We sit down with Julia, the set designer behind some of today’s most iconic editorials. Her office, shared with photographer Ethan James Green, looks out onto the lower Manhattan skyline. After graduating from Central Saint Martins, Wagner found herself in Paris in pursuit of a creative career, but not yet sure what that would look like. Fast forward to 2019 and now no two days look the same — from dumpster diving at the flower markets, to pulling all-nighters building custom props with her boyfriend and beloved assistant Marcs, to shoveling dirt or unloading truckloads of popcorn into studios, to street casting in Mumbai — she always finds a way to make the impossible happen. Wagner works alongside some of today’s most prominent photographers — Charlotte Wales, Tyler Mitchell, Coco Capitán, and of course, Ethan — constantly pushing the boundaries to bring today's fashion photography into a new dimension.
This interview took place between Tate and Julia at her office in New York
Editor: Savana Gray
TVPS: Starting off, can you give an overview of how you got to where you are today?
JW: I’ve always enjoyed doing anything visual from being a child to now. In high school, I read an article about Central Saint Martins that made me really want to go there. So for two years, every afternoon, I’d create art, sculptures, and take photos to add to my portfolio. I still think about how it was such an amazing time because I took it so seriously. I tried out everything, and luckily I ended up getting into the foundation course.
Attending Saint Martins you suddenly meet all of these other young people that have similar interests to you — which was new for me, because I came from a small town in Austria. We were one of the last classes at CSM that graduated from their building in Central London before they moved to Kings Cross. At the time, there was no money being put into the school, everything was just decaying. But, there were also no regulations so I think that was actually an amazing time to be there.
Did you stay in London after graduation?
I still didn't know what I wanted to do so I moved to Paris for a bit, but to be honest I didn't like it there. My best friend had recently moved to New York and she said to come and see her. I just went to test the grounds to see if I liked it, and I loved it. So then I had to figure out how to get a job and a visa.
The first job I got in New York was in art direction. At CSM I studied fine art, I knew I didn’t want to do that, so I thought art direction was the next step. I learned a lot, but I realized it wasn’t exactly what I wanted to do since I wasn't physically involved in anything — you sit at the computer a lot.
Photographed by Ethan James Green
Set design by Julia Wagner
How did that evolve into set design?
I was really lucky, I had met the photographer, David Armstrong in Paris. He later offered me to stay with him for a bit at his house in Bed Stuy. David was extra generous in opening his home. So I rented a room, and then also — which was so incredible — helped him on the side. It was mainly with archiving, computer work, his photography, and sometimes helping him set up a room for a shoot.
For many people, he took on a mentoring role; he was so generous with giving advice. He knew that I wasn't happy so he said, “You should work for my friend, Fernando Santangelo. I'm going to email him now!”
So I worked there for roughly a year and mostly on residential projects. It was amazing because the execution had to be so perfect, I knew absolutely nothing, and had to learn it all really quickly.
How did working in interior design transition over to set design?
I realized that I was good at staging things. At my first shoot with Fernando — I was doing it all — bringing in flowers, moving stuff around, and opening the space up a bit. Afterward, he said, “Oh yeah, whenever we shoot something you just do it.” That was nice because suddenly I had this confidence in it.
I then worked a little bit for Noemi Bonazzi, who is a set designer that works mostly on still life photography. I’d love to do more of that type of work in the future because it’s really fascinating when you can get into the details of something. With what I do right now, I’m always rushing because there’s no time.
While I worked for Noemi I would do my own projects on the side with friends, like Ethan [James Green], Brett Lloyd and Tina Tyrell. I was lucky because I had a lot of friends that started out at the same time as me so we just did it all together and then it grew.
How did you get introduced to CLM?
I guess there was a moment where I had enough editorials come out — people suddenly see a body of work and then they are interested. I went to a meeting at CLM and they had all of my work printed and laid out for me. I liked that there was a discussion around it and I had a good feeling about them and my agent Jasmine Kharbanda.
Can you walk us through the process from pre-production all the way to the day of the shoot? I’m assuming you’re not involved in post-production at all?
No, no, but I mean I am with Ethan because I share an office with him.
How I get involved in a project really varies. Sometimes the magazine and a stylist will have a concept based on the clothes, so then a photographer gets approached, then they realize in order to execute it they need a set, so then I get involved. There are other times when it starts with an idea maybe from me or the photographer, so we start developing and then the stylist jumps in later. Or sometimes a photographer already knows exactly what they want and then sometimes I’ll come in and help and we develop something together.
I would say the one thing in common is that most projects have very short lead times, averaging three days before the shoot. So by the time I’m involved, the process usually is figuring out a creative for the set, pricing it out, then you make your estimate, submit your budget, and wait on approval from the client. Then once I have approval I’m running — I have 48 hours to make it happen. The other day we only had three days to build furniture from scratch.
