10 Tips for Effectively Styling a Set

Published on in Advice / Tips & Tricks

If you are a Props Stylist, Set Designer, Production Manager or simply working on a production where you need to consider the look and budget for a set, then this top ten will help steer you in the right direction. 

I have compiled them using my experience from over the last decade or so as a stylist working in TV, Advertising, Film and Fashion. Along the way I've built up some shrewd skills in how to save money and time without losing out on the quality or look of the production.  

Tip 1: Know your brief and client

Before I embark on a job, I like to be able to get my head around the brief and talk it over with the client. With clients and teams I've worked with for awhile, this becomes more intuitive as the rapport builds. But still, each client's or Art Director's definition of modern, eclectic or grungy, for instance, is different. Everyone attaches their own set of experiences and expectations to popular terms or phrases. In other words, it’s not about right or wrong, it’s about understanding their perspective and expectations.

So, it helps to be able to read between the lines to understand what they want and get it right before preparing for the job. I must confess I'm somewhat addicted to Pinterest, as it's a quick way to build a mood-board that's "on brief" that can be shared and edited with the team.

Tip 2: Know your audience

Who are you trying to appeal to? What demographic are your viewers? Who and what are their points of reference? For instance, if you're working on a comedy drama and say going to create a hipster's flat in Hackney, East London, you've got to think about the minute detail that you can bring to the set, as that's often where the comedy lies.

You may need to find pieces that are ubiquitous to the East London hipster, for instance, a worn, 90s oversized denim jacket complete with badge collection, the smudge bundle that "cleanses" the stamp-sized flat (or in fact fast food odours from the shop downstairs), the three-legged dog with anger management issues from Battersea Dogs and Cats home, or a cacti plant that ruins your hands but looks amazing. 

Tip 3: Confirm your budget

This may sound obvious, but it's a biggie and can make a huge difference to where you shop and what you can shop for. In this age of continued austerity, the budget always seems to be tight, but it's always worth squeezing the powers that be. I have found that talking to the Producer about what's needed for the shoot, compared with what's affordable within the budget, can magic a little more money for essentials.

Failing that, some careful shopping in the sales, vintage markets, discount stores and online often stretches the budget without looking cheap. Also, design studios and showrooms will sometimes hire pieces out for much less than retail price. But I wouldn’t advise this if the guests on set are eating or drinking, cashmere throws and negronis don't always mix well. 

Tip 4: Do your research

If you're working on a costume drama you may have to do an extra level of research. Modern audiences have a keen eye for detail and some bloggers and hardcore fans won’t hesitate to upload continuity fails to the web.

Nobody wants to be the butt of a joke so research, research and more research is the way to go. Did the Victorians have double glazed windows, engineered wood flooring or chrome effect light switches? Of course not. But it's worth doing an "idiot check" of your location and think of cunning ways to cover modern details that may give away your illusion of time travel.

Hopefully your Location Scout would have done most of the hard work already, but even the most amazing location houses will show their age whether that's Victorian or beyond.  One way to cover modern details is using carefully positioned plants, ornaments or furniture. In the case of a Victorian drama, huge sculptural ferns could cover a multitude of sins and add much yester year panache. 

Tip 5: Go Faux

I've worked on a number of shoots recently where there's been a call for fresh blooms and greenery. I love real plants and flowers but they are a huge expense that seems to always erode the budget. They can be tricky to transport and wilt and die in the wrong conditions quicker than you think.

Instead, I suggest using faux plants and flowers. You can buy them online and re-use them across different projects. They’re not as easily damaged, you can keep them locked away in a box for months on end and they won’t die, you don’t have to water them, and they look just like the real thing: result!

Also, I don't have to worry about potential health and safety nightmares of children or dogs jumping onto cacti spikes and being sued for damages by their parents or trainers. I love a prop that has a good bang for its buck, fake plants and flowers are the greenery that keeps on giving. And they look so much better now than they did when I was a child in the Doctor's waiting room!  

Tip 6: Be practical

When styling a set, you've got to remember not to get carried away...well just a little. Of course the visual is extremely important, but if you’re on a shoot and the drummer in the band is getting attacked by overflowing drapes wafting in a wind machine then nobody is going to end up looking or sounding cool. 

It's worth chatting with the gaffers, or others in the sound, lighting or wardrobe departments to make sure your work doesn't clash.  At worst, it could be a good excuse for a cuppa and biscuit with someone from another department at the risk of getting yourself known as a stickler for health and safety. 

Tip 7: Know your stuff

As a Props Stylist I love the visual world. I am inspired by high and low culture, the mundane, nature, the historical, the futuristic and almost anything. In the words of the designer Paul Smith, "you can find inspiration in everything," a motto I hold close to my heart. 

Everything that surrounds you can filter back into your work, so surround yourself with the amazing, the beautiful, the bizarre and the profound. It'll translate back into what you do and add to your unique selling point, whatever that may be - it's the reason you get chosen for your jobs. 

Tip 8: Keep an address book with notes

Call me a Luddite but I still like to keep my little moleskin address book complete with notes on where I bought good props and any other idiosyncrasies that I deemed important at the time. But whether you keep a written or typed address book it's an invaluable tool to help jog your memory and keep yourself organised. 

It saves time too as I don't have to look something up online when I'm on location, in the back end of beyond, with no internet but just a good old fashioned landline instead. 

Tip 9: Get the best use out of your props

After years of collecting and accruing items from various projects, I have often been at a loss about what to do with the build-up of kit and props. I often do a clear out and give things away to others who need them, but I have recently been thinking of setting up a small hire company.

This has been a revelation and has put to rest thoughts that I'm a hardcore hoarder. I'll save a ton on therapy and it means I'm allowed to keep and buy more things.  The only thing I need to worry about now is how to store and organise everything. Muji storage section here I come! 

Tip 10: Be your own guru

I love a "top ten tips" but somehow I feel like I'm "teaching Grandmother to suck eggs" as everyone is really their own expert. It's good to be a magpie and glean knowledge and tips from others, but best of all is to empower yourself and do things your own way. 

Become your own guru. Be thorough, have your own vision, execute things well and with confidence.  In the words of Kevin Costner in Field of Dreams "if you build it, he will come" or insert your own cheesy feel good quote that you can hashtag and get a load more followers with.

About Susie Lloyd 

Having studied at the Norwich University of the Arts and then at the University of Brighton, Susie moved to London and launched herself as a stylist. She has built up an impressive client list working all over the world styling shows, editorial shoots and music videos as well as styling for commercial brands and celebrities.

Image from behind the scenes of Titanic 

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  • Yantram Studio said…
    Wednesday, December 7, 2016 11:16 PM
    Excellent tips. This is absolutely stunning Information for everyone.
  • cris said…
    Wednesday, April 26, 2017 11:19 AM
    You can buy faux plants and flowers from https://www.aufora.com/ for very god prices
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