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This page is about my approach to design and what I've learned over the years.

You may also want to check out my Design Process page for a quick intro to the methodology I use when working with a production company to create a set. It's based on what we used to do when I was in the architrecture field, and is very straightforward.

Whether it be the sweeping eagle in his light or the open apple-blossom, the toiling work horse, the blithe swan, the branching oak, the winding stream at its base, the drifting clouds—over all the coursing sun, form ever follows function, and this is the law. Where function does not change, form does not change.
—Louis H. Sullivan (1856-1924), in The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered, first published in Lippincott’s Magazine #57 (March 1896) pp. 403-09.


There it is, that famous quote, "Form follows function," in its original context. But how does it apply to theatrical design?

The sole purpose of a stage set is to provide an environment which supports the story and the director's presentation of it. It doesn't stand by itself. Sure it can be pretty and receive oohs and aahs and great reviews (we designers love that!), but, in the final analysis, whether the set is successful or not totally depends on whether it has has done its job of supporting the story.

Interestingly, what finally cemented this into my brain wasn't designing sets—it was spending fifteen years in the architectural field, working with clients to create spaces that made their work more efficient and solved their current problems without creating new ones. Clients who are spending millions on an office building, or a courthouse, or a medical facility, can be quite a bit more critical than audience members or even media critics. They want to get their money's worth, and the designer's job becomes to understand what the client's organization does, and why, and how, and what's important and what isn't. Design is about solving problems, and the design problem can't be solved until it's defined and understood and agreed to by both the client and the designer.

So a stage set becomes the solution to a problem: what do we need, physically and visually, in order to tell this story in a compelling manner?

One of my professors back in college taught us to think like a director every time we designed a set: how will the space be used by the characters, and how will it help them develop the story? This then gets into the question of who the characters are, and what they want, and why they want it, and how badly they want it, and how far they're willing to go to get it. We, as designers, need to understand the characters and their motivations and their social context so we can understand why they're here and why they are doing what they're doing.

And why we, as an audience, should bother to care.

The American set designer Robert Edmond Jones put it very clearly in his book The Dramatic Imagination: "As we work we must seek ... only to establish the dramatist's intention, knowing that when we have succeeded in doing so audiences will say to themselves, not, This is beautiful, This is charming, This is splendid, but —This is true. This is the way it is. So it is, and not otherwise."

Design is directed toward human beings. To design is to solve human problems by identifying them and executing the best solution.
—Ivan Chermayeff (1900-1996), Russian-born British architect, industrial designer, and writer.

The engineer's first problem in any design situation is to discover what the problem really is.
— Unknown

—Seek first to understand, then to be understood.
Stephen Covey, in The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, 1989

--to be continued