Combining the creativity needed to dream up concepts for clients with the pragmatism to make those dreams a tangible reality is no small feat. Thomas Bird, the London-born, Brighton University-educated set designer whose past clients include Dover Street Market, British Vogue, Fendi and Interview, to name a few, has mastered this balancing act. We caught up with him at his east London studio to find out more about his practice, his favourite designers, and upcoming projects.

Thomas Bird at his Walthamstow studio

Something Curated: Can you tell us a bit about your background; how did you get into set design?

Thomas Bird: I studied illustration at Brighton University, but I was always experimenting with paper sculptures. Towards the end of my time there, I interned with a few different prop makers and set designers like Fred Butler and Jiggery Pokery. I always had an interest in creating objects, and after university I was interning again, creating large scale paper structures, and then I moved on to jobs in window display. After a year I decided to branch out on my own.

SC: The practice of set design involves both creative concept planning and also the physical, logistic side of actually making the set. How do you balance those two different demands?

TB: The two are normally kept very separate during the majority of the process. I’ll design beforehand, working with 3D software to create the space or design that I think fits the brief – commercial or editorial. This tends to be the most creative part of the process, researching and experimenting with certain materials. Once a final design is confirmed it’s production mode, organising and planning exactly what needs to be done.

Laying some 🌿🍃 down for @nhuxuanhua and @rudysimbabetty

A post shared by Thomas Bird (@thomasbird) on

SC: You’ve worked with a range of clients like Dazed, Vogue, Interview and Aquascutum. Do you have a favourite project and why?

TB: My favourite project was for Casa Vogue. I had to create four images with photographer Michael Baumgarten on location at Fronteira Palace, Lisbon. We made hand-tiled and painted props, like a boat and a grand piano, which fit the space. It took us two weeks to build in London, then we had to ship it all to Lisbon and build it, which took a further two days. After the shoot we spent two days in the city, it was an incredible process to go through and an amazing location.

SC: Do you have any unfinished projects or plans you are yet to realise?

TB: There’s always a few ideas that I have that need the right magazine or right photographer to work with, there’s a few bigger projects that I’m working on which should come out in the next six months.

SC: Is there anyone you would like to collaborate or work with, who you haven’t had the chance to?

TB: Again there’s a few photographers and designers I’d like to work with but I also think that half the fun of my job is interpreting people’s initial ideas in different ways.

SC: Can you tell us about your process? Do you think in terms of narratives or develop your aesthetic around references?

TB: The process changes for each job as the brief can always be interpreted in numerous ways; normally I’ll go through a day researching imagery relating to the initial concept, then awful sketches then finally a final render. Depending on the time given the process can take from one day to a week.

SC: Do you have a work uniform of choice?

TB: I tend to just wear black jeans and a black t-shirt. They always get covered in paint and materials; my last pair of jeans became a work of art in their own right!

SC: Favourite London fashion designer?

TB: Craig Green has always interested me; he pushes fashion into a more sculptural direction.

SC: What do you do with the pieces you’ve made for sets after you’re done?

TB: Unfortunately most of the time the set pieces go in the bin! Although there’s a community of set designers who recycle their pieces, which has been developing over the past year.

(Courtesy of Thomas Bird)

SC: What are you working on currently?

TB: I’m sitting in the Ace Hotel drinking a beer; which is a nice luxury for a Tuesday afternoon. But I’ve just finished working on a presentation for menswear brand Blood Brother, a Fendi lookbook and a new album cover for the Chainsmokers.

SC: Who or where do you look to for inspiration?

TB: It normally pops up when I’m not looking for it. I tend to avoid ‘research days’; I get bogged down with all of the references and ideas that come through looking on the internet or in a library. In terms of spatial design, I’m constantly taking photos and looking at architectural details that could be utilised within a set build. My more surreal set ideas normally reference a point in history or another culture. I always try to incorporate the world around me whenever I’m working on a design. Right now I’m really interested in North Korean interiors, for example.

SC: What was the last exhibition you saw?

TB: Walhalla at the White Cube. It’s definitely worth a visit – there are some amazing sculptures and huge paintings by Anselm Kiefer.

SC: Where is your studio and why did you choose that location?

TB: I’m currently based in East London because I live locally and the majority of the creative industry works within this location. Plus my studio is easy to cycle to!

SC: Favourite places to shop, eat and relax in London?

TB: I normally go climbing at the castle near Clissold Park as a way of winding down after a day’s work. Otherwise there’s a great whisky bar a few doors down from Birthdays in Dalston which is always quiet and has a nice atmosphere.


Interview by Jess Spires

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