Renowned set designer Gary Card on forging his own path

One of the most sought out talents in London, Card discusses his personal journey, and his latest project HYSTERICAL.

Gary Card is a set designer, illustrator and one of London’s’ most talked about talents. His clients have included Comme Des Garçons, House of Holland, Dover Street Market, Nike, Adidas, Stella McCartney and LG. His work has featured in The New York Times, Another Man, Another Magazine, Dazed & Confused, ID, British Vogue, Vogue Homme Japan, V Man, Pop and Paradis. Earlier this year Card released a collection of toys, now available from Dover Street Market’s worldwide stores and Unbox Industries.

Card’s latest project, Hysterical, took over the gallery space at Phillips London this summer: an immersive exhibition, featuring work by artists like Cindy Sherman, Yayoi Kusama, Kaws, Ugo Rondinone and Takashi Murakami and an elaborate installation designed by Card which visitors can wind their way through to discover the artworks on display. The work on show all relate to ideas of the “farcical and neurotic” in art, and the show’s set design is fittingly colourful, riotous, weird and wonderful. Hysterical also features some of Card’s own paintings, and the artist has worked on collaborations with Kim Jones and Tim Walker to create new pieces for the show.

As part of our media coverage of this year’s Us By Night in Antwerp this September, we caught up with Gary to find out more.

Gary Card: Unbox Industries, photography by Katie Bagley

How would you describe what you do?

My job description has recently become more and more broad. For many years I’ve enjoyed a career as a set designer for the fashion industry, but over the last 3 years I’ve started exploring opportunities outside of set design, starting innocently enough with a self published zine which spawned toys, a range of prints and more recently paintings. So dare I say it, I think I can finally call myself an artist. In the past I’ve been quite resistant to the word ‘artist’ to describe what I do, but that was really down to my lack of confidence. I’m proud of what I’m creating now and so excited to finally show what I’m capable of.

What does your creative process look like?

I’ve never found a satisfying way of answering this as every project employs a completely different approach. Set design tends to be fairly practical problem solving, where as the artwork I’ve been creating is led by what I feel like producing. I guess my creative process looks like a total mess right now, and I’m pretty happy with that. A lot of the time I’m having to do both projects at the same time, so I’ll be painting in the day and designing a set in the evening.

Gary Card: Hysterical

Gary Card: Hysterical

Can you talk a little about your influences and ideas? How did your style evolve?

Like any western kid from the 90’s I’m a product of my shiny capitalist childhood, so the toys, cartoons and comics from that time are hard wired to my very core. I find that a big subject of my work right now is reconciling my pop culture obsessions with the guilt of where we are politically and ecologically; i’ts becoming increasingly clear to me that my work is preoccupied with consumption, whether its making a set for a fashion brand or subject of my painting. I guess my continuing evolution is making sense of how we’ve been brought up to live and the struggle to reprogram ourselves to live responsibly.

Is your work quite collaborative? What do you enjoy most about it?

My job is collaborative yes, I get a great thrill from seeing a concept that we drew up on my computer finally come to life on set, it can sometime be quite surreal actually.

How do your projects usually come about?

I have a wonderful agent who looks after my career. Job requests tend to come through her (unless its a client that I’ve worked with for years who contacts me directly). Once a project comes through Gabs and I will look at the diary and see if its right for me and whether we can fit it in; jobs overlap quite a lot and its important to not let them pile on top of each other too much. When I was younger I would try and take on as much as I could and end up getting burnt out, so we try and make sure that what I do now is something we can devote the right amount of time to. I don’t like taking on projects that I don’t feel I can bring anything to.

Gary Card: Unbox Industries, photography by Katie Bagley

What were the main hurdles and challenges you faced in the early stages of your career?

