Have you ever seen someone working in an industry, career, or business and wondered how they got there? When a new trend of pop-up installations became popular in Instagram culture, I wondered who created them. Going down several rabbit holes later, I was led to set design and all the ways you could exist in the world of interior design. From designing activations at a music festival to designing a set for a music video or a TV show, set design can look a variety of ways. My first taste of the magic of set design came during a visit to an Atlanta staple, T.I.'s Trap Music Museum. The sorceress behind some of that magic?
Meet Marina Skye, owner of Set By Skye.
Skye's business specializes in both set design and creative direction. Her passion and undeniable eye has led her in quite a few rooms and has caused her to be a name that's dominant in conversation surrounding the set design world. In addition to being a collaborator for the Trap Music Museum, she has designed projects like the interactive art exhibit Motel 21 with rapper 21 Savage. The Atlanta-based visionary also serves as the art director for Epic Records artist Jidenna.
After hearing Skye speak at the Trap Music Museum, I had to find out how she carved her space into some of the most recognizable and creative set design projects out there right now. Here's what she had to say.
xoNecole: How did you get started in set design?
Marina Skye: When I graduated from college, I was doing marketing and working at IKEA. [While] I was working at IKEA, my brother was shot and killed. He went to Morehouse while I was at Clark University and he was actually shot and killed at Morehouse a week after his graduation and a week before his birthday. Needless to say, that was heart-wrenching. When intense situations happen to people, it kind of slaps them in the face. It made me figure out life literally is too short. If I'm not doing what I want to do right now, I've got to figure out what that is.
So I started a clothing line. I started a vintage online store and things were going well. I was a new business owner trying to figure things out, but it was bringing money in and that was a blessing. A year into the fashion business, I realized at trade shows, I was paying more attention to the spaces I would make for my clothes to be presented, as opposed to actually paying attention to the clothing I'm supposed to be selling. Once I realized that was really what I was spending most of my time on, I started to research what that job was and it was creative direction and then set design. I never really looked back after that.
Courtesy of Marina Skye
"When intense situations happen to people, it kind of slaps them in the face. It made me figure out life literally is too short. If I'm not doing what I want to do right now, I've got to figure out what that is."
How did you build your current set design company?
I did a lot of photoshoots with my best friend who is a photographer just to create my portfolio. And from that, I started doing sets for parties in Atlanta and that's kind of how people started to hear about me. I became the set designer for an escape room in Atlanta and the business was literally me and the owner. Now I know God put me in that position so I could figure out how to be a small business owner. That job really helped me figure out how to be my own boss because I was working so closely with the boss of the company.
After that, I started my own business and it was probably a year and a half of trying to just figure out where money was going to come from. There was a lot of figuring out stuff but every project I had, I just made sure it was a little bit bigger than the previous project so I could work my way up.
How does your background in fashion play a part in your design aesthetic?
Honestly, unless I'm doing a set specifically for a fashion line, fashion doesn't really play a big role in what I do. However, I personally tend to wear extreme outfits, so people have kind of come to know that about me. It added to the brand because it was also an element of surprise, if that makes sense.
I have realized that I'm almost like a method artist when I'm into a specific job. I live my life in themes. I wake up in a different theme every day. I then have to categorize my projects by themes. If they don't have themes, I give them themes because that's how my mind works. I feel that my project reflects my fashion as opposed to my fashion reflecting the projects.
Courtesy of Marina Skye
"I live my life in themes. I wake up in a different theme every day. I then have to categorize my projects by themes. If they don't have themes, I give them themes because that's how my mind works. I feel that my project reflects my fashion as opposed to my fashion reflecting the projects."
What is a typical day or workweek like for a set designer?
Every day is very different because the projects that I have are so different from each other. That is because I do a few different things, like stage design and music videos. But everything starts out with a general concept that we have a conversation about with the client. If the project that we're doing is in the city, I meet them in person at the venue. We do a walk-through and I talk to them again in person about what they want. We bounce ideas off each other and then I go back home or to my office and I create a visual for them.
The visual includes a color theme board, basically a general mood board. All of my thoughts are put in something for them to see. Then I send that over to them and they let me know whether or not this is the kind of direction that they want to take. From there, I create a budget for them and my budget is extremely itemized. I'm very big on my clients knowing exactly where their money's going. I am very upfront with every single thing that's going into the project. Once I buy, my team and I come in and then we just get to work.
