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Lauren Machen | Set + Production Designer

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Lauren Machen is a Set/Production Designer and Artist. She has designed sets for performances and album covers for St. Vincent and Rihanna. Her editorial and advertising clients include POP, Vogue, Stella McCartney, Nike, and Kate Spade among many others. Her studio is called Machen Machen which provides services in spatial design, objects and experiences. Lauren is also a Reiki practitioner and Yoga teacher. This year she founded SI Holistic (pronounced ‘sigh’), a practice merging design and wellness. Her goal is to help people cultivate safe space within themselves and in their surroundings.


MJ: How would you describe what you do to someone not in the industry?

LM: I create spaces around a subject to help tell a story, communicate a feeling or vibe. I set the tone.

A Collection of Lauren's Work

MJ: Tell us how you got your start.

LM: I started as an intern, then became an assistant to a wardrobe stylist then learned about set design and knew that was home for me. I started from scratch once again through assisting one designer for quite some time and then eventually took on projects of my own. There were many fumbles and dry spells. It looks so much easier and smoother than it actually was haha.

MJ: What inspires you and your creative process?

LM: If it's a commissioned project usually there is an initial deck of images. I scan through them and pull out the ones that speak most to me and use elements of those as a starting point for a design. If it's a project of my own like for an art exhibition or dance performance I take inspiration from all sources ---nature, architecture, movement, literature, materials and the way they feel, intuitive feelings, music, emotions, taste, films I’ve watched. Dreams and ideas that have popped in my head that I’ve been lucky enough to jot down before they escape me.

Lauren's House of Peroni Installation

MJ: You have so many amazing projects, can you tell us about one project that you're especially proud of and why?

LM: I'm especially proud of my House of Peroni Installation. I primarily work in the photo and film industry I am so accustomed to working with a client who ultimately makes all the decisions of how things look, but House of Peroni was a total joy! I was able to concept and create something that fully came from me. There were no limitations so I was able to fully express myself as an artist.

MJ: As a woman of color in the industry, why is Black representation and inclusion within the art department important?

LM: There recently have been some databases put together with BIPOC talent. The Set design category is so sad! It’s like me and 4 or 5 other people across a whole entire industry. It’s lonely out here ! I am positive that there are many more talented artists out there. When I came into the industry it was pretty white male dominated [and still is] I immediately was ‘like where are all the Black designers?’ It’s hard to pinpoint the exact reason why this is. I believe it to be a combination of many variables.

First, I think it’s a reflection of opportunity. A lot of set designers I met went to art school or studied design at prestigious places which are usually really expensive and are hard to get into especially as BIPOC. There’s also the idea of design and art as not being practical career paths, so even if you have talent perhaps whomever was raising you strongly advised against it. Design in general has always been very white focused so it can feel unwelcoming. The curators and critics all come from the White gaze so as BIPOC we quickly learn and feel that these spaces just aren't for us .

Being a set designer in this industry is really hard. I’m not going to lie ! The job itself takes developed skills in time management, spacial awareness, planning, pre-visualization, organizational and communication skills. And you either have to be able to carry heavy stuff and/or hire people who want to do it with you. It’s a hard job to just fall into it and ‘fake it till you make it’ as a lot of producers, directors and photographers come to you for the answers to problems they cannot solve.

Often I find myself in more of a creative director role as well-- establishing the look and feel of a project. On top of the demands of the job, there still exists in some spaces an old school way of working. It’s hierarchical. The photographers and stylists are at the top and everyone else is below that, especially in fashion. There have been so many times where I have been disrespected on set, my work has been uncredited, and my abilities questioned. I've been mistaken for someone else, asked to bring talent food, looked through, or just thought of as a couch mover. This has happened to all my set designer friends to some degree but as a Black woman the weight is far heavier.

I love designing spaces, which is why I’m still here. The world I create around a subject is just as important as the subject itself. It tells a story. The industry needs more Black designers doing this work. If there were more Black creatives and designers involved it would help to push the industry forward and also give us a chance to tell our stories. The images we create have a profound effect on how culture is shaped-- a lot of us do not realize how greatly influenced we are by these very same images we create.

Lauren's Set Design for Vanity Fair

MJ: How can a non-person of color in your industry practice true allyship?

LM: Putting BIPOC’s behind the lens and in high ranking creative positions to have an inclusive and equitable ecosystem. This will ensure that these stories are being told properly and not from the White gaze. This is the work that needs to be done within the corporations, the creative agencies and the producers.

MJ: If you had to give one piece of advice to a young Black creative aspiring to follow in your footsteps, what would it be?

LM: Get to know the prop houses and fabrication shops in your area. I always tell folks who are interested to just start by checking these out. Most are so willing to walk you through their facilities as a first timer if you call ahead and it’s free education! It’s one of the first things I did as I was starting out. It makes you a lot more efficient at your job to know exactly where to source things from.

I know you asked for one piece, but I’m going to give two! Email all your favorite designers and let them know you’re interested in interning or assisting. Keep the email really short, to the point, and be persistent. If you don’t hear from someone after a few weeks, write a followup email. Often emails get buried because this industry is so fast paced. It’s worth it to keep trying. I love mentoring and providing opportunities whenever I can, so if I’m one of your faves, send me an email.

Lauren Machen is based in Los Angeles and represented by Lalaland Artists.


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