loved as the “designer and maker” for distinct paper pieces. Read on as Sarah talks about paper cuts and other occupational hazards, how she carved out her path and finally quit her pub job, and why top names like *Wallpaper, British Fashion Council, Esquire, GQ, Honda, Ikea, and Uniqlo couldn’t help but take notice.

TL: When did you first start seriously thinking about arts, specifically illustration and the creations you make now? Tell us about your first pieces.

SP: I always enjoyed art and making things when I was at school and knew that I wanted to pursue a creative career in some form. I went on to study Illustration at Brighton University, where we were encouraged to explore different forms of image-making, not just drawing. I started to create models, 3-D type, and mini sets, and photographed them myself. After I graduated, I did lots of internships that allowed me to explore the different routes I could take with art direction and prop-making. After trying all kinds of jobs—from assisting a magazine fashion editor to helping create Harvey Nichols window displays—I finally met a set designer who’s work I loved, and began to assist her. I guess that’s when I realized that this is what I like to do.

TL: How would you describe your style to someone who’s never seen it?

SP: Clean, considered, colorful, graphic.


TL: The aspect I like most about your work is that it conveys so much creativity, but still comes off effortless.

SP: I have always been interested in graphic design, so I guess part of the simple, neat nature of my work stems from this source of inspiration. I find simplicity quite satisfying, sometimes having just a few elements but getting them to work together perfectly can be more challenging than working with lots of pieces.

TL: I notice your work, especially the commissioned ones, tend to come out in series. About how long does one usually take? Do you prefer having these client guidelines?

SP: It really depends on the project, to be honest. Often a client needs more than one image to form a campaign with. Sometimes it is good to have a starting point—the best jobs are those where you are given a general direction, but allowed to develop the ideas and take them a step further. However, some jobs can be a little too prescriptive for my liking, to the point where you are just creating someone else’s vision.

TL: Any occupational hazards? I’m imagining a lot of recycling and paper cuts.

SP: Yep, there’s plenty! Paper cuts, glue gun burns, spray paint inhalation, repetitive strain injury, dodgy knees, and aching back from bending over and kneeling down on shoots. Not to mention general exhaustion!


TL: Since it’s always hard to choose a favorite piece you’ve done, how about one that you found most interesting (or out of your comfort zone) to do?

SP: I’ve enjoyed the challenge of doing both jobs for the British Fashion Council, as we’ve had to find ways to re-interpret a similar concept over a couple of seasons. The client wanted to incorporate certain brand elements over the two projects, whilst making sure the two sets of imagery felt different from each other. It was also an exercise in designing a modular and flexible set that would work across several executions.

TL: Describe an ideal work day.

SP: Get up at 730AM, cycle to my studio or to a shoot, get some coffee (on the go), and answer emails for a while. The rest of the day would either be spent putting together estimates, mood boards, and technical drawings. Or I would be out and about, sourcing props and materials. My favorite days are spent on set or in my studio, making things in preparation for a shoot.


TL: What do you do when you want to get away from work for a while?

SP: It’s nice to get out of London sometimes, so a trip back home to Yorkshire to visit friends and family usually does the trick.

TL: Things we can watch out for in the future? Any new paths you want to explore in your work?

SP: I’d like to try increasing the scale of my sets. At the moment, I do a lot of still shoots, which are smaller in scale, with accessories, beauty products, and the like. But I’m really keen to do more larger scale installation type projects.

TL: And lastly, for a bit of patting-yourself-on-the-back, when did you feel you were good or successful at what you do?

SP: When I could quit my part-time job in a pub and earn enough money to survive from my own work. I think that’s when I realized things were starting to go well.