About three months ago, I met with Randi Brookman Harris in NYC for what would be a long but captivating interview over breakfast at City Bakery. You see, I love stylists. They make my work so much easier -and Randi is as good as they come. You’ve seen her work in Kate Spade and Martha Stewart Weddings -but now that she’s freelance, you’ll be seeing her beautiful styling for clients such as J. Crew, Real Simple and in a new book due out soon from Minhee Cho of Paper+Cup!
Full of information and excitement for her work, here Randi shares her journey in becoming a stylist -including the challenges and fun involved. So grab a cup of cocoa and curl up on the couch while you read our interview for you:
(oh and ps… click on all these amazing sources Randi shares!)
01. How did you get your start in styling?
I studied graphic design at the School of Visual Arts and worked in the field for a few years. I’m obsessed with typography, but I still never felt totally creative at work even though I was solving visual problems all day long. I would often come home from work and stay up until 3 or 4 in the morning doing little projects or rearranging my furniture or knickknacks just to get the creative-satisfaction buzz.
I didn’t know that “prop styling” – as I know it now – was even something that people could choose to do as a career. In 2003, in conjunction with a gallery retrospective of all things Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia at the Art Directors Club in NYC, I went to a lecture series to hear Martha Stewart staff talk about what they do. The “a-ha!” moment was when I heard the style director talk about what she does! It made total sense to me that this was my calling. I reached out to the Style director for a job and she was kind enough to grant me an interview for an open position. In the office where we met, all the books on the shelves were in order by color of their spines. This was a hierarchy I had never seen anywhere but my own bookshelf, a practice I’d done since high school, and the feeling was “OMG, I found my people!” I thought, I want this job SO bad. I pulled out all the stops!
photos by Brian Henn
02. But were you applying as an art director?
First I interviewed for the stylist job but they also wanted me to apply for an art director job. The creative director said, “You should be an art director… you studied graphic design.” And I said, “Please let me be a stylist!”
To prove to them that I could do it I pulled together maybe 200 tear sheets of photographs from magazines and Xeroxes from books that I thought were successful photographs. I knew I’d have to be able to talk about that, even though I had no experience on-set. I was asked why a prop was successful or why a proportion or texture worked in a photograph to tell the right story; to interpret color and palettes, spaces between objects, historical significance of a certain type of object and its relevance in the shot. All of that, is what I do now, but I didn’t know then that’s what would make me a good stylist. It just felt like a natural outpouring of things that always made sense to me. I was able to talk about styling by drawing upon my education in fine arts and graphic design.
The funny thing is that I used to do still life photoshoots when I was very young. I would set things up and my Dad would take the pictures. One of my ”shoots” was documenting my collection of buttons when I was 4 or 5. I wanted it to be a graphic glossary of my button collection and I wanted it to be on white. I remember feeling frustrated that I couldn’t find a plain, white surface in my house. It was 1982 and we had crazy-patterned tiles, deeply textured upholsteries, dark woodgrains, and shag carpets. So I remember feeling resourceful when I figured out I could take a Kleenex, smooth it out, and put all my buttons on it. The photo came out blurry. I remember I wanted to redo it because it upset me.
photos by Stephan Abry
03. How long did you work at Martha Stewart and in what capacities?
5 years total– 3 years at the Living magazine, and 2 years at Weddings. In the beginning at Living, I mostly assisted the style director and Deputy Style Editors, but was working on my own shoots not too long after my start. Weddings, which is a smaller staff than Living, was where I really had more autonomy to flourish based on a few well-timed promotions.
04. How long did it take to do your own shoots?
People don’t always realize that you can’t just become a stylist overnight. It’s not something you learn in school. It takes a long time and a lot of hard work. You have to assist a great mentor or two, build contacts and sources for props, and get used to a rigorous combination of many working parts that go into creating a successful photograph.
photos by Roland Bello
05. A lot of people aren’t familiar with the process, so explain how propping a sourcing even works for one shoot. If you have that shoot, what is the first thing that you do, what is the last thing, what is the whole process?
There are many steps to getting to the shoot day: the shopping and lugging, interpreting direction and objectives, letters of insurance and rental agreements, staying on top of a budget, knowing how to get your hands on almost anything no matter how obscure, and being really good at improvising.