How did you combat imposter syndrome as you began to work on bigger projects?
I think I deal with imposter syndrome all the time. There's always a level of quick self-doubt. I feel like if my dreams don't scare me, they're not big enough. So I'm comfortable with it, and I'm getting more comfortable as time goes by. As my dreams get bigger and my accomplishments get bigger, I am getting more comfortable with the sense of being uncomfortable. The combination of not knowing what I'm supposed to be doing, mixed with the general, yearning to figure it out slapped any doubt in the face. But as the projects got bigger and the responsibilities got bigger, the doubt definitely got bigger as well. So I think imposter syndrome now is a bit more than it was in the beginning, but I'm also growing more comfortable with that.
Courtesy of Marina Skye
"There's always a level of quick self-doubt. I feel like if my dreams don't scare me, they're not big enough. So I'm comfortable with it, and I'm getting more comfortable as time goes by. As my dreams get bigger and my accomplishments get bigger, I am getting more comfortable with the sense of being uncomfortable."
What was the toughest setback/obstacle that you overcame while pursuing your career?
Not having the funds that I would have liked to have in order to create the projects that I wanted to create. In the beginning, I was doing a lot of stuff for free just to create my own internship. It was very stressful and sometimes depressing, when I'm trying to focus on being a creative, but also trying to figure out how I'm going to pay my rent. The biggest obstacle was just having to balance being an adult while trying to pursue dreams. I literally worked my ass off for this. I had no choice but to be strong for myself and just keep moving. It built this thick skin for me and that's invaluable honestly.
What is it like being a black woman working in male-dominated environments?
I want to make a very particular, very specific note that my general personality is very bubbly. I say all that to say being a woman in a very male-dominated sector has been a very interesting journey. Sexual harassment is very real. It's something that I think a lot of my friends are also in with their specific industries. We talk about it behind closed doors, but I think it's time for us to make these things known so people really know what's happening.
I've had very difficult situations. I've been in very uncomfortable situations being the only woman in groups of men at random hours. I've been in situations where things could have gone very wrong, but the men are respectful. At times there have been difficult situations where clients clearly did not respect women. And I had to figure out how to woman up and make sure that they understood that my opinions matter just as much.
Courtesy of Marina Skye
What was your favorite project to work on to date and why?
I will definitely say that the Trap Music Museum was my most challenging project. It wasn't just because of TMM, it was because I was in a relationship that was extremely difficult. I was dealing with someone who had mental health issues, and I didn't know until after. It was a very difficult time for me because we were working so hard on TMM, 13 hours a day for three months. We were not even paying attention to the fact that T.I. would come in with C-SPAN in the middle of the day and do an entire interview, or CNN would come in and we were not even paying attention. But the culture was being created as we were literally creating the culture. So my favorite and challenging project would be the Trap Music Museum.
My other favorite would probably be working with Jidenna. He is one of my closest friends and he's so funny. Working with that team on 85 to Africa, it challenged me in different ways. It challenged my mind in different ways. I think the Trap Music Museum challenged my set design capabilities and my body but working on 85 to Africa definitely made me have to think in different ways. Jidenna was a very easy person to work with because unlike a lot of artists, he knows what he wants. He also is open to collaboration and understands that his team brings him places.
What is your dream project/set that you want to work on?
I want to experience the space of high-end fashion. I'm very interested in the creative process that happens for runway shows. I also am addicted to music festivals. I'm fascinated by Coachella and Bonnaroo. These festivals not only have the stages where you can see live music, but they also have activities. There's a lot of art and culture that goes into three-day music festivals. I would love to just be a part so there are more people that look like us being represented in these music festivals.
Then there is a goddess by the name of Ruth Carter. She's phenomenal. There are a few women that are creatives in general that inspire me. She is in the top three. Just because of the projects that she has worked on, the fact that she is unapologetically black, and the way her mind works is fascinating. I would love to work on a couple of movies or films where I'm the set designer, the art director, or production designer for a film and she's the costume designer as well.
What can we look forward to from Set By Skye going into the future?
There are a couple of businesses that I'm thinking about bringing to life. I will say that I would love to, specifically for Atlanta, create an ongoing interactive-themed experience for the city. Something people can go to and every month it changes to a different theme. I would love to do something that is more like Candy Utopia but with my own spin.
For more of Marina and Set By Skye, follow her on Instagram.
Featured image courtesy of Marina Skye