How to be a Great, Not Just Good, Set Decorator

I don’t have the author of the following piece, nor could I locate the original source. In fact, it doesn’t seem to appear anywhere on the internet. So if anyone knows the originator of the following essay, I would love to hear about it. And for the rest of you, it’s too entertaining not to share.

How to be a Great, Not Just Good, Set Decorator

Set decorator is a euphemism for set dresser. Often effeminate stagehands, dressers are really outside prop men, and all they do for a living is shop. Occasionally, a few great set decorators will go down in the anals of this business, but most set decorators just shop and steal.

Stealing is required in set decorating, and if you aspire to this vocation you must learn several forms of stealing. The most common forms of stealing are lying, kickbacks and false billing. Lying is simple; put in for cabs and, in reality, walk everywhere you go. Bill six hours for looking for just-the-right wicker basket, when you really took five minutes to order it blind by telephone. Kickbacks are almost automatic; do your shopping at the most over-priced prop house in your area, and make sure you get yours regularly. For false billing, either get your own forms and bills, or walk into a store and say, “See that $25 item? I’ll give you 50 bucks for it if you’ll give me a receipt for $100.”

Let us say you follow my advice so far, and you land yourself a job as an outside prop man. So big deal, you are shopping, stealing and swishing—that does not make you a great; no one is looking up to you. You have got to be better.

To be a great, not just good, set decorator you must develop your sources. See if you can go an entire year without buying or renting a single item from anyone you did not set up in business. Develop companies of your relatives and friends. Buy an item on Monday, use it on a one-time-only basis on a show on Tuesday, and return it for full credit early Wednesday. (If anyone asks where it went, say the star’s lover asked for it.)

Now start using terms like rococo, art deco and chiaroscuro. Use the word “period” constantly. “It just isn’t the right period. I won’t do it, period. I have my period.” As soon as anybody threatens your territory shout at him, saying he wouldn’t know the difference between Corinthian and Doric. Get close to the star of the show and use your best baloney. Tell her she would look great against an Etruscan escutcheon, and you will be the envy of the entire studio.

2 thoughts on “How to be a Great, Not Just Good, Set Decorator”

  1. Hey, Eric-

    First off, congratulations on the book.

    Secondly, I may be able to help in tracking down the source for the Great Set Decorator article. I used to hand this out to my classes when I was at U of I, and somewhere in my teaching packet I believe I may have the original xerox copy. Haven’t seen it in almost 20 years, but it was great to be reunited and I’ll try to hunt it down.



  2. Hi Jim,
    Thanks a lot! I figured if anyone would know where this came from, it would be you. I actually found this in what was Seán’s old office at the Public, so it could have conceivably come from one of your teaching packets.

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