After learning about the scope of the project and the client’s needs, I think about what photos, and props within those photos, are going to tell the story best. Sometimes the breakdown of shots is already packaged neatly for me by the client, photographer, or art director before they bring me in. Other times I’m integral to the process. I first try to conceptualize telling the story without any words at all.
Often I will have an idea about certain props I tend to catalog in my head. Usually, I will start with one larger prop I know will work and start building on that. And sometimes I have no pre-conceived solutions and can let my carefully mapped out propping excursions garner all the tricks up my sleeve that I’ll need.
I make tons and tons of crazy long lists of needs: things to do, stuff to be created, bought, rented, or made, and the appropriate people and places to call or go to get it all done. I start with the bigger and/or more expensive items I need and think smaller and more detailed propping after crossing off the big stuff. I usually have many lists separated by theme or type of task, and as I cross things off each one I consolidate the lists.
I like to find something unexpected or offbeat to bring to every shoot that will make the viewer do a double-take, but still fits in. Often, that thing won’t make it into a shot, but it’s fun show-and-tell to have everyone on set be amused and loosen things up, and if it does make it into a shot – even better. It means the client is open to a little lightheartedness. For example, look for the photo in the April 2010 issue of Real Simple with a plastic triceratops dinosaur figurine next to a lamp on a sideboard. I was shooting at the art director’s apartment and she has 2 young sons. I stuck the plastic dinosaur in the shot last minute, and that ended up being the favorite option. Serendipity often makes a more successful image because you were open to something unplanned.
photos by Laurie Frankel
06. Can you think of any particularly challenging jobs that you’ve had?
There are so many things to simultaneously orchestrate to get a shoot together, that the most frustrating thing is when things change at the last minute. Often, too, I get called at the last minute and it feels like horse racing gates opening at soon as I hang up the phone!
Once, I got hired last minute to prep at around 4 PM for a shoot the following day. Keep in mind that stores of course and prop rental houses close around 5 or 6, so it never matters that I’m a night owl. The creative direction was to get a turtle shell shiny gold without harming the turtle – no toxic paints allowed! I remember running like a maniac from the cake decorating store for gold lustre dust to Sephora for gold makeup and to the ginormous pearl paint craft store for gold leaf in different parts of NYC in the span of 2 hours all while schlepping 20 lbs of sand for the set with me! In the end, the gold metallic leaf worked the best because it adhered to the turtle’s shell with nothing more than a spritz of water and a light rub down with a soft makeup brush. I’m sure this will be voted the most useless tip your readers will take away from this interview.
photo by Johnny Miller
07. What sources of inspiration do you turn to?
I have always been drawn to really graphic, high contrast or brightly colored things. I love everything ever done by Paul Rand. I’ve been collecting vintage books by M. Sasek since years before they began to be re-published. Swedish graphic designer Olle Eksell’s illustrations are amazing as is the work of Saul Steinberg – absolutely anything Charles and Ray Eames designed – they had the awesome ability to not take themselves too seriously when everyone else did. The Hang-It-All makes my heart hurt every time I see it, which is a lot because one hangs right next to my front door. I love collections, especially different types of the same thing where you can study details of variation; I like hatpins, topiaries and lollipops for the same reasons of proportion. I love the Kaj Franck heart bowl, which I finally won on eBay after years of trying and losing! I collect ephemera and all sorts of bits-and-bobs which I save in boxes organized by color. I like to look at photographers’ and stylists’ websites for inspiration. Some of my favorite sites are: Frank Horvat, Tim Walker, Robyn Glaser, Ilan Rubin, Victoria Granof, Tara Donne, Ditte Isager,Johnny Miller, Roland Bello.
I love reading blogs – lots of blogs, especially because they are such aggregators of repetative content, and you can kind of witness micro-trends in real time, which is incredibly interesting to me! I finally started my own blog by the way. I’m so excited to finally have a place to catalog all the stuff I want to remember!
photos by aaron dyer
08. What drives you as a stylist?
My love of form and 3D objects are what has always driven me, even in graphic design, in art school, and as a kid.
