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Working Insights: Robert Storey

In a conversation with Alex Moshakis, art director and set designer Robert Storey talks through his impressive career.

The London-based creative hyphenate Robert Storey has supplied bright and colourful set designs for a mind-boggling array of very, very well-respected clients. Fashion brands Kenzo and Victoria Beckham have come calling, as have the magazines Wallpaper* and Pop. You'd expect a client list like that to belong to a well-established designer long into an incredible career. But Storey is only 26 years old, still relatively fresh from graduating in 2008, and still very much excited about learning. We asked him about his impressive career to date, and where he's hoping to venture to in the future.

YCN: How did you end up becoming a set designer?

Robert Storey: I studied Fine Art Sculpture at Central Saint Martins, and I always thought I wanted to be an artist. I was interested in design too, but I always felt it was a little too “graphic” for me. I didn't really think about or even realise a set design job like the one I do now even existed. When you graduate from a degree like Fine Art it can be confusing to know what to do next. I knew I wanted to get out of London for a bit, so as soon as I graduated I went to New York to work for some artists I really liked and ended up loving both the job and the city. Unfortunately, my assisting job finished so I kind of fell into assisting a set designer there.

YCN: What was the first meaningful, solo job you did?

RS: Christmas 2011 was a turning point for me. I was asked by Nicholas Kirkwood to design his Christmas windows for him, and also got to work on a main interiors and fashion story for Wallpaper* magazine, which ended up becoming a cover story. Both clients gave me complete creative freedom, and they worked out really well because I was so much in my comfort zone.

YCN: How did they come about?

RS: Through recommendations I think. I had already been working for a year so, and I'd met a lot of people through other jobs.

YCN: When you started out, how did you know what to charge for a job?

RS: I didn't! I had no idea how much money was in the industry, how much I was worth or how much I should have been paid. In retrospect, a lot of people made the most of my innocence and got a great deal, but at the same time I had to prove that I was able to do a good job and was as trustworthy as anyone else. I struggled a lot at first, but you have to build up a portfolio of work before anyone really takes you seriously.

YCN: How would you no describe your professional practice?

RS: That's a hard question to answer. I usually say that I work as a set designer/art director, predominantly in the fashion industry, creating environments for publications and clients. But my work is ever-changing, and I'm starting to realise that opportunities are endlessly available for a set designer. I make fashion sets but that's not all I do – I've been working more and more on brand identity and development, designing in-store units, windows and events.

YCN: What advice would you have given yourself when you first started working in the creative industries?

RS: Keep working hard, and don't expect people to believe you'll be really good at something just because you know you can do it well. It's a hard slog when you first start on your own – there's so much to learn – so you have to be really on it. I was a second assistant for a few big set designers for about a year, but it would probably have been a bit easier if I had assisted more seriously for longer rather than learn the hard way.

YCN: What's an average day for you like?

RS: I think a lot of freelancers have the reputation of working whenever and however they please, but this is definitely not the case for set designers. I work at least five long days a week. Something I love about my job is that there's really no average day! I could be driving a big van to pick up props in West London at 5am one morning and taking a train to Paris that afternoon. I've definitely become a kind of jack-of-all-trades. Every job is different, and I'm always learning new skills.

I think a lot of freelancers have the reputation of working however they please, but this is definitely not the case for set designers. I work at least five long days a week.

YCN: So what are you currently working on?

RS: I'm working on windows for a global fashion store, designing and building a huge 3D logo for a new online fashion magazine, and I'm doing a big editorial shoot based on surrealism. But I'm spending more and more time drawing up sets and installations in 3D design software. I think my career is moving more and more towards this kind of design, rather than making/building, which is what I used to only do.

YCN: The phone goes tomorrow with a new commission and it can be anything – what would you love it to be?

RS: I would love to work really closely with a really big brand, designing for all their stores, campaigns and events. I usually only see one of these through, but it would be really great to work on a freelance basis, consulting and art directing.

YCN: What are your plans for the future?

RS: I would like “Robert Storey Studio” to become more of a diverse “brand”, still working in fashion but also with lifestyle and luxury brands. And I'd like to work on lots of collaborative projects – to design a chair for Knoll, for example, or design a new headquarters for Nike or a travelling shop for Hermès. And, of course, to continue to work on campaigns and editorials for great fashion clients.