Interview: Set Designer, Alicia Sciberras

Words OLIVER MOL Portraits ANTONIO YSURSA

It would be easy to introduce Alicia Sciberras, the Australian-born, New York based set designer and artist by listing her publication record—The New York Times Style Magazine, WSJ, US Vogue, US Harper’s Bazaar, Garage, V, W Magazine—or by mentioning some of the commercial clients she has worked with—Balenciaga, Jacquemus, Proenza Schouler, Coach, Calvin Klein, Hugo Boss, DKNY, Zara—but that would do little to demonstrate her refreshing and wonderful approach to life and creativity. From a young age, and with enviable insight, she realised that she had no desire to be the focus, that she preferred collaboration and wanted to prioritise spontaneity, improvisation and play. Her intuition, undoubtedly, has changed her life immeasurably. Signed globally to CLM Agency, her work, as she puts it, is meticulously researched and constructed, packed with eccentric details, inventive materials and experimental fabrications that pull the viewer’s gaze cleverly around every scene. With recent work in M Le magazine du Monde featuring Elliot Page, Vogue Germany featuring Lauren Hutton, not to mention a cover shoot with Hari Nef, it is safe to say that Sciberras expertly and humbly showcases the talent of others, while unintentionally shining a very deserved light on herself.

Alicia—you are a set designer and artist who has worked with some of the biggest names in the industry. Where did you grow up? What kind of dreams can you remember having for the future? 

That’s very generous. Thank you. I was born in Wollongong, New South Wales, which is a coastal city, and growing up my parents always prioritised creativity. My mum has a keen eye for interiors and she always helped me to understand what was going on spatially. She was always buying things for the house and asking me to place them, and wherever I put them is where they lived. I was young, maybe five years old, and I was also allowed to decorate my room however I wanted. Every few years I would choose a new colour scheme and bedspread to match. It’s funny—I’m sure my mum didn’t know she was planting these seeds inside me, she probably just enjoyed decorating and wanted a pal to do it with, but we had fun doing it together. But as for my dreams for the future: I had no idea, honestly. I remember telling my parents when I was in primary school that I wanted to be a hairdresser and they were like, “Oh no, that’s back breaking work.” Fast forward to now and I am a set designer lugging around heavy objects literally breaking my back. So maybe hairdressing would have been a better job? Then in high school I thought I was going to be a musician or a music teacher. I had been playing the clarinet since I was nine years old and that was my main focus, but after a couple of auditions at the conservatorium I got cold feet. It just felt like everyone had been conditioned with a strictness that did not allow for play or collaboration or spontaneity or improvisation, and I realised that I was more of a collaborator, that I loved working in groups with ideas, that I did not have to be the main thing. Although, if I am really honest with you, I think I was just scared. I thought I wasn’t good enough, so I changed direction.

 

You studied fine arts at Sydney College of the Arts where you majored in sculpture and installation. What was that experience like, and at what point did you begin to consider set design as a profession?

I was definitely studious. When I met (my partner) Ben he was like, “Where have you been? I haven’t seen you at any of the parties?” I just wasn’t a party girl. I mean, I went to the gallery events to get the free wines, but I was also working two jobs to pay off university because I didn’t want a HECS debt. It’s funny. I remember my dad saying to me, “If I had known you were going to be an artist I probably wouldn’t have advised you to work so hard during university, because you’ll probably never earn enough to pay it back.” He said it jokingly, but it’s also probably true. But anyway, Sydney College of the Arts was such a reputable art school; everyone I studied with was incredible, and each week we would show each other our work and get feedback. My teachers were amazing too, they were all academics in the art world and I just wanted to grasp as much as I could. The curriculum was art history based and driven by conceptual thinking. They encouraged us to have motivation behind our work, which now informs my commercial work and helps sell concepts to my clients.

But we are jumping ahead. I finished my art degree with honours because I didn’t know what else to do. I was kind of contemplating the art world, but I realised I enjoyed making art for myself, for my hands. Thinking about this in terms of my relationship to creativity, I didn’t like the pressure, making things for other people to judge them. Art is a physical thing that comes from me, and something I practice as a form of play. Although, of course, I needed to think about a job. I had always been interested in interiors so I reached out to some magazines to see if they had any internships going. This was back in the day, I hand wrote these letters, and I ended up getting an internship at Habitus, an interiors and architecture magazine. I finished the internship and they offered me a job. I was lucky because someone was leaving, it really was just a right time, right place moment—and I think so much of life is like that: right time, right place. I ended up becoming their editorial coordinator, and they had these up front trend pages, and I put my hand up to style them. Publishing, you know, you work in small teams, and if you have the gusto to do something then you can do it, and I literally built my portfolio from these three pages I had every issue. After that I started doing some personal shoots with photographers who were in the area, and that was how I transitioned.

After three years of working at Habitus, you met your mentor Megan Morton, one of the founding set designers in Australia. How did that happen, and when did you make the decision to go freelance? 

She’s obviously incredible, and I wanted to see whether I could be part of her world or if I could offer support, so I wrote to her and said, “I would love to have coffee with you,” and it just grew from there. We became lifelong friends and I learned so much. I worked for her and assisted her for several years. She had a props studio that she let me use on the weekends, which was the most amazing resource and so generous. And while I was with Megan I got offered a job at Inside Out magazine. It was a maternity contract, and I got to be their style director for six months, which also improved my portfolio.