What fascinates me about personal style is that we can all share what we love yet no two people’s individual aesthetics are alike. It’s amazing that everyone draws inspiration from such a broad spectrum of sources mixed with personal experience that adds nuance. Sharing something that will delight someone else is what drives me as an image-maker.
photo by karen mordechai
09. What happens to the props once you’re finished if you’re not returning them?
In the past, I’ve had major prop take-over in my apartment. My bathtub was a phenomenal depot for awhile, but that wasn’t going to work forever… Now I have a large storage space, and I’ve been building a database of my inventory so that I can rent things and reuse stuff so I don’t always have to buy new if I can avoid it. I try to be very conscious about being “green” which takes extreme vigilance in this business. Mostly clients just want you deal with the stuff. So just the management of the packing and unpacking, the storing and organizing, and the accounting takes up a good chunk of my week every week – especially as I try to minimize waste.
photo for real simple by José Picayo
10. Does it ever change what you buy because you know that you will be keeping it later?
In a way its very interrelated because what I style with is within my aesthetic because I would never put anything in a photograph that I didn’t think had beautiful bones to it. I’ve always been drawn to the saving and collecting of interesting and beautiful things, but I just didn’t know for what purpose besides my own pleasure. Everyday at least once, I think to myself, “I can’t believe this is my job!”
photos by ditte isager
11. So you will buy things without any story or client in mind? Just for your own personal prop house?
Sure. Sometimes if I feel like it has a story already and can come in handy. If I see something that just speaks to me, I often ask myself, “Am I ever going to see this again?” I sometimes just write that off as the cost of doing business, and almost always end up using those objects.
photos by jason frank rothenberg
12. What is one of the most valuable things you’ve learned?
One of the most valuable things I learned over the years is that the night before a shoot when I’ve finished prepping the studio and all my props are unpacked, everything should look totally neat so that when the photographer arrives at the studio the next day, they can see all of my prop tables in one eye-full. That’s when the collaboration begins – when the photographer sees what I have to offer and they can relax and feel inspired and excited to collaborate with me.
left: Aaron Dyer; right: Ilan Rubin
13. Do all photographers work like that?
A photographer with whom I shot a cookbook, Susie Cushner has a very different creative process than I do, but our team works quite well. She’s very organic whereas I lean towards the need to really think things through and be prepared with all possible options. Susie has such a natural calm. She’ll say, “just throw it down, were going to make it work!” Its so liberating for me to have a collaborator like that who encourages me to let go a little bit.
photo by Susie Cusher
14. What are some recent projects that you have been working on?
This fall, Chronicle Books will publish the book I worked on with Minhee Cho of Paper+Cup! It’s a crafting book I styled and co-authored with Minhee, which was shot by Johnny Miller. Johnny is one of my favorite photographer collaborators. (see his friday feature here.)
special sneak peek image of sofa by Johnny Miller
I did an ad for J.Crew which was really exciting. I love how everything they shoot takes an artful approach to styling. Their soft-stylists amaze me every single time I get the catalog. This image is the ad that didn’t run, but is a personal favorite.
I also just taught a workshop about still life photography for adults with mental disabilities at L.A.N.D.‘s day habilitation program. The artists are truly exceptional and create amazing work. Jacob Snavely, the photographer who collaborated with me on the lesson, photographed the students’ tabletop still life set ups using some props I brought along and some of their own work. It was such an inspiring day!
This year’s Kate Spade gallery of Valentine’s Day e-cards featured a little animation I collaborated on with photographer Evan Sklar (who has an awesome blog, by the way). This is the little animation we did:
photos by evan sklar.
15. How do stylists find jobs?
I think it is totally relationship based. Being in New York City is so inspiring because everybody knows somebody who does something interesting, and it’s always changing. It’s continually exciting to think about the future.
photos by sang an
16. Any advice for budding stylists?
You have to be open to the creative process with others, as a team. There’s no such thing as styling in a vacuum; it’s a very organic process. I would say that saving stuff that inspires you for reference is really important because it really helps drive ideas. I’d also suggest that if you’re just starting out, you really should assist a mentor for a long time.
It can be hard to find stylists. Credits aren’t as prominent as ones for photographers in many cases. Keep an eye on the byline, look for photographers and try to appropriately network with photographers and ask them what stylists they love to work with.
Thank you so much for a great interview, Randi! Readers, please leave lovely thoughts for Randi by commenting on this post.