NYC Set Designer Sara Foldenauer

The Producer: Thanks for joining us Sara! So when you introduce yourself to someone, what do you say your occupation is? Do you consider yourself a set designer? Set builder?

Sara Foldenauer: It’s funny because I don’t really build or construct these days. I used to like to build sets, but now I’d say that I am a set designer and prop stylist.

TP: And you make some of your props too, correct?

SF: Yeah, sure do!

TP: How did you get started? Did you study photography? What was your path?

SF: I got a Bachelor of Arts. I didn’t really want to go to school. It was a “get in, get out” kind of thing.  I started off photo assisting and studio managing for a still life photographer back in Indiana.

SF: I went to school in Indiana, and got a Bachelor of Arts but to be honest,  I didn’t really want to go to school.  It was a “get in, get out” kind of thing.  Afterwards, I started off photo assisting and studio managing for a still life photographer back in Indiana. Then, I moved to New York and took a nanny job. I remember thinking, “Ok, I know I want to do something creative with my life but how do I make money and not be a fine artist?”   Since I was seven years old, I’ve had this feeling.  Somehow photography crossed my path and opened up my mind. While I was a nanny, I connected with a portrait wedding guy and he would take me to the city for a couple jobs and I thought, “This is what I want to do".  It was a way to make some money and still be creative. When the nanny thing didn’t work out, I went back home [to Indiana] and gave myself one year to return to New York — but I needed experience with a photographer.  I actually ended up working with someone in Indiana and outside New York. His main clients were RV companies - motor homes. In northern Indiana they’ve all shut down since the economy crashed, but back then, we would shoot these massive RVs with hot lights, out on racetracks while the sun was setting.  

TP: I really admire that you gave yourself a one year time limit to achieve your goal of moving back to New York and truly stuck with it with such grit.  What year did you make your New York “comeback”?

SF: I left [New York], November 8th, ’98. I worked two jobs, I worked at a restaurant because I thought, “if I come out here, I’ll need restaurant experience too!” [laughs].  I worked seven days a week for almost a year solid and came back on November 4th of ’99.

TP: Wow, you were so driven, Sara!

SF: I made it. My parents weren’t happy about it. When I moved back to NYC, I white-knuckled it the whole way here in one of those big trucks — and it was my first time driving a cube truck!

TP: You are one gutsy girl! When you moved back in November, how did you hit the ground running?

SF: At that time, one of my friends had moved out here from Michigan. Her roommate moved out, I move in. I had saved up 2,500 bucks from the year I spent working in Indiana, which felt like a lot at the time for a 24-year old. I just started wandering the city and spotted this ad on the bottom corner for Adorama and it said, “The Photo District.” I thought, “Oh okay, there’s a photo district I need to be exploring!” So I walked around the photo district like an idiot, scoping out the bulletin boards and spotted  a studio manager position at Hot Lights! I showed up for my interview with my three ring binder portfolio - horrible! - I had some photos I had taken over the years,  but I hadn’t even gone to art school, so I was just winging it.

He [the interviewer] was from Iowa, so he hired me based on our mutual Midwest background and within two weeks, I had a full-time job. This was pre-2001 - I don’t think you can really do that anymore, just walk around and get a job? I got really lucky. I started as his studio manager but eventually also photo assisted for him - but it was still life so it was really calm.  

TP: Still life photography is certainly a more controlled environment for the photo assistant.

SF: Yes! So I finally had a really good opportunity to learn lighting & photo equipment, because I had no idea. In my past work experience, it was hard to learn from these guys. I feel like my first three jobs, they were just yelling at me all the time.

TP: It definitely takes a special individual to be able to teach while working simultaneously. Not everybody has that gift or even desire. Especially if they’re really focused on their own career or task at hand during the day.

SF: Yeah, so this situation was really great. I was learning and he also let me use his studio,  so I started shooting and building my own little sets.  They were goofy, but hey, I was trying! My early stuff was very color-driven.

TP: I mean, your set work now is still very color-driven!

