The Set Life of Mary Howard

America’s greatest set designer allows access into her complex world. She has a portfolio spanning over two decades, from working with Richard Avedon to Phyllis Posnick. 

In Vogue Italia’s 2012 July issue, there is an editorial by Steven Meisel based on the autumn/winter collections of the year; titled, ‘Collections’. Twelve collections by twelve designers, showcased in twelve different ways — the Comme Des Garcons image is a whirlwind of flowers in crimson, buttercup yellow, amethyst, white, powder blue and every colour known to Pantone. A sphere-like flower ball sits on a flower bed of fallen petals — a beautiful chaos created by New Orleans set designer, Mary Howard, who has just moved her studio, Mary Howard Studio, into Brooklyn, where she lives “six blocks away. It’s like a little seaside village, it’s cut off from the rest of New York, but we’re very close to Manhattan which is literally a quarter of a mile from Brooklyn Bridge.”

Howard’s studio is in a 1930s five storey building, two of which are taken up by her team. MHS started small and personal through the contacts she formed at Macy’s Special Production and also help from her artist husband, Mike Howard. “The first carpenter I hired is now a set builder,” she says proudly in her soft raspy New Yorker accent. Currently, eleven set designers reside at MHS, which has built a solid portfolio for itself by working with photographers such as Annie Leibovitz, Peter Lindbergh, Patrick Demarchelier and brands like Dior, Loewe and Moncler.

“It’s a big sunlit kind of art studio space, the building is from the thirties. A huge warehouse-y feel, it’s good to see all the things in one place,” she says about the the 22,000 square feet space. Howard confesses that she loves the neighbourhood. “We were in three different buildings within half a block of each other,” revealing the reason for the move, “now we’re all in one area, under one roof. In April, we will have a photo-studio right next door. So basically, in New York, you can have everything you need, the props, the set, the perfect lighting.”

Upstairs is Aladdin’s cave, which is about “ten-thousand square feet and it is reserved for in- house prop stuff, which is about twenty-five ceilings of racks. Filled with furniture, fabrics, fake flowers” and the little details likes ropes and wires. Howard explains that she keeps everything from a set because objects are usually altered from shape to colour downstairs in the set shop, where the magic comes to life. No detail is forgotten when making a set. Every brush stroke and crack matters from the corners to the edges of the floor. “It’s chaotic,” Howard explains, “we just moved in January, so we’re basically still putting things away and we have already done sixty- eight jobs which is sixty-eight photoshoots. Things are moving in and out of trucks.”

Ever since a little kid, Howard has “always liked arranging objects. I guess I was always very visual and growing up in environment like New Orleans, it was a really beautiful town.” Her favourite memory is Mardi Gras as she remembers “things moving through the streets like the beautiful colourful smokes. It was a very visually stimulated place.” She still finds herself inspired by things around her, comparing it to “chocolate eating chocolate.”

Before the role of a set designer, photographers and stylists such as “Grace Coddington at Vogue would just get their assistant to go find a chair or they would get their architect friend to make something,” Howard admits. Young and in New York in the ‘80s, during the day she was a paper sculptor at Macy’s Special Production and at night she would continue sculpting and sowing. It was when she was asked to help a fabric company with their window display that “somehow lead to Avedon needing something and I was able to build a sort of sand dune landscape for an early Versace campaign he had.” She is the right-hand woman to the photographer too, she has been trained by Avedon and Meisel, “I’m there to help them to figure out what the girl is doing in the picture.”

Howard’s sets are meticulous, just like a Wong Kar-wai film, but the only difference is that the film industry celebrates the role of a production designer. She cleverly points out that “when you go to a movie, you’ll see the production designer is credited right behind the director and cinematographer — it’s the third most important person on the set, they create the environment for the action to take place and for the narrative to happen.”
However, Howard is as humble as she is talented — she understands the business and that “it’s all about the girl in the clothes, the set designers have to take a back seat to hair, make-up and wardrobe. We’re really there to support the photographer and help create a world for the girl to be in. To create an environment.”

Howard’s less exciting days consist of planning and preparing, she admits that “editorial budgets are not that great these days,” but with twenty-five years of experience “its great because I draw on all of these objects I have in-house.” Tomorrow, she is shooting for Vogue.com with a marching band. Her enjoyment comes from being on set and “looking at the photos from the monitor and getting excited about the next picture.” She is also working on projects for Steven Klein and Phyllis Posnick, who coined the title of production designer in Vogue, which Howard “thought that was really nice of her.”

All creative industries are under pressure from technology, but Howard is confident that “people still want to feel,” and “that everything should feel like a real place because that is what photography is to me, the magic of it.” Although, she reveals that she does “not pick up a physical magazine anymore like the rest of the world, I go online and I see things.”