A s a child, Shona Heath was fascinated by the intricate drawings of Arthur Rackham and Kit Williams. “If you look really closely, you can keep going,” she says. “You see a stag beetle and he’s got little boots on and he’s actually got buckles on his boots and a nail sticking out of one, and he’s wearing a little handkerchief that has spots on and the spots actually look like snakes. I loved that, and was frightened by the idea of infinity. It horrified me that you could keep looking and keep going deeper. But I loved it.”
The Surreal World of Set Designer Shona Heath
The idea of there being more to something than meets the eye is one that still makes sense for Heath, who is known for her fantastical work as a renowned set designer and long-time collaborator with photographer Tim Walker.
At first glance around her Dalston studio, you’ll notice the overflowing boxes of vibrant fuchsia faux flowers, a taxidermy rabbit and the wooden plane suspended from the ceiling. Exactly what you might expect from a woman who puts models on the backs of ostriches or inside giant shells for Vogue shoots. But a closer look reveals that every nook and cranny is stuffed with the weird and wonderful: giant wooden clogs, blue sandwiches and the severed bottom halves of two different mannequins (one with furry boots on). Even Heath herself looks understated in her all-white tailored outfit until you notice her electric blue mascara.
“My child’s eye is my eye – it never changed, I don’t think,” she admits. “In all honesty, I still jump towards the same things.” The first artist she fell for was Salvador Dalí, whilst at school, and he remains an influence on her designs, that have not only become synonymous with Walker’s work, but also had fashion houses like Dior, Miu Miu and Valentino clamoring for her unique outlook.
"Tanguy used puddle shaped shadows and precariously stacked limb like objects to create architectural structures that give the landscape and his canvas a scale, has the feeling of infinity."
“When I first saw Dalí’s work, I remember the feeling of my eyes being opened, almost like a physical feeling,” she says. “My appreciation of his work has not dwindled. Every time I look, I see something I’ve never seen before.” From Dalí, she progressed to a love of the feminine softness and twisting bodies of Dorothea Tanning, Max Ernst’s unconventional use of colour and the desolate landscapes of Yves Tanguy. Her own work is often referred to as “fairytale” but it’s not a characterisation she is enamoured with: “I’m always hoping that I’m hitting some place that doesn’t fit into a genre. The idea of my work being ‘fairytale’, I‘m always really uncomfortable with. I don’t know why I’m offended because I love fairytales. But that’s not what I’m setting out to do.”
Perhaps dreamlike is a better way to consider Heath’s aesthetic, and seemingly boundless imagination, which she credits to “stubbornness – thinking I can do anything”. But however you interpret the final product, she is adamant that her most valuable skill is being able to translate for other people, what she sees in her mind: “That communication of your idea visually is really important and there’s actually no way around that. I used to fight it the whole time and say ‘well you should just trust me’. It came from a place of not wanting to commit to myself.”
Having said that, precision when sketching ideas is not necessarily required. “The looser the drawing the better, because somehow people get it really quickly,” says Heath. “You can draw a stickman and a giant strawberry and people can see it in one second. And you could draw an amazing man and an amazing strawberry and it can look revolting. Sometimes you’re better off just suggesting something.”
When working with Walker, Heath has become accustomed to the fact that how she sees a project could be quite far from the end result: “However much I try to orchestrate it, he might put somebody in that space and shoot it from a completely different angle, or from behind, or he might throw in a handful of ping-pong balls… actually he always seems to be throwing handfuls of ping-pong balls.”
“I used to find it frustrating,” she confesses. “But that’s only because it was a control thing. Now I really love the fact that it’s not the same. I suppose maybe it’s trust, and you’re willing to say goodbye to things; there are just some casualties along the way...It used to be heart-wrenching, and now I’m really over it because I love the process of what I do and I’ve learnt to value that so much that it’s ok, I can let it go.”
Nowadays Walker prefers not to know much about what Heath is doing prior to a shoot: “He quite likes the surprise of it...He’s confident enough to leave it to that day, to throw it up in the air and see where it lands, literally...He realises that losing control is what makes things different.”
