Design New England

Creative Lives: Prop Stylist

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Stylist Beth Wickwire amid her props in her Arlington, Massachusetts, home.

By Courtney Goodrich

Beautiful imagery is constantly finding its way to us … we are a design magazine, after all. In between writing and editing, producing stories and brainstorming ideas, the change of pace involved with styling a photo shoot has always been a welcome and creative challenge. For Beth Wickwire, a professional prop and interiors stylist, it’s been her career for the last 10 years.

Prop stylists work on photo shoots, styling the set, supplying necessary items (and moving them mere centimeters until the composition is just so), and creating the mood for photographs used in advertising or editorial capacities. They can come from any background, but that’s not to say they haven’t worked hard to build up their visual vocabulary as well as a reputation that will keep getting them booked. Their work is earnest — the goal is for the photo to look natural, as if a stylist wasn’t involved, so often the imperfect is actually perfect. Similar to a makeup artist’s overflowing cosmetic bag, prop stylists have a curated collection of good-looking and hard-to-find props to use on set, including dinnerware, flatware, ceramics, baskets, books, boxes, linens, glassware, plants, and larger items such as windows, floorboards, barn doors, and kitchen tables. If they don’t have what they need, they’ll forage, borrow, create, rent, or bargain — almost anything short of lying, cheating, or stealing to get it.

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Utensils, twine and paintbrushes are tools of the trade.

Wickwire grew up outside Albany, New York, and in Concord, Massachusetts. She now lives in Arlington, Massachusetts, with her husband, David Remillard, who works in marketing for Whole Foods, their two teenage daughters, and their dog, Dizzy. Represented by Ennis Inc., an agency for prop, interiors, makeup, hair, wardrobe, and food stylists created by Barbe Ennis whose home was featured in “Behind the Scenes” in our March/April 2013 issue, Wickwire has worked with Clarks, Timberland, Crabtree & Evelyn, Dunkin’ Donuts, Panera Bread, H&M, HomeGoods, TJ Maxx, and Marshalls, as well as on cookbooks and editorial spreads with Yankee Magazine, House Beautiful, and This Old House.

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Sometimes, says Wickwire, styling can feel like interviewing for a job. “Everyday you come, you are observed and you are expected to perform magic,” she says. Here, she shares her thoughts on the magic behind styling sincerely for a living.

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A photograph for Clarks.

The draw: I love curating and collecting special objects, textures, things of beauty — whether it’s an old weathered spoon, stack of vintage books or fresh flowers. I also am inspired by color and composition and the thrill of working instinctually. You know right away whether a set “works” or not and the moment you find that sweet spot, it is really gratifying.

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What sparked it all: I think my love of color, composition, and design started when I was a small girl decorating my dollhouse. My mom would help me wallpaper my rooms with samples given to her by her best friend, an interior designer who worked in New York City. My mother and I would scour miniatures shops collecting tiny handmade pottery bowls and mercury-glass Christmas decorations. She would help me sew patchwork quilts with ruffled edges for the beds. I loved collecting and curating my dollhouse and saved everything for my girls.

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A table styled for HomeGoods.
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Desk inspiration for HomeGoods.

The road to styling: I think people come into this field from a wide range of backgrounds. I spent two years at Boston University and then took a year off, during which I worked at a boutique clothing shop and took night classes at the Rhode Island School of Design in color theory, textile design, and children’s illustration. I took a course in the Harvard-Radcliffe Ceramics Program [renamed the Ceramics Program at Harvard University when Harvard and Radcliff merged in 1999] and then spent part of the year living in Sante Fe, New Mexico.

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After I finished my degree in psychology and a focus on ceramics at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, I spent a semester studying ceramics and sculpture in Cortona, Italy. I continued my creative work in western Massachusetts as a studio potter and directing arts programs locally and in Oaxaca, Mexico. I was director of the Guild Studio School in Northampton, Massachusetts, for several years. After getting married, my husband and I traveled back to Italy for nearly a year and then relocated to Boston. I began working in decorative arts and antiques in the appraisal department at Skinner Auctioneers. When I became a mother, I decided to stay at home with my girls and created and wrote how-to craft projects for FamilyFun and Wondertime magazines.

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It was shortly after that I spoke with an old friend who was working as a prop stylist in New York City. I decided to pursue this world and found Ennis Inc. I’ve been styling ever since.

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Two scents styled for Crabtree & Evelyn.

What the not-so-normal workday is like: A typical project begins with the client’s creative brief/vision and often a conference call or meeting with the art director and creative team, sometimes also with the photographer and brand department. This gives you the directive for what the client wants for the particular project. The prep days are next, which is when I gather all of the items to build the sets for the shoot. Items range from decorative smalls to linens to furniture to surfaces, backdrops, and windows that either come from renting, shopping, pulling from my own studio, or creating them specifically for the shoot. Once most of items are approved by the client (time allowing), they are all packed up and brought to the photo studio or location site. The day of the photo shoot I work closely with the photographer, art director, and food stylist (if we have food on set) to create the desired imagery. Depending on how many shots are needed (it can range from 6 to 10 per day), projects can take one day, one week, or up to several weeks.

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The power of technology: Technology has aided prop stylists in researching and getting our hands on harder-to-find items. We are often working under a tight timeline — so there is no guarantee I’ll receive something on time. I need to have a bag of tricks up my sleeve. For one project, I had to find a certain kind of live seaweed. I searched online and found a diver in the Florida Keys who FedEx’ed me packets of beautiful green seaweed.

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A portfolio project photographed by Jim Scherer.

Working with an agent: Ennis handles my bookings, billing, portfolio, and promotion. I have found that having an agent has been extremely helpful over the years, especially since I work hard to juggle my busy work life and family. I work with assistants through my agency as well as those on their own. I find that it is important to build a familiar and talented crew so that the client is assured a smooth and successful experience as well as everyone enjoying their day.

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Glassware and wine corks in Wickwire’s collection of props.

A few favorite projects: I styled the cover for the companion cookbook for the Game of Thrones. This was fun to pull together, working with the authors just before the show hit it really big. Now it is published in German!

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Last year, I was asked to create a set that was clouds and sky — this was a challenge and the result was really lovely and ethereal. It was truly a joint effort with the photographer and crew and entirely satisfying experience. I recently worked on and modeled in some motion videos for a client, which was an exciting and different way of shooting with a fabulous creative team.

A day off means: I love traveling and exploring vintage shops, flea markets, and eating good food at home or out with my friends and family. Typically, there are a few slower times during the year, and that is when I will try to work on my own personal creative work and be able to experiment and express my own ideas in collaboration with photographers.

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Tasty food styled for Dunkin’ Donuts.

A stylist’s recommended viewing: I was struck by the texture of the apartment walls in The King’s Speech, and I adore Babette’s Feast. Another food-related film is Big Night, which has a wonderful soundtrack. I loved the sets of HBO’s Deadwood. Of course, Downton Abbey is an easy choice, for everything from its kitchens to its costumes. I also love observing sets during live performances — Harvard’s American Repertory Theater’s production of Finding Neverland last year was amazing.

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