Do you have a roster of assistants/vendors that you primarily work with? Or how do you manage it all?
It's very family style. I have my main assistant, Marcs, who’s been with me for two and a half years now; I met her while she was modeling at a shoot. Then I often work with my boyfriend who's an artist. He’s very involved and really good at carpentry, and we often build something custom.
I think if I approached certain fabricators with that short lead time, they would either charge me extremely high or just say no. So the fact that I can do it in my studio, with my own team, is often really helpful because they’ll be there until 3 AM to make it happen. They're also not just the people that execute, they have their own level of taste and input so I’m quite lucky on that end. Everything in the business is a team effort so I can only be as good as my team is.
Then on the day of the shoot, how do you find the time to set everything up?
It depends on what the budget is, but sometimes clients are considerate of setup and they manage to give us a pre-light day. But often, especially with editorial, there isn't money for that.
For instance, we did a shoot for Vogue Italia where we had to put 2000 pounds of mushroom soil on a slope, and we only had the studio for a day. We made a deal with the studio so that we were at least able to load all of the soil in the day before. So you basically prep as far as you can to the point when the studio starts charging you. That day, we had eight people shoveling soil onto the site and we had to do it in an hour and a half.
Are you on set while they're shooting in case something comes up?
Yeah, I’m on set and often there are multiple setups for one shoot. You can plan things ahead, but you never know what you’ll need to adjust. Sometimes it’s small tweaks but we've also ripped things up on set, burnt things, you never know. It’s been fun!
Sounds like it! I also feel like there's not a lot of work out there that is so hands-on.
Yeah, it’s dirty occasionally. I did a shoot in London with Ethan and Edie [Campbell] for Vogue Paris. We were in this vacant hotel and the shoot was florals for spring. We wanted to cover the whole floor with flowers, but again, it was an editorial. Flowers are incredibly expensive so we started to dumpster dive at the flower markets.
I had an assistant with me — who was also very committed — and we would go for days to pull things out of the trash. Visually, I actually liked the dead flowers more because it fit what we were looking for and it helped us make the budget work. So it's not always glamorous, I spent a week diving in a dumpster!
After you build these incredible sets, that are then captured by a photographer, your work is then taken down. Has that process influenced your view of your work?
Yeah, that's another thing. The next step is always, “How do we get rid of things?” We once built a set with a full truckload of popcorn and I hate to produce trash. So my assistant, Marcs, was driving around New York City, trying to donate it to shelters. It was really ridiculous. I wish I did things that were more permanent; you feel a bit bad sometimes about the amount of waste created by you and it's so visual.
But, it’s also amazing that each job is over in two days — there’s something incredibly freeing about that.
Has there been a biggest learning experience throughout your career?
I mean it’s every project — that’s the part of the job that I like — there isn't ever an endpoint. You can never claim to know it all and you will forever have to learn something new. You consult with people all the time, if you get flowers, you talk to the guys in the flower market, they're the experts and they’ll tell you something you didn't know before. Talking to all of these people with different expertise, that's when it becomes very interesting.
Also, you meet so many people.
Yeah, so many vendors, so many odd places in New York that I feel like most people don't go to. When you're so involved in this, you look at billboards or you flip through magazines, and being able to know the backend of how these images are made is something I’ll never get over.
What’s next for you? Is there anything that you really want to do, or places that you want to go?
I want to travel more. Ethan and I started a project together in India. I was there three times last year and it was amazing. It really changes you, which is so cheesy to say about a place, but it does.
We started shooting portraits in India where it was very low-key, no stylist, just the two of us. We both judged who we wanted to shoot and it was either him or I running after the person. The interest two different people with different backgrounds and a language barrier can have in each other is fascinating.
We saw one guy in Mumbai and the next day he saw us again and thanked us for taking his picture the day before. I was initially worried about approaching that project, because how could we approach someone facing language barriers and socio-economic differences without exploiting them? But we sort of judged it as we went along and the people we approached were as equally into it as we were, it was really beautiful to meet people in that way. So that's something I want to do more of — it doesn't at all involve set design. It just involves finding locations, finding people, and then trying to communicate with them.
What advice would you give to someone who looks up to you?
For someone who wants to do set design, I’d say go to the library. Any idea you have has to be communicated with an image.
Don't copy an image one for one, but you can say, “I love the light in this” or “I love the colors of this image and I love the flooring in that image” Every idea you want to execute, you back it up with visuals to show the art director, the photographer, or whoever you're working with. So I think the more you know, the better ideas you can create. Also, research not just for one project, but in general, and don’t do your research on Instagram.
I also think it's important to just do things — they don't need to have an outcome. You don't need to have a magazine giving you pages in the next issue. I think it's important to work with peers, with friends. Especially, Ethan and I have done so many things that never ended up anywhere, but I think that they were just steps to the next thing. So I think just always make work and eventually, someone will actually hire you for what you do.