A day in the life of a stylist, and yes, its a long one….

 

floral-bedroom

I’m getting caught up on work that was published while i was out of town.  It’s hard to keep track of what comes out when because we shoot everything months in advance and nobody is exactly paid to just alert me of stuff I should know about.  So i missed some.  These shots were from the Target Ad campaign for the new Liberty line that I shot with Mark Lund (or I should say Mark Lund shot with me, remember this post?)

food-styling-purple-and-white-polka-dots

When people ask me what I do, there is always a bit of confusion. Prop styling is more abstract that interior design, or set decorating.  So i’m gonna break’it down for you, using these photos as an example, step by step and see if it clears anything up.

 

**Warning, warning.  This could possibly be super boring and probably/definetely self-important.  I know my job is not rocket surgery, nor is it helping any of the problems in the world, but it’s still my job, i like it and it is important to me.  So if I sound like the earth might implode if I accidentally bring to the shoot a turquoise throw pillow instead of a the teal one that the client requested, then that’s because it actually is important to my job.  BUT, i’m completely and utterly aware of the frivolity of it all.  No delusions here.   Oh and it also seems like I really like to hear myself talk, which unfortunately i suppose I do or I wouldn’t have a blog, but i’m aware of it and i’m not proud of it.  But its my blog, and someday little Emily jr is going to wonder what mommy did for work (why am i talking in the past tense) and this way I can direct her to April 29th, 2010, where she’ll learn the ins and outs of prop styling.

Ok. This is how it all works. Target hires a photographer (Mark Lund in this case) to shoot this ad campaign.  Mark recommends me (we had worked together before) and they both look at my portfolio, check my schedule and book me.  This happens about 2 weeks before the shoot date. (this is why i never ever can know my schedule, unlike film/tv i often get booked only a week in advance) A week later, target (or their ad agency PMH) gives me pictures of the product, a shot list and a rough drawing of the shots they are looking for.   It’ll have major things drawn in, like a bed, window, side table, girl, etc.  but it’s rough, and not completely reliable at this point, decisions are still being made by the big-wigs.

After i’m given the product photos, drawings and shot list, then the producer will sent pics of the location.  Often we shoot at either an already beautiful house with pretty light, or in a photo studio where everything has to be built. In this case it was a bit of both – 2 days at studio, 2 days at location.  Once you know the location, then you have a better idea of what to bring/expect  – what the floors/walls look like, the window treatments, etc, etc.

Then I start prepping.  I get the set builders booked, I sourc the wallpaper (not shown, still need to find that shot), and start researching furniture online -all the major stuff that will keep me up at night if i don’t get nailed down.  With magazines you have a lot of freedom with where to shop, but ad jobs are tricky.  I had to use only target products but their furniture (which is kinda great, bt-dubs) has a 2 week lead time, and I get no special treatment, its simply just unavailable to me or any other consumer that quickly. So my job is to find furniture that is identical to targets and it has to be available in two days.  This is kinda hard and means I rent from a prop house, or perhaps that big blue store that has no lead time.

After the major pieces are secured -ish, I started buying all the little stuff, from Target, and every Target has slightly different stuff, so I went to four of them.  Now I don’t just buy six glasses (for the brunch shot for instance), I buy 18.  It’s a whole different kind of shopping.  I had to buy at least three different glassware options (six of each, we might want to use juice and wine, or water and wine or goblets and rocks, etc etc), flatware options (different patterns, finishes, ets), vases (shapes, heights), etc. And these aren’t just random, you have to look at all of them together and make sure that the glassware will work with the flatware/napkins/placemats no matter what combination the client wants. Its so much stuff to keep track of it’s kinda ridiculous.    Any given shoot, i shop for days and nights, making sure I have 1. my favorite amazing risky things that will impress everyone, and 2. the safe backup options – you never know how its gonna play out, and if you bring a bunch of safe boring things everyone is uninspired, but if you only bring a bunch of weird, amazing things it might be ‘too cool’ for the brand.  So the right amount of each, in the right colors, sizes, finishes, etc, etc.  etc. etc.  I spend all day long deciding between which throw pillow is perfect for me, for the client, for the shot, angle, etc….  This is why when Brian asks me at the end of the day what i want for dinner, i literally sometimes won’t be able to make the decision because my brain is done deciding.

