As the most prolific and influential set designer working today, Mary Howard has collaborated with photographers Steven Meisel, Annie Leibovitz, Patrick Demarchelier, Steven Klein, Mario Testino and Bruce Weber to name but a few. Her work for leading editors and creative directors such as Grace Coddington, Tonne Goodman and Phyllis Posnick at Vogue, along with celebrities such as Madonna, Lady Gaga and the Rolling Stones in addition to Queen Elizabeth, President Obama and The First Lady has resulted in some of the most talked about images of the modern era.

How would you describe what you do?

I am a production designer for photography, primarily fashion and celebrity. What I do is similar to a production designer for a film, creating the world around the subject – model or talent. Whether it be a location that we set dress or a set that we build in studio.

How did you get into set design?

I have a Master of Fine Arts Degree in Painting but since being an artist wasn’t really paying the bills, I began to make things for float builders in New Orleans for Mardi Gras and then for the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.  This led to freelance work building props and costumes for clients like Ringling Brothers Circus and Saturday Night Live and store windows in New York.   There was no such career as what we know now as set designer for print photography.  Richard Avedon needed a beach landscape and that is the first set I built in 1993.

You trained as a painter and performance artist. How has your background influenced your approach to design?

I am obviously very visual. Painting as a medium is extremely seductive to me.  Performance is interesting because there is usually a meaningful context or place that the live event is happening and props and objects and furniture that are important for whatever the live action is.

You have a frame of reference that a lot of people lack today. How much of your method is instinctual versus technical?

I do work a great deal with instinct.  I have learned technical aspects of what I do through trial and error. Though the mistakes, say using the wrong material, then become a surprise and then we work with it.  I am constantly saying “try that’ or “let’s just see” and then snap the camera and you can see what works in the set.  What you thought should or could never work suddenly and magically does in the camera.

Where do you source your ideas and what inspires you?

So many things inspire me.  I do a lot of image research.  I love to see what has been done before in art, film, painting and now that everyone on the planet is a photographer with their phones I look at Pinterest and Instagram and Google images to see billions of points of views of the same subject.  It’s overwhelming and exciting.

The Fluxus movement is a particular passion of yours. What about that period resonates with you?

The objects in Fluxus performances are not precious but they are important and necessary to the action. It’s theater but it stems from the visual arts.

When you’re commissioned to work on a project how much autonomy are you granted and what is your methodology?

It depends on the job.  Sometimes we get the client’s or photographer’s brief and it can range from being very detailed to sometimes just a word to describe; an adjective. Then we do a great deal of image research and sourcing of elements for the set.  We take in a huge view of options and possibilities and then hone in and refine.  The lead time on the majority of our shoots is only a week, or even less, so the prep happens at a furious pace.

What’s the biggest misconception about what you do?

Probably that it is fun or glamorous – and it is, but those things are only for a few seconds.  I would say it is extremely physical, mentally challenging, very fast paced, you need to be able to turn on a dime and switch gears at a second’s notice.   My favorite moments on set are when a truck arrives with a last minute table or chair that I am waiting for and know will make the picture.

Where do you hope to be in five years?

I would love to have more long-term projects, designing hotels or stores.  My studio is expanding with several younger set designers and I would love to see them grow into bigger jobs.  It has been great watching their careers and their creativity.   They all started out assisting me but now I am learning so much from them.