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Rhea Thierstein: Lord of the Flies

Insect loving Rhea Thierstein captivates the world of fashion and film with her high contrast and surrealist props and sets, and she is also one of this year's SUPERSTORE mentors. Beginning her career assisting set-designer Shona Heath, Rhea’s impressive list of clients includes Bombay Sapphire, Uniqlo, British Vogue, W Magazine and Vanity Fair. With a desire to make things from a young age, Rhea scours prop houses, flower markets and fabric shops for inspiration, moving between the worlds of prop making and art direction. The go-to set designer for legendary photographer Tim Walker, Rhea and Walker’s collaborations are unparalleled in their colourful and ethereal creations. In the midst of planning M.I.A’s new music video, we caught up with Rhea at her North London studio, to discuss which of her imaginative pieces have defined her career….

The Doll's House

Client: Jessie J ‘Price Tag’ music video

Materials used: A dolls house (wood), chalk pens, blow touch, hammers, paint

Time taken to produce: 3 to 4 days

The single responsible for shooting singer Jessie J into super pop-stardom, Rhea’s art direction of music video Price Tag marks her own commercial success with moving image. The video is a surrealist fantasy playing with size, colour and dimension. With giant toy soldiers and a larger than life teddy bear, the star piece of the video is a duck-egg blue dolls house, which Jessie J folded inside. With tiny curtained windows and graffitied outer walls, the house represents Rhea’s close attention to tiny details.

Rhea says: ‘We spent a long time searching for the house and we finally found it online. This guy had spent about three or four years building it so we felt quite guilty gutting out the whole inside. We literally gutted it so Jessie J could get inside it, and then we graffitied it, set fire to it and made it look like it was being squatted in.’

The Hands

The Client: Tilda Swinton shoot for W

Materials used: Biscuit foam, acrylic paint, varnish

Time taken to produce: 2 weeks.

Photography by: Tim Walker

Influenced by Dali and the surrealist movement, these human hands appear to grow from a delicate rose bush in bloom. Inspired by a surrealist painting, they are a modern interpretation of a rose bush. Shot by Tim Walker for W Magazine in a labyrinthine house in Mexico, the setting was as surreal as its props, with a spiral staircase in the middle of a rainforest.

Rhea says: ‘I think fashion is a really good platform for creativity and it’s quite open and unrestrictive so its good for what I do. My job is fun, it can be fun, it can also be a nightmare, but we get to make incredible things that you can be really proud of. I've learnt so much and I'm now quite skilled at doing things - I can sew, I can paint - it’s amazing that I’m doing the stuff that I really love.’

The Pig

Client: Mechanical Dolls shoot for Vogue Italia

Materials used: Wadding, masking tape, bandages, paint, glue, string, wire, cardboard, buttons

Time taken to produce: 1 week

Photography by: Tim Walker

Inspired by a turn of the century book on automatons, this clockwork pig was a proposed prop for Tim Walker’s Mechanical Dolls shoot for Vogue Italia. Sat on its haunches the pig looks eerily real despite its clockwork components. Made using layers of calico, wadding and masking tape the pig was a difficult piece to create. Although it didn’t make it to the shoot, it is a cute and endearing addition to Rhea’s bustling studio space.

Rhea says: ‘Me and the two girls I was working with kept taking turns because none of us could work out how to do the pig’s face. I sourced the fabrics from within my studio, the eyes came from a fabric shop down the road in Finsbury Park, and then the clockwork wind-up was from Spitalfields Market.’

The Flowers

Client: Kate Moss shoot for LOVE

Materials used: Fake flowers, glue gun, extra strong plasters

Time taken to produce: 1 week.

Photography by: Tim Walker

Rhea’s most memorable job, this editorial was influenced by a book of Tim Walker’s childhood, about a boy who swallows a packet of seeds. Just as the seeds grew out of the boy’s body, the flowers in the shoot appear to grow from the naked skin of Kate Moss.

Rhea says: ‘I was a bit nervous because Tim said he wanted the flowers to be almost growing out of the skin. That usually means you need someone who does prosthetics. I was a bit like “I can’t do it Tim, it’s too complicated.” Then I found these extra strong plasters and glue gunned them onto the flowers, and then stuck them all over my hand – as soon as you had a few on there it suddenly looked like they were growing out of your skin.’

The Egg

Client: National Treasures shoot for British Vogue

Materials used: Replica egg painted with coffee paint and varnish

Time taken to produce: 1 to 2 days.

Photography by: Tim Walker

Vogue’s National Treasures editorial in 2012 featured Helena Bonham Carter, Patrick Moore, David Attenborough and Kate Moss. Imagined as an albatross, the largest flying bird, Attenborough appears on a double page spread holding a giant elephant bird egg. A replica of his own egg, the prop symbolises Attenborough’s outstanding dedication to the natural world.

Rhea says: ‘When the egg arrived it looked really badly made and finished. I had to spend quite a lot of time painting it and working on it to make it look like David Attenborough’s egg!’

By Laura Hawkins

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