I used to build sets in my living room to post on Tumblr. Now I do it for some of the music industry's biggest names, like 21 Savage and Janelle Monáe.

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I used to build sets in my living room to post on Tumblr. Now I do it for some of the music industry's biggest names, like 21 Savage and Janelle Monáe.
Marina Skye Williams (Set by Skye) poses in her studio.Set by Skye and Cam Kirk

  • Marina Skye started pursuing set design after the death of her brother.
  • Her work with 21 Savage's interactive album listening party won her a Clio award.

This is an as-told-to essay based on a conversation with Marina Skye, a set designer who works within the music industry. The essay has been edited for length and clarity.

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I have always been creative, and I grew up in a family that gave me the space to be comfortable and free to be creative.

After I graduated college, I found a way to channel that creative energy. I always say that my creativity and my business grew from tragedy. My brother was shot and killed at his college. It was a wake-up call for me.

People always say that life's too short, but when he passed away, it became important to me to figure out what I really wanted to do. Was I doing that at that given moment? And if not, how would I start working on something that would make me happy?

I quit my job working at Ikea and started freelancing and working off my savings for a year and a half. I treated that year and a half as my "internship." I did all my creative work for free, and I did whatever I could — photoshoots and video shoots.

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My best friend is a really amazing photographer, and so he and I would build concepts and sets in my living room, in my bathroom, in my kitchen, wherever I could find the space. I would go to thrift stores, find different props, and create makeshift sets in our living spaces.

We would go viral on Tumblr all the time for the random, abstract concepts we would come up with. That was the beginning of this kind of buzz.

From nightclubs to Wonderlands

I started working with this company that would throw parties at Atlanta clubs.

They would come up with a theme for the party, and everything would be within that theme, including the drinks, the food, the music, and the attendees. I would build the sets and we would invite all of Atlanta's hottest photographers to come and shoot models and offer free photo shoots. That was the first thing that I got paid for.

Through that job, I got an opportunity to do interior design for a nightclub that was opening in Atlanta. This nightclub was going to be very different than what Atlanta had seen in the past. It was going to be themed, like "Willy Wonka" meets "Alice in Wonderland."

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That project caught the attention of a lot of creatives in Atlanta because it was so new for the scene. It also caught the attention of T.I. when he was thinking about making the Trap Music Museum.

I used to build sets in my living room to post on Tumblr. Now I do it for some of the music industry's biggest names, like 21 Savage and Janelle Monáe.
The first floor of Club Daydream in Atlanta, one of Skye's first big jobs.Photo courtesy of Set by Skye

Motel 21

By October 2018, the Trap Music Museum was open, and 21 Savage's manager at the time was walking through. She said, "Hey, this is amazing. This is what we want for Savage's album release party."

His team came to me with the concept, and it was my responsibility to flesh out all the details and make it a reality. The album was "I Am > I Was," and they wanted to rent out a hotel in Atlanta and wanted each room to represent a song off the album.

My responsibility was to listen to the album over and over again and figure out what the visuals would be. I would listen to a song on repeat and take notes: Does this make me feel angry? Does it make me feel loved? Those feelings translated to colors, and then the colors translated to a set.

Winning a Clio award for my work with 21 Savage was so surreal because up until that point, getting an experience award or an advertising award was this pie-in-the-sky dream.

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It was humbling, it was inspiring, and it was a blessing. It almost put the battery in my back and made me realize that this is something that, though it's niche, it's necessary.

I used to build sets in my living room to post on Tumblr. Now I do it for some of the music industry's biggest names, like 21 Savage and Janelle Monáe.
A view of 21 Savage's Motel 21 during "I Am > I Was" Private Album Listening SessionParas Griffin/Getty Images
Melding creative visions

When I start working with a client, my favorite thing to ask is, how do you want the person to feel?

If it's an event, how do you want the participant to feel in the middle of this festival? If it's a stage design, how do you want them to be feeling looking at this stage? If it's for a music video, once the credits roll, how do you want the viewer to have felt? What do you want the takeaway to be?

I think because I have pretty vast interests, I can pull those emotions from past experiences and figure out what that would look like, and what set design elements will jog those parts of memory so that it feels nostalgic.

I used to build sets in my living room to post on Tumblr. Now I do it for some of the music industry's biggest names, like 21 Savage and Janelle Monáe.
Janelle Monáe performs on stage at Essence Festival of Culture on a set designed by Skye.Marcus Ingram/Getty Images for ESSENCE

Every project is very different than the last, but I think what's so exciting is the fact that we're constantly stretching the bounds of our imagination and our capabilities.

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I designed the stage for Janelle Monáe for the Essence Festival this past year. I think we had four or five days to get a set built. At the time I got the opportunity, I was in Los Angeles working on another project for BET. My team was in Atlanta building the sets, and Essence Fest is in New Orleans.

I've been a bit busy with the workload, but I'm in this space now where I'm planning for this next step in my business, and I'm very excited to put myself out there again.

Representation matters

When I was first starting out, I didn't see anyone that looked like me in the set design space. Everyone that I'd researched and every book and article that I'd read was either by or about a white male.

The longer I am in this business, the more I'm starting to see that representation grow, and that is so special.

In the beginning, just making my own space, and making sure that people really heard, listened, and trusted my vision felt really difficult.

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Still, I was always patient. I knew the more projects I worked on, the more evidence I had that people could take and feel safe and confident in my creative thought process.

I've been doing this work for a couple of years now, and I think, at least in Atlanta, I don't face that issue anymore.

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