Rhea Thierstein

Most people working in the fashion industry are hardworking and humble, but the myth – of well-heeled tyrants issuing unreachable demands to interns who scurry around to meet them – is so deep-rooted, a lack of ego comes as a constant surprise.

Welcoming us at her North London studio, Rhea Thierstein is accommodating and quite shy, but she’s not to be underestimated. A frequent collaborator of Tim Walker’s, she has become a respected and well known voice in set design and has worked on projects for Vogue, Wallpaper, W, Vanity Fair, AnOther, Mulberry, Selfridges, Claridges and on music videos for Jessie J and M.I.A. Think of Tim Walker and you think of scenes from Victorian children’s books, dreamlike realities – a world without restraint created by Rhea. Her studio is tidy but crammed with her work, from moth wings of human proportions to dolls houses and huge, disconcerting spiders. It’s a playroom packed with tempting boxes labelled ‘Feathers’, ’Latex Masks’, ‘Spider Webs’ and ‘Explosives’.

Rhea’s workload has been increasing with her reputation and she now has a small team assisting her in the studio. However, she has no complaints about being overworked. She’s the opposite of a moaner, an adventurer. “It’s not too rainy, is it? I’ll grab an umbrella. There’s a park around the corner. We should go there, if you have time?” Behind the energy, she seems cool as a cucumber. Everything is doable, nothing is a stress – you can see why people repeatedly choose to work with her.

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You have just come back from Costa Rica. Did you go away on your own?
Yeah, I did. I do a lot now. When you get to thirty, I think it feels okay. At first it was difficult sometimes but now it’s one of the things about travelling I enjoy the most. When you’re on your own, you can zone out and take everything in, and you have more adventures.

What sort of adventures?
I ended up becoming friends with the Spanish Ambassador of Costa Rica, by chance. She invited me back to her house the night before I flew back home. I gave the taxi driver my phone so he could see the address and it turned out to be a palace with servants and a pool, it was amazing.

What is it about getting away that you enjoy the most?
I think it’s important to have a break from the job and from being creative. I like to have time to immerse myself in the natural environment that I really love. There’s a huge world out there and it’s mind-boggling. It’s good to have a break and to get inspired, away from London because London can be quite stifling. I’ve been to the rainforest a lot, not just Costa Rica but Borneo as well. Diving is a new fascination. It took a while to get used to because it’s like walking on the moon, but you can really lose yourself in it. I have an innate interest in nature, in the sound of the rainforest and the bugs walking past and just trying to find new, cool things. You look at things very differently.

Are you quite a fearless person?
No! More fearless now though. I think London toughens you up and this job toughens you up. But I like adventures and I like to be constantly stimulated, whether it’s going away to faraway places or making wasps for Selfridges. Anything could happen. I cycle quite a lot up to Walthamstow Marshes and Springfield Park and even that can give you a bit of an escape and a bit of adventure. Cycling’s great because you forget parts of London exist but on your bike or walking through, you do remember that London is a really special place.

So you started out working for Shona Heath?
Yeah, I discovered Shona through ShowStudio and realized that what she did was something I really enjoyed and I did not know existed previously. I ended up working for her for four years. It’s quite a hard job physically so it wasn’t something I initially wanted to do. There are so many different aspects to it: dealing with clients, working with a budget, running a team and physically building things and putting sets together. It is quite full on managerially and creatively. But the jobs we were doing kept getting bigger and bigger and I just fell into it. The job found me, really.

What sort of photography were you doing before?
Fashion photography but more surreal, almost like painting a picture. I used to paint and draw. Photography was just a tool for me to create images.

What were you like as a child?
When I was younger, I used to wake up and say to myself, “What can I make today?” I was always exploring my creativity, which is why I’ve ended up in this industry. I used to love making things. It was never really about a pattern, more about creating something from nothing. I was born in Germany and moved here when I was six. I think I’ve got a bit of German in me when it comes to organization. When I moved here, I lived in a place called Christchurch, which is really close to The New Forest. It’s an old town near the sea. I spent a lot of time digging and exploring and looking after animals. We had a blackbird and a magpie and a squirrel. I was always fascinated with insects, too.

