Nov 11, 2011

BOOK REVIEW| American Set Design| Miriah Borden

"American Set Design" by Arnold Aronson

      American Set Design by Arnold Aronson is a catalog, or showcase, of the most prolific set designers for American theatre over the last fifty years. To many people, set design would not be considered traditional art. Visual artists utilize tools and techniques that set designers may not use, however designers are in fact trained artists and should be respected as such. Aronson argues this fact and backs it up with solid evidence and examples. He describes the careers of eleven set designers that are more than just your typical set designer. These designers use skills that are typically only taught within the fine art world. All of these designers have made their careers in theatre, but this shows that these designers are not only still influenced by fine art, but how they too influence the fine art world. High art and theatre combine and mingle in a magnificent display of true art in Arnold Aronson’s American Set Design.

        One designer that Aronson describes that affected me the most is Ming Cho Lee. Every step of Lee’s designs revolves around art. He is a classically trained artist. He began his education as an art major, with an emphasis in watercolor, but switched to theatre shortly after. His designs are very sculptural and abstract, rather than literal representations like most set designs are. Part of Lee’s process is researching what is out there. If, for example, he designs a Shakespearian show, he will research the art of that time period and incorporate it into his renderings and sets. A real example of this research method is Lee’s stage design for Moliere’s production of Don Juan. This design uses art noir aesthetics and architecture.

         Aronson explains that Lee starts off with sketches, then from the sketches he develops miniature versions of the sculptures that will actually be used on set. Lee’s designs consist of 3d reliefs. They are made of innovative material like urethane foam, metal, and mylar (all materials that are popular with regular artists). Aronson describes Lee’s designs as painterly, minimalist, and surrealistic.

         A lot of the work that this book shows makes me feel like I am looking at art in a gallery rather than in a theater. Aronson effectively draws the fine line between high art and theatre art in his book. Although Lee’s work is the most influential to me, there are a number of other artists highlighted in Aronson’s book that show how designers are artistic in nature. The book describes the differences in each designer’s work, however the book also focuses on the designer’s artistic skills and knowledge. Every designer displayed has at least one design that could be viewed as an installation or an exhibit piece other than just a stage design.  Aronson effectively shows that designers and artists are one and the same. So many people believe that fine art and theatre art are two different modes of thought; but Aronson eloquently shows how the two worlds often collide to create a beautiful and inspiring work of art that just so happens to tell a story. 

-Miriah Borden


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