Have you ever heard someone’s name again and again before you’ve ever even met her?
That’s how it was for me with prop stylist, Dani Fisher. People kept assuming I knew her and would go on about how great she was to work with, what a fabulous eye she has, and her fabulous prop collection. It wasn’t until this summer when we were shooting cookbooks down the hall from each other that my friend, food stylist, Lillian Kang, made a proper introduction. Then, not even a month later, we ended up working on the same shoot. Not only are we both California girls and both went east for school, but we’ve also both worked at magazines and are now forging our own freelance paths. Dani was a shoo-in for this month’s TasteMakers interview because I wanted her to give us some tips for tableware shopping and table setting during this, the height of the entertaining season.
Be sure to check back tomorrow when Dani will share her tabletop gift ideas.
Q: Tell us about your job as a prop stylist. How did you end up on this path?
A: My job as a prop stylist is to create environments for photographs. I call it “micro-set design,” since I create the set for the product or dish that is being featured–sometimes the sets are very tiny for still life objects, sometimes they are larger for portraits, entertaining or interiors stories. I think people don’t realize that when they are looking at the photography in a magazine story or a cookbook, those images have been created in a studio or a generic location–so the creative team is actually constructing the sense of place the viewer sees.
My prop styling career has been a very happy accident. After college, I became and Editorial Assistant at the then new magazine Cookie. I was the Editor-In-Chief’s Assistant, but because we were a small start-up staff and I was, let’s call it eager, I started to write FOB copy and style some small food stories. From there I was scooped up by Food & Wine magazine, where I took the job as Assistant Style Editor–I was the only style editor on staff–so I quickly learned how to style much larger spreads and market edit so F&W always featured the best new design products. I was deeply entrenched in the home decor market and food photography and quickly learned a ton. Eventually I struck out on my own and moved to Los Angeles.
Q: How would you describe your style?
A: I am a minimalist. I love natural material and shapes and tones. I love simple designs that showcase beautiful material. I don’t like embellishment that feels like embellishment–although filigree and complex patterns are beautiful.
Actually, this juxtaposition is something I strive for in my styling. Minimal and modern mostly, but accented with a complex natural form or an ornate antique accent. I think that tension is quite beautiful. Not unlike the new Apple Store that just opened in Grand Central station in NYC–There is something incredible about the sleek design of an iPad in the setting of regal turn-of-the-century architecture.
Q: How did you hone your “eye” for prop styling?
A: Travel, studying art, watching Annie Hall a thousand times, surrounding myself with creative peers, going to college in Manhattan, spending too much time eating in restaurants and thinking about their designs.
Q: How do you cultivate your creativity? What are your sources of inspiration?
A: I take a lot of walks. My sources are everywhere and always changing–you never know what little detail of a movie, a painting, an outfit, a street corner, a vista might inspire the creative direction for your next project. The real trick is to always have your eyes open. It sounds simpler than it is; in Los Angeles, with so much time spent in the car, it’s easy to stop noticing things.
Q: Who is your mentor? And/Or who do you look up to in your field?
A: There are many photographers, stylists, designers and artists that I work with and look up to.
Q: What are your favorite tabletop brands?
For dinnerware: Heath, Dibbern, Mud Australia, Herring Berlin, Pieter Stockmans
For linens: libeco, Matteo (The very linens I have for sale on OpenSky today)
For flatware: Robert Welch, Robbe + Berking, DAVID MELLOR, Cutipol
For glasses: CB2, Riedel, Morrocan Tea cups, Ittala, esque
Q: How do you go about deciding on the props you’ll use for a given shoot?
A: The creative team will meet with the client (the magazine, publisher, author…all the salient parties) and we will discuss the art direction for the project. We may talk about other projects that we like and think are relevant, the story behind the recipes in the case of cookbooks, or the target audience for ads. Sometimes the client or creative director will make a mood board.
Once the creative direction is established I spend some time with the images, sometimes I will make my own inspiration board with more specific style references and then I and my assistants start pulling! If I am pulling from my collection, I will set up a table in my studio and play with putting different pieces and materials together, if I am in a shop or a prop house I carve out a little space for myself to go through the same process. Pieces can individually be beautiful, but it’s important that everything works together–both visually and narratively. Each image must tell a very beautiful story.
Q: What is the weirdest prop you’ve ever used in a shoot?
A: It was a prop combo: A goldfish in a blender…it was for an ad. I should not say any more.
Q: Do you have a dream job or shoot you’d like to work on or create?
A: I’d love to style some magical picnics in incredible SoCal geography–Joshua Tree, Malibu, Angeles National Forest. Maybe I just want to throw a crazy party in one of these settings.
Q: What are the main principles or rules you keep in mind when coming up with a tablescape?
A: Nothing should look forced. Even the most complex image should feel easy, almost simple. It’s sort of like the perfect outfit–if it looks like your trying, you’ve done something wrong. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t push stylistically, it just means it shouldn’t look like you’re pushing. Putting a tarnished silver charger under a sleek modern plate with a carved crystal goblet is not an obvious combination, but in the image, it should feel like a no brainer. If it doesn’t, it doesn’t work.
It’s also important to add some tension in the vignette to keep it interesting. The viewer’s eye should be able to move around the set easily, not get stuck anywhere. Always mix enough styles to keep the viewer intrigued, but not so many that they can’t pull out any kinds of themes. But really, there are no rules, you just keep playing around and trying different things until the image feels right. The real magic comes from knowing when to stop.
Q: Do you have any tips for hunting down amazing tabletop items?
A: Yes, if you see a sign for a garage sale, stop! Don’t be limited by trying to make sure everything matches exactly, you’ll miss great pieces that way. Similarly, don’t be scared of tarnished antiques–just buy polish. Ebay and Replacements.com have great options. Heath sells seconds at their stores. Buy raw linen from a fabric store and have it sewn into table linens. Don’t be afraid to mix expensive porcelain with ikea or cb2 glasses.
Q: Do you have any tips for storing delicate tableware so it doesn’t break?
A: I’m amazingly clumsy and indelicate with my props. It’s a miracle things don’t break more than they do.
TasteMakers is a monthly interview series with people I’ve met who have inspired me and a chance for them to share some of their wisdom.