A lot of your images have a British countryside, semi-nostalgic feel.
I guess it’s a form of escapism, a faded memory.

How did you first start working on your own?
I started freelancing when I was working for Shona, then I saved about a year’s worth of money so I could support myself while I was looking for jobs. I was quite strict about keeping to my own style so I didn’t want to be pushed to compromise out of a lack of finances. It’s been a bit of a journey but now I have my own team and I’ve been really lucky with work.

How are you finding being a boss?
That’s probably the hardest bit for me. I’ve got a great relationship with the people I work with but it’s a fine line between friend and boss, making sure the work is done right but also making sure everyone is happy. It’s a small team and the working conditions are very intimate, so we have our ups and downs but we’re great friends. Being a boss is a challenge that I wasn’t expecting.

What was the first job you took on that felt like a defining point in your career?
It was the first job I did for Tim Walker, the Monty Python shoot. I did that and it went extraordinarily well and made me think that maybe I should give it a go as a career. I made all the hats and got the costumes together and set fire to them. It was really fun.

How did you start working with Tim?
Shona suggested that I help him put his book together as I came from a photography background, so I sat with him for a year and helped him with the design and selection of images. So I got to know him quite well. He asked me if I wanted to make these hats for him for a shoot with Monty Python. I’ve worked with him many times since, that was just the beginning. Every job has got bigger and bigger. At the beginning the jobs were quite terrifying, but it’s definitely become easier these days.

What are your favorite materials to work with?
I like making things with masking tape and papier mâché. I am also decorating or working with things people wouldn’t expect, like dry shampoo or coffee. When you have something to create, suddenly everything is a source of texture and color. That spider is made from a lampshade covered in masking tape and papier mâché. Tim wanted some melted faces recently so we mixed up some melted latex and then poured it onto masks. It looked amazing. The challenge is in making things look real.

Which aspects of the job do you find the most challenging?
It’s the uncertainty and the fast pace of it. You might hear nothing and then have five days to put a job together and you worry that you won’t give them what they want. It’s a very emotional job. There’s no such thing as no. You’re up against it all the time.

And which bits do you most enjoy?
Looking back on the projects I’ve done! Also, there are projects that really suit you. It’s great to work things out and try things and get to a point where you are happy with what you have done. It can be a really satisfactory process.

Have you ever wanted to do film?
I did at one point. I wanted to do more moving image, but the good thing about this job is that I can keep it as varied as possible. I feel like film might be quite suffocating as the projects would be much longer and more demanding from project to project. But at the same time, I would quite like to throw myself into something like that and know when my holidays are. When I did the video for Jessie J, I made this tree that looked great from the front but they had a crane that looked at all the angles. I hadn’t realized how it would look from above and different sides, so I think there’s a lot more to consider when you are working with film.

Do you ever feel like you’ve bitten off more than you can chew?
All the time. A lot of jobs are like that, no wait, most jobs are like that! When I first started every job was like that. People think I have a magic wand and I understand it looks like I do, but I don’t. A lot is expected of you.

Have you ever had any catastrophic failures?
I was working with a client who wanted a floor of flowers. We worked out that we’d put the flowers in plastic vials under a false floor. They wanted a thousand big Ecuadorian roses. It was the week that a helicopter hit the Vauxhall Flower Market so we couldn’t go there, and it was also the same week of a snow storm so no planes were flying in. Late on the Sunday, we found someone and managed to drive a van out in the snow to collect them, then spent all night carefully trimming them. We got to the shoot the next day and the client said, “We didn’t want roses.” It felt like the ground had sucked me in. They wanted a natural meadow feel. Luckily, we had a day to set up, so on the morning of the shoot day I went really early to the flower market and got the flowers they wanted. It was a hiccup that we managed to somehow correct – all part of the creative journey.

Thank you for showing us around your studio, Rhea. We look forward to seeing more of your magical landscapes. You can keep up with Rhea’s work on her website here.

Photography: Olivia Frohlich
Interview & Text: Amelia Phillips