Like anybody starting out in a creative field money was a big concern. I would pour my own funds into editorial work and that would sometimes leave me with nothing to live on. Aalso learning how to manage a team; at the beginning of my career I didn’t know who to ask for help so I built everything myself, sometime my lovely father would help me construct things (he was a builder) but mainly I took everything on my shoulders, that was very stressful when I was young. I had a lot of attention very quickly and I was getting lots of commercial job offers before I’d really learnt my craft, so a lot of mistakes were made very publicly. From there, building a team became important, learning how to handle that was a challenge and I tripped up along the way. The thing about fucking up on the job is you never make the same mistake twice.

Gary Card in his home.

How did you support yourself financially when you were starting out?

I was graphic designer for fashion brands by day and would come home and build sets in my flat. The weekend was my time to build, juggling both careers became way too much but I was lucky that I was able to make that transition from one career into another, suffice to say I had an extremely patient boss at my day job.

Gary Card: Camper

Can you talk about a particularly pivotal moment in your career?

There have been so many. My first editorial for Dazed magazine, my first store design, and now my first art show this summer. I feel like I’m still having pivotal moments. HYSTERICAL is by far the biggest project I’ve ever created, made all the more significant as it was a concept that I conceived and pitched. That meant that financing the project was our responsibility, so it’s been a huge risk. Whether it pays off is yet to be seen, but the personal achievement could not be more significant to me, it’s made me think of my work in a completely different way and has led to so many new ideas and prospects.

Make things because you love being part of something special, enthusiasm is infectious, your passion will shine through and money will follow ….eventually. Oh and don’t get drunk the night before a job!

Gary Card

What advice would you give to emerging designers and grads keen to emulate a similar professional path?

Something I’ve always said to people starting out is be open minded to as many creative opportunities as possible, experience is key to making it as a set designer, even the bad experiences. Sometimes the bad experiences will become invaluable to you in the future, so keep that in mind when you are going through the ringer on a horrible job. It’s important not to be taken advantage of but at the same time don’t make money your only drive to get involved in something exciting. The best things I ever got involved with were not financially motivated, and that is probably still the case. Make things because you love being part of something special, enthusiasm is infectious, your passion will shine through and money will follow ….eventually. Oh and don’t get drunk the night before a job!

Gary Card: Hysterical

Gary Card: Hysterical

What has been the biggest career highlight over the last few years? Any favourite projects spring to mind?

Probably my first shop, LNCC was a memorable highlight. It was such a huge concept and undertaking, a sprawling installation over 6 entirely different spaces, it was immersive even before that was everyone’s favourite word. It attracted publications from around the world and became a bit of a phenomenon. Pop stars like Kanye and Frank Ocean were spotted shopping there, the BBC were interviewing me about it, we even got nominated for Design of the Year award that year. It was the first time my work was talked about beyond the term ‘set design’ and led me to where I am now as a creative. I didn’t make a penny from it but what I learned was priceless.

What persuaded you to speak at Us By Night?

Very little persuasion was needed! Rizon from Us By Night reached out and I thought it sounded fun, my best friend Ferry Gouw spoke there last year and had a great time so I knew it was a great thing to be part of.

What are you most looking forward to at the festival?

Public speaking is a terrifying prospect for me so I won’t be thinking about anything other than successfully delivering my talk, once thats done I’ll be able to relax and explore the festival.

Finally, what are you currently working on? Can you share any sneak peaks or updates on what’s happening over the next few months?

Fingers crossed we are taking HYSTERICAL to somewhere exciting, so I’ll be busy redesigning it for where ever it’s new home is. I have a new series of paintings I’m starting to work on, and a new toy line in the works, so there is plenty to keep us busy.

Us By Night is a unique nocturnal experience combining an inspiring lineup and an endless nightmarket guaranteed to provide 3 nights you can’t miss. Come for the talks, stay for the experience. Explore the arcade, a wide range of local and delicious food, get tattooed or play some fluorescent ping-pong. Tickets on sale now:


Posted on Aug 23rd, 19 by | Twitter: @lisahassell

Founder & director of Inkygoodness, Lisa is a published writer and arts journalist, focusing on creative business, graphic art and illustration and design education. Her words regularly appear in Computer Arts, Creative Bloq, Digital Arts and IdN.

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