Designer Rachel Thomas and photographer Dan Tobin Smith have been working together for nearly a decade, creating breathtakingly detailed, dreamlike designscapes, reminiscent of ancient ruins. They have undertaken a large number of commercial and editorial commissions, including one for AnOther's fourteenth issue; but despite this long period of collaboration, the pair had yet to exhibit their work until last week, which marked the opening of their first anticipated exhibition Imaginary View at Somerset House.
Visitors to the show have the unique opportunity to learn more about the duo's skilled, non-computerised practice which involves Thomas' construction of vast polystyrene stage sets that are then shot by Tobin Smith on Polaroids and 5x4 black and white film. Examples of the intricate models stand alongside the final photographs, adding to the "sense of intrigue around reality, illusion and scale in the images". Here, we talk to Thomas about her and Tobin Smith's varied influences, from de Chirico to Disney, and her dream project for the future...
How did you and Dan Tobin Smith first come up with the idea of creating and capturing these designscapes?
It came out of other projects we had shot. We had worked with polystyrene for a project for a Big Active book some years ago and it had really taken the light so beautifully. Dan shot black and white polaroids and although the final imagery was colour, there was something about the polaroids that we both really loved. Dan wanted to do something on a really large scale and was looking at a lot of Pirenesi and started talking to me about ruins. I then started looking at modern interpretations of this idea, I was obsessed with the post modern architecture of SITE, Disney fantasy settings, Buzby Berkely, Sotsass ceramics, Art Deco motifs in general, Giorgio de Chirico's paintings, arabic temples and on and on...
What or who most inspires your practice?
I like a challenge and I enjoy working. Being part of a team and making something happen gives me a sense of satisfaction. I have been involved in image making from a young age and have taken on many roles including that of print designer, window display designer, pop promo director, photographer, art director and set designer, and I have absorbed a lot of imagery and ideas along the way.
"I hope the images inspire a feeling of familiarity and newness at the same time"
How important is the concept of illusion in your work?
It's pretty central, in that I'm not creating realistic places or objects. Although there is a contradiction there, as the idea of the objects/set being shot as a real thing is very important – for example, it's been made and exists as a real object but what it is depicting is almost always something fantastical rather than mundane.
What do you hope people get from the final images?
A feeling of familiarity and newness at the same time.
What is your dream project?
I'd like to design for the theatre.
What is the best creative advice you've been given?
There is a really great essay by Saul Bass, where he basically demystifies the creative process, which I took great comfort in when I first read it years ago. It's in a book called A Smile In The Mind.
Do you have a motto for life?
Ad astra per aspera ("through hardships to the stars").
Imaginary View is on display at Somerset House until February 9.
Text by Daisy Woodward