Do you have a passion for music concerts, festivals and theatre? But also an interest in science and maths? A way of combining these two passions could be a career in set design and construction. Magnificent stage scenery can turn a mere show into an immersive experience. Set design can involve intricate mechanics which transform and move to wow the audience. Some stages involve pyrotechnics and robotics to bring a performance to life, while festival sites are designed to transport you to another world through their brilliant designs and creative concepts.
In order to create these extraordinary sets, a lot of planning and design work goes into them. Firstly, an artistic design of what the set is intended to look like must be created, then science and maths are needed to bring that design to life. The construction area needs to be calculated, the mechanics of moving components need to be designed, the lighting and pyrotechnics need to be programmed – the list goes on!
If you have a large empty space to make into a spectacle, you must have a firm grasp of maths and physics in order to ensure every aspect of the set design fits and can do its job, as well as look amazing! The positioning also needs to be determined; whether a certain component can hold another structure on top or perhaps have other parts move around it. The whole thing is an artistic construction project!
We spoke to Andrew Cross, a Margate based artist and architect to find out a little bit about his work. Andrew builds extraordinary sets, structures and installations. We interviewed him whilst he was on site building a 160 person capacity tree house as part of a festival called Dreamland!
What did you study for A Levels?
I studied Maths, Physics and English Literature. My father wanted me to go into the RAF to become a pilot and I really didn’t want to do that so instead I went to Chelsea College of Art and Design.
What did you do next?
I left Chelsea, as the foundation year wasn’t very good. I studied Interior Architecture at the University of Brighton, but then couldn’t find a job because I didn’t want to work for free! I was homeless and ended up living above a pub which then was condemned. After that, I moved to Australia but still couldn’t find work in what I wanted to do. I was painting a lot over there and selling them too. I came back and got a job at an architects but I couldn’t draw so I didn’t last long!
How did you become an artistic installation designer?
Next I moved to Falmouth to do an MA in Fine Art and I was the only one on my course. So I had tons of studio space in a Victorian art school building all to myself. I tried painting… and found it really boring so I started taking the building apart! People would come in to find the door was upside down or the windows had been taken out and the floors pulled up. I realised that I loved architecture and what it represented but not the bureaucracy of the system it involved. I started chopping up derelict old buildings. My final piece was chopping a 40 metre hole into the roof of a building and then laying it as a parquet floor. After that I did work for Punchdrunk and a number of others and then went on to build at my first Glastonbury in 2007.
How is Maths used in these projects?
I rarely do drawings but I use Maths to create systems. I create a set of rules within which people can use their own creativity. By using that simple set of rules, they can make something that they couldn’t have done on their own. The Heaven frontage (at Glastonbury’s Shangri la) is a really great example: it all correlates to 8ft and 4ft edges, so as long as your edge always matches up to another 8ft edge, you can make a 300 triangle tessellated shape that is completely random, but it’s not because it follows a set of rules. With the tree house I am building at the moment, I have a crew of very understanding people and I have a set of building guidelines that I’ve worked out. They mean the building will be safe and I have a set of angles that the footprint has to follow.
With the Shangri la Heaven set, I came up with the idea on Monday, did a test in a workshop on Wednesday, and then drew it on a piece of tracing paper on Friday. We had a meeting and then didn’t speak about it again for three months. But it took a month to pick the perfect crew who would be open to building this kind of project.
How many people does it normally take to complete a project?
Last year was about 60, the year before that at Glastonbury I was building in various areas so there were 110 people, but that’s the biggest it’s been!
Do you have a process for how you come up with creative ideas?
For me, I have quite a good memory, so it could be that I spend a lot of time reading books, or philosophising about architecture, or just looking at images of architecture or art that I really love. Combining concepts is how I have come up with things in the past. But there really is no rhyme or reason. Things kind of swirl around and I blurt them out!
How important are Maths and Physics for your job?
Maths drives all my designs! I work in numbers and have numerous values that I need to scale up and scale down. You will always find me with a calculator. A mixture of creativity and maths go into my builds – I don’t know which comes first!
What are the common problems?
My total lack of drawings causes some problems; it’s an issue for most people I work with! But that’s fine because we always get it done. The most important thing is communication and honesty.
What are important qualities for a job like this?
Listening to the answers to questions, being interested in other people and asking questions! Trying to work out what makes all of us tick and how that works together. Emotional intelligence. I won’t employ somebody that will show up and talk purely about themselves for the first hour – that’s really boring.
Best bits about your job?
I like the variety. I can go from having this tree house job to the next one which is making a recording studio out of an airstream caravan for the Gorillaz next tour! After that I’m making a gin shop in copper, then a string theory installation for Veuve Clicquot.
Have the ability to go from one thing to another. Don’t be afraid, just go for it! If you’re somewhere doing something and someone needs an extra pair of hands, help them out! The most important thing for me really, is just to play. I play with materials and ideas until they stick together long enough for people to sit on really!