The decision to go freelance was daunting. I am so thankful to my partner, Ben. He supported me and said I could move in with him, which helped cut the cost of rent, and made the whole idea seem more manageable. If you’re going to be a set designer you need a village, and my parents and Ben have always been my biggest supporters. You really need everyone to understand. The industry is so difficult. Everyone needs everything immediately, and there is such big money on the line. You really need your loved ones around you to understand and support you.

My freelance career developed naturally. Initially, it wasn’t like I was inundated, but it was enough to keep me afloat, and I learned early on that you need a balance of art and commerce. I was passionate about the projects I was presenting, and able to justify my artistic ideas, and I think if you are coming with energy and enthusiasm from a genuine place, then clients will hire you for it.

You moved to New York just before Covid. Could you talk to us about your relationship to the city, and how you went about pursuing your career?

In every way, this city has given me everything, and I can’t thank it enough. There is something magical in the air and if you have the drive, this city opens up to you. But I have to say, when I first moved here I was not happy. Actually, I was miserable. I missed my friends. I missed my family. It was just too intense. But then Covid happened and a lot of people left and I grew to love the city. Everything became very community focused, and I recognised people on the streets, and that made me fall in love. It started to feel more like home. At the same time I began to build my confidence. New York is full of so many people and so many personalities that I felt overwhelmed, but I grew out of that. Professionally, again, it was also one of those right time, right place moments. My friend who is an art director here put me on a job, and the photographer saw my name on the call sheet and asked me to come in for a meeting. Unbelievably, that was how I got signed to my agency CLM. I didn’t go around and meet with anyone else. When I feel good about something, I lock it in. I don’t worry about what else there might be, I just want to focus on what I have that feels good. They introduced me to my first few clients, and I managed to get some editorial work, which got my name out there, and then I met with some photographers and everything started rolling from there. 

 

Much like an author, set designers build entire worlds out of ideas, where—for a time—people, objects and things talk to one another, create meaning and play. What is your relationship to creativity and spirituality, and have you ever battled with perfectionism? 

My relationship to creativity is that it is something I have to do. Art allows me to play. The sculptures I told you about earlier, I made them just for me. Because I wanted to. And I wouldn’t say that I am a woo woo person, but I think—over my life and career—someone has been looking out for me and helping me along the way. Like everything, when you are passionate about something, that light shines through. And it’s not contrived. Set design is funny. It attracts such a motley crew of people, because it is not just a course you can study. We literally are the art department. All my assistants are skaters and musicians who have other creative things they are trying to do, and the job is a great way to fund that. And do I battle perfectionism? I don’t think so, because—and Ben pointed this out to me, which was really helpful in terms of understanding my process—I approach my job as if I were an artist, so everything builds from everything, even mistakes. You might put an object somewhere, then realise it better suits a mood somewhere else. In many ways, the job relies on mistakes in order to grow. I think the biggest thing is knowing when to stop, which is cliché, but I think my whole career has been built on the principle that simplicity is key.

Could you talk about your recent set design for the Hari Nef shoot, which was photographed by Ned Rogers? 

I love working with Ned, and we always get carried away during the concept phases—it’s a really exciting time. For that issue of Cero, we were given the theme ‘New York City’, which obviously has been done to death, but since Hari is an actor we thought it would be cool to create sets that were their own specific worlds, and then to capture Hari off duty, and in between sets. We wanted to play with the idea of being of work, and being worn out from never ending takes. It’s one of my favourite shoots in recent times.

 

What does a typical day as a set designer look like? 

I have been doing this job for more than ten years, and especially since moving to America, where they take me more seriously, I am allowed to have assistants and people who support me, which has allowed a more structured way of working. But in terms of where you will find me, if I am not on set physically styling, I am out in scrap metal yards finding pieces, or I am looking for reclaimed timber, or I am at the prop houses. I am such a tactile person. I need to see scale and colour to put it all together. Another huge part of my job is logistics, so I have my gorgeous team who are runners for me. They’ll go out and see what’s happening in the flower district, or they’ll go to the garment district to get fabrics. Otherwise I am usually talking to my suppliers and sketching out dimensions and getting them to make me large scale objects. It’s a lot of problem solving, and it really suits me, you know, figuring out how I am going to spend $40,000, which is often not enough, and relaying that to clients. Last week we did a job in Montauk, and we had to make sure a sixteen foot boat would fit in our truck. There’s always a solution to a problem.

Not only are you a powerhouse set designer, but you recently launched Studio Select, a full scale creative agency with your partner Benjamin Tan. How did this come about, and what are your plans for the future?

You know, it’s really funny: Ben is an incredible designer, and I am more of an artist, and we love and appreciate what the other does, but we think so differently. When we first started dating eight years ago, we thought we would never work together. But as we have grown—and obviously because we respect one another so much—it just seemed natural, and we thought: why have we not done this sooner? We really love it. Each morning, we talk through what needs doing while sitting in the lounge room and having a coffee with our dog. It really is the best workplace I have ever worked in. I do the art direction and come up with the ideas, find the mood, and then pass it off to Ben who builds the brand, which is much harder and time consuming to do. His attention to detail is amazing, even his file management is a work of art, and now that I have a team of assistants who help me with set design, I feel I have the support to work passionately at both. I really am a collaborator, and that is what I love about what I do. It’s not just about me, it involves everyone. That’s what is special to me.