Day of shoot: We show up, 7am, with a moving truck of merchandise sent from the client (days prior, we open it make sure that nothing is broken/missing, inventory it all, look at it in person, and then yep, you guessed it REPACK it all). And there is also the moving truck of props that i’ve shopped for the last 4-5 days.  The guys unload both while the photographer, art director and I walk through the location and decide where all the shots should take place.  We take pictures of all the furniture in its original place and then, oh you know, remove all of it and bring in all of ours.

What did I bring, you ask?  besides all the the product that is sent, it’s this little old thing called OPTIONS.
The amount of options that i bring (and this is standard, if you know what you are doing) is kind of insane and never ever ceases to amaze first timers.  I’m serious. It will blow your mind.  For each piece of furniture that you see here, I bought and brought at least 2 other options for it to set (and some smaller pieces there were 4 options).  So the brunch shot above? I brought two different dining table options, with 12 different chairs (two sets of six, but we only assembled 1 of each and then decided).  In the shot we only saw 1 chair in the foreground and an apparent chair that the girl is kneeling on, but you never know if you are going to see three or four chairs, so you have to be prepared.  Also there is were 3 rug options and a chandelier, none made it in the shot because of the angle.  I even had a bunch of vintage botanicals framed to go above the bed, flowering trees to put outside the window and four different bedroom rug options, none of which we see.  The side tables, cubes at the end of the bed, sheets, pillows, drapery, books, etc all had many options.

Is this wasteful? in every way possible, EXCEPT its totally necessary. Everything changes once you get on set and slight variables like the angle, space constraints, lighting, wardrobe and clients whim, effect everything. For example, if the client loves the natural wood table (even though they may have asked for a linen tablecloth originally), then we clearly can’t use the stained wood chairs that I brought because it would be too much wood.  But, not to worry because just in case this would happen I have a set of backup upholstered, white chairs.  And yes, ideally major pieces would be approved by the client beforehand, but it rarely happens, people are busy and the reason they hire a stylist is because they trust that they’ll bring good options, (when it is low-budg, expensive items are pre-approved, these kind of options are a high budget luxury).  But really the main reason that stylists bring options is because everybody loves ‘em, the more you have the more perfect the picture.  Everyone responds to things differently and i have a lot of people to please.  The photographer might love the water goblets, but the art director might think they are a bit too green.  The photo editor might love the chandelier, but the client thinks that it doesn’t work with their brand.  There are a lot of ‘clients’ to please, I have no idea who will hire me next (the photographer, the ad agency or the client client, Target), and I have to please everyone.  Most importantly, when a gazillion dollars are being spent on one photo that will run world-wide, and many a jobs are on the line (the target client, the ad agency, the art buyer, art director, photographer and myself), you bring options.  Options are your best friend, and your assistant worst enemy.

So we set up the first shot, while prepping for the second (steaming, ironing, putting together furniture) and once its kind of set up the photographer plays with the best angles, and this could change the entire setup, bt-dubs.  We might think we are shooting the table straight on, and then realize you can’t see the product well enough and we need to come at it from above, so I have to completely rearrange everything.  Once an angle is decided on, you obsess over very freaking detail, the angle of each fork, switching the patterns of the plates, the composition and position of the flower arrangement, (yes, made by muah) all while making sure there is room for type.  I play with all different options of everything, going back and forth between the computer screen and the set – you can’t just look at the set, everything is different through the camera lens. I tweak and tweak and tweak and tweak. I make sure that there aren’t any major wrinkles in the bed for instance, but enough small ones that it looks natural and effortless, not stiff.  The biggest challenge, and why people hire stylists instead of designers, is that we have to sell the product while more importantly,  selling the lifestyle – and finding that right combination is harder than it looks.  Target has a great lifestyle brand,  that’s why people, even super cool people, love target as opposed to, say, Bed Bath and Beyond.  They create and sell a lifestyle that people want.  Consumers have to look at the photo and want to be in that bed or at that brunch table. And just a bunch of product perfectly positioned on the table or on a bed would not do that.  My job is create an environment surrounding the product that is inviting, warm, relaxed, kinda hip, and natural, while still letting the product be the main focus of attention.

