Meet The Set Designer Behind The Trap Music Museum

Marina Skye has the magic touch.


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

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You may not know her by Elisabeth Ovesen – writer and host of the love, sex and relationships advice podcast Asking for a Friend. But you definitely know her other alter ego, Karrine Steffans, the New York Times best-selling author who lit up the literary and entertainment world when she released what she called a “tell some” memoir, Confessions of a Video Vixen.

Her 2005 barn-burning book gave an inside look at the seemingly glamorous world of being a video vixen in the ‘90s and early 2000s, and exposed the industry’s culture of abuse, intimidation, and misogyny years before the Me Too Movement hit the mainstream. Her follow-up books, The Vixen Diaries (2007) and The Vixen Manual: How To Find, Seduce And Keep The Man You Want (2009) all topped the New York Times best-seller list. After a long social media break, she's back. xoNecole caught up with Ovesen about the impact of her groundbreaking book, what life is like for her now, and why she was never “before her time”– everyone else was just late to the revolution.

xoNecole: Tell me about your new podcast Asking for a Friend with Elisabeth Ovesen and how that came about.

Elisabeth Ovesen: I have a friend who is over [at Blavity] and he just asked me if I wanted to do something with him. And that's just kinda how it happened. It wasn't like some big master plan. Somebody over there was like, “Hey, we need content. We want to do this podcast. Can you do it?” And I was like, “Sure.” And that's that. That was around the holidays and so we started working on it.

xoNecole: Your life and work seem incredibly different from when you first broke out on the scene. Can you talk a bit about the change in your career and how your life is now?

EO: Not that different. I mean my life is very different, of course, but my work isn't really that different. My life is different, of course, because I'm 43. My career started when I was in my 20s, so we're looking at almost 20 years since the beginning of my career. So, naturally life has changed a lot since then.

I don’t think my career has changed a whole lot – not as far as my writing is concerned, and my stream of consciousness with my writing, and my concerns and the subject matter hasn’t changed much. I've always written about interpersonal relationships, sexual shame, male ego fragility, respectability politics – things like that. I always put myself in the center of that to make those points, which I think were greatly missed when I first started writing. I think that society has changed quite a bit. People are more aware. People tell me a lot that I have always been “before my time.” I was writing about things before other people were talking about that; I was concerned about things before my generation seemed to be concerned about things. I wasn't “before my time.” I think it just seems that way to people who are late to the revolution, you know what I mean?

I retired from publishing in 2015, which was always the plan to do 10 years and retire. I was retired from my pen name and just from the business in general in 2015, I could focus on my business, my education and other things, my family. I came back to writing in 2020 over at Medium. The same friend that got me into the podcast, actually as the vice president of content over at Medium and was like, “Hey, we need some content.” I guess I’m his go-to content creator.

xoNecole: Can you expound on why you went back to your birth name versus your stage name?

EO: No, it was nothing to expound upon. I mean, writers have pen names. That’s like asking Diddy, why did he go by Sean? I didn't go back. I've always used that. Nobody was paying attention. I've never not been myself. Karrine Steffans wrote a certain kind of book for a certain kind of audience. She was invented for the urban audience, particularly. She was never meant to live more than 10 years. I have other pen names as well. I write under several names. So, the other ones are just nobody's business right now. Different pen names write different things. And Elisabeth isn’t my real name either. So you'll never know who I really am and you’ll never know what my real name is, because part of being a writer is, for me at least, keeping some sort of anonymity. Anything I do in entertainment is going to amass quite a bit because who I am as a person in my private life isn't the same a lot of times as who I am publicly.

xoNecole: I want to go back to when you published Confessions of a Video Vixen. We are now in this time where people are reevaluating how the media mistreated women in the spotlight in the 2000s, namely women like Britney Spears. So I’d be interested to hear how you feel about that period of your life and how you were treated by the media?

EO: What I said earlier. I think that much of society has evolved quite a bit. When you look back at that time, it was actually shocking how old-fashioned the thinking still was. How women were still treated and how they're still treated now. I mean, it hasn't changed completely. I think that especially for the audience, I think it was shocking for them to see a woman – a woman of color – not be sexually ashamed.

I hate being like other people. I don't want to do what anyone else is doing. I can't conform. I will not conform. I think in 2005 when Confessions was published, that attitude, especially about sex, was very upsetting. Number one, it was upsetting to the men, especially within urban and hip-hop culture, which is built on misogyny and thrives off of it to this day. And the women who protect these men, I think, you know, addressing a demographic that is rooted in trauma that is rooted in sexual shame, trauma, slavery of all kinds, including slavery of the mind – I think it triggered a lot of people to see a Black woman be free in this way.

I think it said a lot about the people who were upset by it. And then there were some in “crossover media,” a lot of white folks were upset too, not gonna lie. But to see it from Black women – Tyra Banks was really upset [when she interviewed me about Confessions in 2005]. Oprah wasn't mad [when she interviewed me]. As long as Oprah wasn’t mad, I was good. I didn't care what anybody else had to say. Oprah was amazing. So, watching Black women defend men, and Black women who had a platform, defend the sexual blackmailing of men: “If you don't do this with me, you won't get this job”; “If you don't do this in my trailer, you're going to have to leave the set”– these are things that I dealt with.

I just happened to be the kind of woman who, because I was a single mother raising my child all by myself and never got any help at all – which I still don't. Like, I'm 24 in college – not a cheap college either – one of the best colleges in the country, and I'm still taking care of him all by myself as a 21-year-old, 20-year-old, young, single mother with no family and no support – I wasn’t about to say no to something that could help me feed my son for a month or two or three.

xoNecole: We are in this post-Me Too climate where women in Hollywood have come forward to talk about the powerful men who have abused them. In the music industry in particular, it seems nearly impossible for any substantive change or movement to take place within music. It's only now after three decades of allegations that R. Kelly has finally been convicted and other men like Russell Simmons continue to roam free despite the multiple allegations against him. Why do you think it's hard for the music industry to face its reckoning?

EO: That's not the music industry, that's urban music. That’s just Black folks who make music and nobody cares about that. That's the thing; nobody cares...Nobody cares. It's not the music industry. It's just an "urban" thing. And when I say "urban," I say that in quotations. Literally, it’s a Black thing, where nobody gives a shit what Black people do to Black people. And Russell didn't go on unchecked, he just had enough money to keep it quiet. But you know, anytime you're dealing with Black women being disrespected, especially by Black men, nobody gives a shit.

And Black people don't police themselves so it doesn't matter. Why should anybody care? And Black women don't care. They'll buy an R. Kelly album right now. They’ll stream that shit right now. They don’t care. So, nobody cares. Nobody cares. And if you're not going to police yourself, then nobody's ever going to care.

xoNecole: Do you have any regrets about anything you wrote or perhaps something you may have omitted?

EO: Absolutely not. No. There's nothing that I wish I would've gone back and said to myself, no. I don’t think at 20-something years old, I'm supposed to understand every little thing. I don't think the 20-something-year-old woman is supposed to understand the world and know exactly what she's doing. I think that one of my biggest regrets, which isn't my regret, but a regret, is that I didn't have better parents. Because a 20-something only knows what she knows based on what she’s seen and what she’s been taught and what she’s told. I had shitty parents and a horrible family. Just terrible. These people had no business having children. None of them. And a lot of our families are like that. And we may pass down those familial curses.

*This interview has been edited and condensed

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Feature image courtesy of Elisabeth Ovesen

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