What happens when you mix surrealism with modernity? If you’re set and production designer Matt Jackson, it can lead to a point of view. The Canadian-born creative has been bringing his own brand of fantastical, modern surrealism to sets that have graced the pages of Marie Claire, The New York Times, and Vogue, not to mention the latest issue of Barneys’ own print magazine, The Window. We recently caught up with the set designer to learn more about how he got started in the industry, the aesthetic he describes as “grounded surrealism,” and the process he employs to turn his ideas into reality.
Like many young creative types, Jackson headed to college without a clear idea of how to focus his artistic leanings into a career. He happened into a class with a teacher who then became his mentor and helped him to carve a path into set design for theater and opera. Shortly after graduating, he and a director friend from school founded their own experimental theater company in Toronto—a venture that ended up setting him on the road to more editorial work.
“A fashion editor from a magazine who saw work I created for one of our shows approached me about creating a set for a fantasy-inspired story, and I found it to be really exciting,” Jackson shared with The Window. “The pace of it was thrilling—I was coming from theater where it’d be six month from conceptualization to the finished product, and we did the shoot in less than two weeks. It was a fun project to work on, and as soon as it came out, an agency contacted me about doing more work in advertising and editorial projects, so it just grew from there.”
Jackson, too, began to grow into this new field, as he found that it closely mirrored the work that he was already used to. He describes the processes of designing sets for both theater and photo shoots as an ultimately collaborative process, whether you’re working with a director or a photographer. That interplay of ideas is dependent upon a shared aesthetic and visual vocabulary, and both require creating an environment for the subjects to inhabit. “There are a lot of parallels, so in a way it felt like more of an extension of what I’d done than a break from it.”
Fast forward past Jackson’s 2011 move to New York and up to the present day, where Jackson recently worked on several projects here at Barneys: our newly launched Balenciaga lookbook and two still life shoots for our print magazine, The Window. For the latter, Jackson created environments to house spring’s freshest accessories for both men and women and worked with photographer Chris Rhodes. The results of their collaboration are a study of colors and textures that Jackson hopes leaves viewers just slightly confused. “It became about creating tiny little moments surrounding the product. Even though it’s still life, we wanted to really create worlds—these interiors where you wonder if it’s a set or not. All of them are a bit abstract in that way.”
The emphasis on creating a distinct world to best showcase the product at hand extends beyond Jackson’s still life work and into his on-model shoots, even though the processes for the two are very different. “It’s nice to have the energy of a shoot with a model and the whole crew,” he says. “Working with models is more dynamic and loose.”
Being adaptive and flexible on set sometimes produces the best work, as happened when Jackson was working on our Balenciaga lookbook. Jackson worked with Barneys’ VP/Digital Creative Director, Chris Martinez, who set the tone of the shoot by providing a concept surrounding artist Robert Smithson’s sculptural piece, “Map of Broken Glass.” Once on set, the team began to notice the magic that resulted when the pale teal shade of the glass played off a square of pastel pink carpet that Jackson had brought along from his studio, as well as how both worked to make the collection pop. “That’s the best part of this type of project—you can research and plan, plan, plan, but sometimes something comes up at the shoot that’s just meant to be,” he says. “I was glad that it came to the place it did—the carpet, the pastel colors, the way the models interacted with it—it was really our own thing. The fun comes from collaboration, taking your references, interpreting them, and where you go with it to make something that’s new and hasn’t been done before.”