SF: Things shifted after September 11th. Everything started crumbling job-wise. The studio couldn’t afford a full time staff so I was let go along with the digital guy. Digital was just starting then. Then I started freelancing and I was scared - I honestly didn’t even know what the word “freelance” was just a year previously when I was in Indiana. I was just so green.  Not too long ago, I didn’t know what an agency was, I didn’t even know what a still life was. Green, green, green!

TP: Everyone starts off green at some point. So you were on staff, but after 9/11 you went into the freelance world. Were you photo assisting?

SF: I photo assisted quite a bit, but when I met the prop stylist Michael Hermiston, I started assisting with props too. At that point, I was working with a lot of still life guys, some fashion, I even got to work with Melvin Sokolsky three times as an intern. That was one of the coolest things! So my work started melding into props. I suppose I kind of worked for a lot of crazy people.

TP: You were so driven, you knew you wanted to be in this industry, but you wanted to try out a lot of roles. You did photo assisting,  set design assisting, and taking on an internship. You were really getting a variety of experiences and insights into the different aspects of this industry.

SF: At the time I didn’t even know I wanted do this. When I was 27,  I had a shared studio on 19th and Park Ave & thought I wanted to be a photographer.  That studio is probably one of my best New York stories. $500 a month at the time, but now it’s probably been turned into a Starbucks!  So while I was assisting all day long, working however many long hours, I would go to the studio at night, work until like 2 in the morning, get my shoots all ready for the weekends and just work, work, work all the time.

TP: There’s that Midwestern work ethic!

SF: I thought I wanted to make these cool environments, but how do I do that? Maybe fashion photography? It wasn’t the whole fashion aspect of it, but I wanted to make stuff. And shoot it. And light it. I loved the whole production. I used to throw a lot of parties, too and I would decorate or create themes. Even since I was a kid, it was always about creating an environment.

TP:  So perhaps it was a natural progression into set design, because you are now directly creating the entire environment for the shoot.

SF: Yep! But a few year later, it just wasn’t happening and I blew through all this money and I had to get rid of the studio.

TP: Was that your moment where you realized you needed to take a different path from shooting?

SF: Yeah, I had to let it go but it was so hard to do. You know that energy you feel when it’s time to be in charge of something? I had it (that energy) but it wasn’t focused.   I was so discouraged that I didn’t make it as a photographer. I look back now and I’m like, “Oh my God, I was just 29 or 30 years old, give me a break".   Then around age 32 I was assisting this stylist guy named Nick Barbario and he put me on a job by myself with Target while he was the lead on another project.  I had barely worked with the guy and he was like, “Okay, you’ll be fine". He was right,  I was very on it. One thing I always remember him telling me, that I now pass on to my own assistants is, “Anything that comes out of my mouth, you write it down". That advice and opportunity got me on track big time.

TP: And this got you on the path to becoming a prop stylist & set designer?

SF: Yes. Long story short, six months later Spur Productions called me about a job in Florida for Target. When I asked who I would be assisting, he said, “No, you’re leading the job.” Whatever I did on that one previous job — they must have seen something in me.  So my first job on my own was in Florida with Target in 2009. That was a full ten years after moving to NYC.  

At that point I wasn’t totally convinced and thought “This is going to be nuts if I get into props & set. This is no joke". A month later, photographer Amanda Pratt asked me to make these little sets, goofy little hats that I was spray painting in my hallway—

TP: And you got your inspiration back!

SF: Totally and I was so excited again!  At that moment I knew - this is what I want to do!

Even though it was during the Recession, many of the more established, higher-paid stylists weren’t getting the work, and here I was, coming in new and fresh on the scene.

TP: You were eager and willing to take on either multiple roles or a lower rate.

SF: Exactly. So that’s how I started getting my foot in the door a lot quicker. And it was just moving along. I wasn’t pushing so hard like when I was trying to make it as a photographer.  

TP: Sometimes when you’re not forcing something, you’re able to tap into what’s authentically you.  It’s a more natural flow & progression.

SF: Things have worked out, but let me tell you - it’s been a ride!  Even two years ago I was like, “I can’t do this anymore.” I was working way too much. Pushing myself too much. I had just turned 40, and I thought, “Now it’s time to settle down.”

TP: Well at some point, you learn to work smarter, not just harder. What has been one of your biggest inspirations to keep you going through those tough patches?

