Being a set designer for TV shows on MTV, Bravo!, HGTV, amongst many others, means that in addition to honing fantastic shopping skills, Jen Chu also has to embrace her DIY side. She’s done everything from installing wood lattice “wallpaper” to decorating an entire door with a gold Sharpie. Originally from the San Francisco Bay Area, Jen moved to New York City right after college at the University of California, Irvine (where she got a degree in Studio Art). She found an internship for a set designer and that internship turned into a full-time job and from that, Jen grew her freelance career as a set designer. It’s a pretty cool job for someone who is crafty, creative and thinks on her feet. Jen gives us all the details on what her job is like and how you can carve out something similar for yourself. -Amy
Design*Sponge: What did you want to be when you grew up?
Jen: I wanted to work in “show business” even before I really knew what that meant. I worked on the set of my 6th grade school play, I did hair and makeup for years, and I made costumes and prom dresses throughout high school. Also, my parents let me do whatever I wanted with my bedroom—it was constantly evolving—so I guess you could say that I’ve been designing rooms since I was 9.
More about how to be a set designer after the jump! Design*Sponge: What did you study in college?
Jen: I started art school with an emphasis in painting but soon realized that my creativity lies in the 3D realm, so I switched to wood sculpture. It was a very self-directed program, so I’m mostly self-taught. I’ve always had an interest in building things, and I think it shows in my work, which tends to be very architectural and geometric.
Design*Sponge: What’s the best part of your job?
Jen: The best part of my job is getting to experiment with really high-impact colors and styles. In TV world (especially reality), there’s no such thing as too over-the-top, so I can get away with things you would not be able to get away with in the real world. I once used a metallic gold marker to cover an entire pair of double doors with an ornate design. On The Real World: Portland, one of our set builders, Aaron, made a huge chandelier out of bicycles. I also love the fact that my job has taken me to all 5 boroughs of New York and beyond. It’s really fascinating to spend 4 weeks in a Dominican neighborhood in the Bronx, and then the next week be in Buffalo Gap, TX, population: 466. Working in a new city gives me a very different experience than vacationing in a city. In many ways, I prefer it.
Design*Sponge: Can you describe a typical day?
Jen: The art department usually has to get the set looking great before the rest of the crew arrives, so my days tend to start really early. There is a really intense crunch time that happens in the morning, but by the time cameras are rolling, I can relax a bit and strategize on how to get my team one step ahead the chaos. We do a TREMENDOUS amount of shopping, so I’m always on the lookout for good deals and unique pieces. I’m constantly trolling Craigslist, eBay, and the sale section of our favorite big box stores. It’s not uncommon for me to leave a store with a receipt that is literally taller than I am. Every time I go to Home Depot, someone asks me if I work there, because I have a clipboard, waist bag (aka pseudo-fanny pack) and 45 keys clipped to my pants. There are always 10 projects going on at once, so I’m fortunate to work with ridiculously talented people who are passionate about this type of work. My job can be physically very demanding, and by the end of the day I’m usually exhausted.
Design*Sponge: What have you learned about life from your job as a set designer?
Jen: This industry feels small, yet everyone is connected to hundreds or thousands of people. With so much that has to get done in a short time frame, every now and then, personalities clash. I’ve realized that sometimes people hit a breaking point and you need to cut them some slack. I’ve learned not to take things personally and not to gossip about other people.
Design*Sponge: What advice would you give someone who would love to be a set designer? How should they get started? What should they study in school or learn about on their own?
Jen: Most of the set designers I know have backgrounds in everything from dance to interiors to communications. More important than the degree, is having relevant skills and hands-on experience. The single most important skill that I posses as a set designer is the ability to do basic 3D rendering and graphic design. Nowadays people expect to see digital sketches of everything, so you have to be able to visually convey your ideas to the client. At the very least, learn SketchUp and Photoshop.
If you’re looking for a junior level position in the art department, there are many hats to be worn, and some of the skills that are the most useful are: woodworking/building, styling, graphic design, arts & crafts, photography, sewing, painting, ability to drive large trucks, and proficiency with spreadsheets. Art department jobs can be few and far between, so if you don’t have connections, the most straightforward way to break into the biz is to find a job as a production assistant (aka entry/junior level helper) on a TV show or film. You should tell the production manager or the set designer that you’re interested in art department, and hopefully you’ll get paired up to work with them as much as possible and you can be hired specifically as an art assistant the next time around.
Design*Sponge: Do you think there are common characteristics amongst set designers?
Jen: I know several designers, with styles all over the map, but you MUST have a thick skin to do this. The pace can be 10x faster than the pace of design in the real world, so sometimes orders are screwed up and mistakes are made, and you just have to stomp the fire out ASAP and keep moving. You have to be able to think on your feet, and be willing get your hands dirty.
Design*Sponge: What else would you love to do in this field?
Jen: I recently designed a book with Lara Spencer, cohost of Good Morning American, which opened my eyes to the world of publishing. I would love to write a design book—something that I can show my grandkids one day. I would also love to work on a film with a director like Wes Anderson or Baz Luhrmann, someone that is meticulous about his/her artistic vision.
Design*Sponge: What’s the holy grail in your field- what’s your Oscar?
Jen: If you had asked me 3 years ago, I probably would have said that I would love to have my own HGTV show, but that market is changing and sadly, most of the design shows have been canceled. Fortunately, in my field, they actually do give out Oscars! (For film, at least.)
Design*Sponge: How do you stay inspired? (And where do you get your ideas from?!)
Jen: I’m inspired by the DIY spirit that exists in the blogosphere. I love how bloggers tackle ambitious projects and share their tribulations and achievements with the world—it’s a public service! Reading about someone else’s experiences gives me the confidence to try techniques that seem intimidating. I’m also inspired by textile designs. I appreciate the work that goes into creating a great fabric (of which there are thousands!), and sometimes the colors or shapes serve as a jumping-off point for a design. I painted an Allegra Hicks pattern on my bathroom walls.
Design*Sponge: Do you have a project that you’ve worked on? Or one that you are most proud of? Jen: The projects I enjoy the most are ones where the team is really in-sync and happy. Last fall I did 6 small sets for a Bravo for a show called Game of Crowns. (It has not aired yet.) It was a really short gig—in and out in a week—but my all-girl crew did a killer job and all the sets looked amazing. We listened to Katy Perry radio on Pandora, which NEVER happens because we’re usually on set with a bunch of dudes who pretend not to love pop music. Of course, there’s also the 30’ bar that Aaron and I built from scratch by ourselves over the course of 2 weeks. That project nearly killed me, but it sure looked pretty in the end.