It was a four day shoot, 2 in the studio doing all the stuff on the left side of the page, and 2 in the pretty house (there were a bunch more shots, but i haven’t seen them yet).  At the end of the second day we have to load out.  This is not my favorite part.  The target product had to be divided up between what was shot (so it can go to the color correction location) and what was not shot, which goes to the corporate office.  Every box has to be labeled with its contents, as well as fed ex labels to be overnighted often that night.  god my brain hurts thinking about it. Then everything that was purchased has to find its price tag again (this is a super super super fun game at the end of a 14 hour day) and boxed/bagged according to receipt – ideally.  There was 5-6 huge long receipts all from different targets, and yes we stand in the customer service line like everyone else with like 10 carts of merch. Its pretty awesome. I go quickly from being their favorite customer that spent $10,000, to their least favorite that is returning $8,000 worth of probably scratched up products.   So just to be clear:  there is Target product, target merch (stuff i bought), rented props, other purchased pieces from various other stores that need to be either returned or given away, and a lot of my own personal props/tools/etc/.  The amount of stuff to keep track of will blow your mind – truckloads and truckloads of stuff.  I assisted for four years and this is one of your main responsibilities as an assistant.  I paid my dues, so now i have good assistants that just know to keep track of everything from the beginning ’til the job is wrapped.   Oh, and we need to be out of the location at 6:30 with the house put back as if we were never there.   So we were, and will always be, scrambling to box/bag everything appropriately, load the trucks, put all the furniture back in the house EXACTLY how it was before, clean up and get out of there or else we get charged major major major overtime use fees.  We are booked the next day to return everything and fix all our previous mistakes, which hopefully there aren’t a ton of.

Still here??? nice job. you must be a family member.

So what is my favorite part?  The shopping. For sure. Whether it’s wallpaper, flea markets, fabrics, food props, furniture, flowers, rugs, artwork, etc, i’ll never get sick of it.  truly. it’s a bit creepy.  Oh, and the flower arranging – one of my favorite parts, always different, always pretty, always makes me happy. (You only see one arrangement on the brunch table and a peek of a flower on the nightstand, but there was $300 worth of flowers there, which I had bought two days prior to shooting, at 6:30 in the morning at the flower market so they have time to open).  I love that every single job is sooooo different. I never ever get bored.  But, I guess the final product is the best part – when you look at the set, or the computer screen, and say to yourself, ‘yep i’d like to be there’, or, ‘i’d totally buy that, now’.

And yes, there are a lot of ‘worst parts’ but i’m not going to go into them (namely schlepping, packing, fronting thousand of dollars and then waiting three months to get paid, etc).  BUT, no need to be negative this early on a thursday.

woah. it’s 12:30.  is this really all i’ve done since 7am???

Less blogging, more painting of the dining room, which, yes, will be teal by the end of the day.

  1. thanks for the post. I read the whole thing and I'm pretty sure we're not even related :) Prop styling seems like such a fun job. How did you get started? The shoot looks great too… I'd totally buy that.

  2. Ha! I read the whole thing too. What an awesome gig! It looks great!

  3. read the whole thing.. excellent post.
    I second Jordan's question. :)

  4. Sarah

    I would love to hear how you got started as well! Great post. Loved hearing about all the behind the scenes work that goes into an ad that looks so effortless and fun!

  5. Very interesting job story. I've always been interested in the details of a stylists job and didn't know that this was all that goes into the job. I applaud you for the obvious hard work that it is and your sets in the mags look great.