Heath recently designed the Wonderful Things exhibition at the V&A, a retrospective of Walker’s work and a new series of photos inspired by the museum's collection. It’s a project that Heath is immensely proud of but feels somewhat bittersweet about: “I have a sadness because I know that won’t happen again,” she says. “That was a really rare thing for both of us. He’s a living photographer doing a show of his life’s work and it’s more work than people who live to 80.”
The exhibition provided Heath and her assistants with plenty of new challenges – “we winged a lot of things; we’re all charlatans really” – but she is rarely stumped by obstacles, remembering a shoot for regular client Jo Malone, that required a lavender field when lavender was out of season. “We bought all the fake lavender known to man, and then it was shedding as we were doing it,” she recalls. “You can’t say ‘we can’t find any lavender'. It’s not an answer. It can be really hard, but actually it’s never not happened. Where there’s a will, there’s a way.”
A magpie for hardware, sewing and craft shops, raw materials are one of Heath’s main sources of inspiration: “I love looking at the edge of things and thinking ‘ooh that’s lovely, what’s that? Isn’t that plastic bag nice? I wonder if we could buy some of that plastic on a roll.” Although she has a good level of basic skills, time constraints mean that much of the making is outsourced to others. Of the people who bring her visions to life, Heath is most indebted to her set builders, who even make their way into her Desert Island set design toolkit: “Scissors, a scalpel, a glue gun, fishing wire, double-sided tape, gaffer tape and Pete, my set constructor. He’s really good in the kit! Pete is the main bit.”
The meticulous work that makes up Heath’s sets is one of the (many) reasons she doesn’t love social media – “If I’m going to bother putting a hundred pearls onto the tip of peacock’s claw, it’s not going to be very apparent on something that’s 3 inches by 6 inches. It makes it very throwaway. Did the red heart mean you liked it that much, really? Did you love it? Can you remember it?” – but she also acknowledges that these platforms have likely brought more attention to her contributions. “People are much more interested in and aware of processes,” she concedes. Has she always felt she got the credit she deserved, as someone who works behind the scenes? “If you’d asked 32-year-old me, I’d have said no, and when you ask the 45-year-old me, I say yes. It’s taken a while to come but I really feel like it has come, almost at the point where I was really happy not getting the credit. I got used to it, almost.”
"Working with Paulo Roversi, there was a moment of actual magic. We shot in complete darkness whilst he painted the light on to the mask i had made with coloured torches. This idea of multiple eyes, faces within faces, a feeling of a double take/double expose in one image is something I am really interested in. Picabia paintings feel like many moments in one painting, the fluttering of eyes like butterflies. I like how his paintings feel joyful, a caught moment of light heartedness that I often strive for in photography."
As she begins another year of extraordinary projects including designing a series of fabrics for Liberty, and a “very exciting” film that she can’t talk about, her most daunting task will be overseeing the travelling of the Wonderful Things exhibition, an undertaking she predicts will be “painful”.
One thing she is not worried about is running out of ideas. On whether or not she ever suffers from creative block, she exclaims delightedly, “I don’t! I’m waiting for it. Ugh, that sounds so arrogrant but I always think, fucking hell, I’m really lucky I’ve got loads of ideas because that would be dreadful.”
“We do so much research on things, and I get sidetracked by something that I want to do more than the thing I’m doing” she says, as her eyes drift over to the enormous moodboard on her wall. “I suddenly got really obsessed with the Rocky Horror Show and now I’m obsessed with toilet roll… I’m dying to do that toilet roll thing… the loo rolls… I’m thinking Tim might be into those.”
And just like that, she’s onto the next idea, although who knows exactly what it might look like by the time she and Walker are finished with it? Certainly not them.
Join Shona on 28 January at the V&A for 'Surrealism Then and Now', a talk exploring the enduring influence of surrealism. She will be joined by V&A Curator of Photographs Susanna Brown, Sotheby’s Senior Director of Impressionist & Modern Art Tania Remoundos, and Sotheby's Head of Photographs Brandei Estes.