Want to design bespoke props and backdrops for stars? Take every opportunity, however small, and keep sketching, as Gary Card tells Martha Alexander...
Gary Card is an illustrator and set designer for fashion shoots and campaigns, for clients including Stella McCartney, Adidas and Topshop. He has created props for Lady Gaga and built an electric Christmas tree out of Vauxhall car parts [pictured below].
You studied theatre design at Central Saint Martins and now design for fashion campaigns. How did you make that change?
I started working with friends who were photographers, making them props and masks for shoots. I'd never intended to become a set designer for fashion editorials, it was a very natural evolution.
You've designed for Lady Gaga. How did that opportunity come about?
I've known her stylist, Nicola Formichetti, for years – he was instrumental in my success when I was starting out, supporting me in a huge amount of projects. So it was a natural progression for me to start making things for Lady Gaga. It's always a great honour when she wears something I've made, I get a real buzz from it. [Headdress made for the Judas video pictured above.]
Is it intimidating, working with someone so famous?
It's sometimes scary because you know the world is watching when you're making something for her, so I'm always mindful that it has to be my best work. Sometimes that's tough, because the Gaga commissions are always last-minute.
Are new ideas always bubbling in your head or do you ever get blocked?
It depends. I have a lot of ideas I really want to try, and sometimes the right project will come up that will be a perfect fit for something I've wanted to do for a while. Sometimes, though, I get creative block and it can be quite tricky coming up with an idea when the clock is ticking. Ideas can take a lot of time to develop into something I'm confident to share with a client. Sometimes I'll work all night, right until the moment before meeting the client, to make sure the concept is right.
When working for a client, how much creative control do you have?
It can sometimes be frustrating when a client doesn't like a concept but you have to remind yourself the project has to fit a specific and sometimes rigid criterion. It's my job to make sure the concept fulfils the brief. If I really believe in an idea I'll gently push it forward, but if the client still doesn't like it it's important not to take it personally, and move forward.
Is working in fashion glamorous, or is there a grisly underside?
There's no grisly underside! Like any industry, there are unpleasant aspects but nothing too scary. It's not that glamorous when you get behind the velvet curtain, just lots of people working hard to make the best product possible. But there's never a typical day for me and that's just how I like it.
Do you still sketch out ideas with pencil and paper?
Yes, it's very important. Even though a lot of what we make is put together on computers, it's still very important to draw. I find inspiration everywhere: other illustrators, artists, directors, comic books... I would love to draw a comic book one day.
Do you ever come up with an idea too big or bonkers to make?
I used to be quite scared of big jobs but I'd take them on anyway, to test my abilities. Now, I'm far more confident in taking on massive jobs – nothing is too big now. It took a while to get there, though.
What tips do you have for getting into set design?
Take every opportunity, no matter how tedious – you never know where that small job will take you. I've learned so much from the terrible jobs I've had. Be flexible and enthusiastic with the people you're working with and remember to be polite and gracious. Always be willing to go that extra mile to make a project happen. It's important to stay positive; things won't always go your way. Just remember to take negative situations and learn for next time. It's important to be thick-skinned.
Visit Gary Card's sketchbook blog here.
For more articles, advice and opportunities, visit the Art & Design hub.