  6. I never realized all of the dedicated behind the scenes work that goes into prop styling. I thought you just had to make things look good. ;)

  7. Holy Cow! That is crazy. I seriously thought you just arranged the items on the table. That would be enough but everything else in the room? I had no idea. Thanks for the telling us about your job, it's very interesting.

  8. Wowee- fascinating. Thanks for letting us in on the inside scene.

  9. Geez, thanks guys. I'm always a huge fan of day in the life stuff, i just wasn't sure mine was going to be a snore. You make a girl feel pretty special. xo

  10. Super fun post,Em. I have said it before, but it is welling up inside me so it will come out again…I could NEVER do your job! I would go completely insane and spend every waking moment stressing out about each job. I was a bit sympathy-stressed just reading what you had to go through! However, I am so impressed by your talent. You are amazing and I hope you will help me with my house! I will point at one of your pictures, hand you a bunch of money and you will make it look like that! Love you!

  11. I loved this post!! I do art direction ocassionally (technically I'm a designer) and this was super helpful, informative, and fun! I love hearing from people who love their work. Even the sucky parts :)

  12. I love this post. Our shoots aren't as high budget or anywhere as detailed as your shoots, but it is a lot of stressful work. The images are gorgeous and for whats its worth, I do want to be that girl sitting on that bedspread ; )

  13. Actually I loved reading this post. So informative and information that I think I can use as a designer and Retailer to better serve my clients. Thanks

  14. I love this post. Your job sounds so interesting. How did you get started?

  15. Eva

    Emily,
    This is Eva from back in the "Bay." So great to find your blog thanks to Mary :) WOW!!!! What you do is my dream job. I am so totally impressed and inspired. I am currently working as a personal stylist but would so much rather be a photo and product stylist. I will be watching for you in your upcoming gig-congratulations by the way! If you ever need another assistant, I would come running your way. So glad to see you doing something you love. You are a doll!

  16. I agree, very interesting! I'm an interior designer, but this sounds like fun, and I definitely see the difference between designers and prop stylists. Thanks for including all the detailed info!

  17. Kelly

    Add mine to the numerous requests to know how you got started in the business! I loved reading all the detail about what you do now, and would enjoy hearing how you got there.

  18. I wouldn't last an hour with your job. I hate shopping, hate the details of life. Now I know why Target seems so sanitary and pristeen with beautiful people peering at you from all the posters. It's a contrived look that someone works like a dog to produce!

  19. Yeah, I don't care what you call yourself. You can prop style my house whenever you're in the Bay Area….I recommend the Alameda Flea market.

    Thanks for the insight. I don't feel so bad about my inability to do what you do….its a lot of frickin work!

  20. just found your blog + working my way through the archives ;)

    i'm such a ocd, over organized freak that when i was about half way through your post, even before you started talking about the pack-up process, i was like, "wow, i would kill as an assistant for that." like, who gets excited about that part of it all?!

    i used to work in the background of fashion shoots, so i never underestimated the amount of detail + time + people involved, but it was cool to hear you break it down.

  21. Wow! I just happened upon your blog when I googled “how to become a stylist..” I love your detailed info. It really helps paint a realistic perspective. Dang! all the stuff you have to bring and then return…I had no idea! I’ll definitely be back and you do good work…I remember those Target ads and it’s already 2014.

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  23. PPWvir I am so grateful for your blog article.Really looking forward to read more. Keep writing.

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  27. Chel

    I love this blog post, so informative. I too googled “how to become a prop stylist” and this showed up. Looking forward to reading it tonight after work. Please keep writing about your insights.

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  29. Terrific post however I was wondering if you could write a litte more on this topic?
    I’d be very thankful if you could elaborate a little bit more.

    Bless you!

  30. Brilliant and so honest! Having been an ad agency ‘client’ when i lived in London to now being a stylist myself (i style weddings and events) this really made me chuckle as i totally get where you’re coming from. Love your work and honesty x

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