Prop star: Rhea Thierstein

  1. set designer rhea thierstein creates some of fashion's most extraordinary backdrops, while leading photographer tim walker lenses the stories with whimsical charm. together, the duo prove there's magic in collaboration

  3. Portrait by Rene Vaile | Sittings editor Meg Gray
  4. Makeup by Claire Thomson | Interview by Natasha Inchley
  6. From the lifesize dolls moulded in plaster to a delicate tableau of spring flowers set in jelly, Rhea Thierstein conjures some of the most extraordinary scenes in her role as set designer and prop stylist. Having first worked at Showstudio, the brilliant London-based talent went on to forge a friendship with photographer Tim Walker, their collaborative work appearing in international editions of Vogue, POP, Love and W magazine. Here, she talks about the dynamics of their partnership, the creative whirl and her fondness for insects

    You share such a brilliant rapport with Tim Walker – what makes it work? I love his mind. I’ve been lucky in that he has really taken me by the hand on this wonderful journey together. In the beginning, I worked on his book [Tim Walker Pictures] and spent a year with him in his studio scanning sketches, it really allowed me to understand his ideas and thoughts. He then asked me to make some bowler hats [for a Vanity Fair story on the Monty Python actors], and I was absolutely terrified but he loved them and that was a real turning point. I used to be so, so scared of failing and not doing the right thing, but now the process has become a lot of easier and I think we completely compliment each other in the way we work.

    Creatively, one theme you keep returning to is … Insects. I think when you look back to your childhood, often the things that you were really interested in are quite comforting. I used to be fascinated by insects when I was younger and would collect caterpillars to hatch them into butterflies. Today, I’m still absolutely intrigued by them, not so much the fact that they’re insects but rather their engineering and varied textures. A moth up close, for instance, looks as though it’s made of millions of tiny feathers, it’s incredibly beautiful.

Main picture, top: In the spotlight: Rhea Thierstein photographed at Seasonal Concepts wearing Prada during a recent visit to Sydney. Above and below: Sweet somethings: the set designer's delectable work for Italian Vogue, photographed by Tim Walker.

Below: Bloom service: For a LOVE magazine story photographed by Tim Walker, Thierstein created tiny sprigs of flowers​ made to look as though they had blossomed from Kate Moss' body.


Your secret to keeping a work-life balance: Travel. Nature does really draw my attention, so I try and go to far away places where I can firstly relax and secondly be inspired. I like to seek out new destinations with a reason in mind, so my next trip is to Puerto Rico and Costa Rica – I sought out the most bioluminescent places in the world. For me, it’s about exploration and experiencing something completely different to what I’m accustomed to.

Your creative process is… Quick. Each job with Tim is different – we normally start with his idea and then I’ll research the story and it ends up being quite an organic process. On the day of a shoot, it comes together and I think that’s what gives it its believability – if you spend too long agonising over an idea then it starts to feel staged; our trick is to try and make it feel as real as possible. I used to be a lot more methodical, the German in me, but now I’ve learnt to be more spontaneous. You never quite know what’s going to happen in a day, and I love that. There are no rules and it is very experimental work, I've had to teach myself a lot. It's about tricking, smoke and mirrors, that’s what gives a picture its magic.

You have a great appreciation of colour: And yet I find colour quite terrifying! I try and keep my work looking quite feminine but still with an edge. I’m always fighting that idea, I don’t want things to be too cute or too girly, it’s a fine line. For inspiration, I don’t normally dwell too much on things that are of the moment; I don’t look at fashion shoots. I usually go quite far back and research surrealist paintings or old films because they have a lot of charm about them.

Looking back, what has been your greatest challenge? It’s all been a huge challenge – starting a business, running a team – but probably the most difficult aspect is constantly looking for new ways to be creative, to not repeat yourself, to always try and push the boundaries. When I worked on the windows for Hermès, I spent two weeks researching it only to discover that pretty much everything has been done. Ultimately, we hope to surprise people and that can be tricky – you want people to have a reaction when they see your work, whether something is incredibly beautiful or a bit uncomfortable, the whole point is to get that reaction. That’s the fun of it, too, and probably one of the main reasons why I love working with Tim. There’s definitely an element of humour in what we do together.

Above: Hey, dollface: behind the scenes and, right, model Kirsi Pyrhonen in Tim Walker's Mechanical Doll story for Italian Vogue. Below: Blow Up: when wallpapered on to the halls of England’s Glemham Hall, 18th- and 19th-century portraits of Baroness de Rothschild and Madame de Pompadour become surreal backdrops, photographed by Tim Walker for W magazine.