SF: The work of the photographer Cleo Sullivan has had special importance to me. My sister was working at a bookstore in the mall and brought me a copy of  Surface Magazine — it was her first Avant Guardian. The cover had this red and blue-faced girl, and that image alone was like, “That’s what I want to do.” I opened up the magazine and Cleo Sullivan’s work is in there, along with Sarah Silver. Greg Sorensen was on the cover, who I didn’t know of at the time. He’s another amazing guy to work with - simply awesome. A few years ago, I was cleaning house and came across the magazine, and thought, "Oh my God, that’s Greg Sorensen and here I am, repped by the same agency as Sarah Silver. That’s insane".

TP: Life comes full circle.

SF: So working with Cleo had been a goal of mine. I had even tried to get in with her while I had been photo assisting but it just never happened. Then,  I was placed on a job with her, and it became one of my major learning experiences, as it was really early on in my career.

It was the first time I was juggling back-to-back projects -  what I call work “runs” & I was on Day 30 of consecutive days of work. At that point in my life, I just wanted to haul ass like it was going out of style! She was one of the last runs I did. I had considered sending an assistant on a sourcing run, but Cleo once mentioned while we were prop shopping, “I’m not working with your assistant, I’m working with you.” Through this experience, I learned what could be delegated and what had to remain in my control.

TP: Since there is no one way to work in this industry, truly every job can be a learning opportunity. It’s good that you could keep perspective during that stressful stretch. With all the intense work you do, how do you currently find work/life balance?

SF: Well, in January I started exercising. I haven’t fully gotten there with the whole balance thing,  but I’m also trying to not take as many jobs.

Recently, I had been on hold for a couple of jobs & was also considering doing a test shoot, stressing about the overlapping dates and looking at the calendar, I was thinking, "Today’s Saturday. Next weekend is the 4th of July and I want to enjoy it for once".  I’m trying to notice when I need to say, “No.”    Yes, I’d like to create new work, but I know it’s more important for me to take a day off — or even a half day - sometimes!

TP: Oh yes, personally, I actually find that exercise is a great way to step away from the work hamster wheel on a daily basis. And as tough as it can be, saying no is super important! You can’t start a project with fresh ideas if you’re frazzled and jumping from one project to the next. You need a pause, some space for inspiration.   Where do you find your inspiration, Sara?

SF:  I'm not huge into social media much , but lately I have been getting back on Instagram.  I had a meeting with my agency and they told me it was important to check it out and now I actually find a lot of inspiration on there. I research a lot of artists -  not even photographers so much - looking at color stories... all sorts of good stuff!

I used to routinely drop $200 dollars at a nearby magazine shop - flipping through the printed pages. Now I don’t want to spend a lot of extra time online, unless I’m researching or looking up where I want to travel overseas. Last year, I did a volunteer experience in Greece where we worked on adobe houses.

TP: Sounds like travel and volunteer work has become part of your work/life balance.    

SF: Yes, last year, for the first time in my adult life, I took a month off. That was unheard of for me!   I had always taken little trips, but I decided work will be there when I get back - and I went to Greece and Portugal for a month.

TP: You mentioned that you have a studio manager. That individual probably really helps keep things going and allow you to take a month off. When did you decide to take on staff and make that leap of faith?

SF: There was a time when I was working around the clock -  coming home, doing invoicing, going through receipts, and I had a friend in between jobs who helped me out for 1-2 years, but now, I have an actual official studio manager, Karen… and she just happens to be my sister.

When she first moved out to New York, she couldn’t find a job, but things were really crazy for me and I just asked her if she could cover for me. We came up with a system, got through it, and now is incredible. She’s extremely organized, paperwork wise. I couldn’t do it without her at this point. My old studio manager was always telling me that everything was fine, but was actually so overwhelmed that rather than point-blank telling me, “No I don’t know what I’m doing”, there was a lot to rearrange and get back in order after that time.  It’s not totally her fault, it really is just so much to handle.  And it’s easy to hand things to a sibling you trust, and it’s been almost four years now.  My parents were just visiting and my mom’s like, “It’s so neat, you two used to talk about working together and now you’re doing it.”

TP: Do you have other individuals on staff with you? What do you look for in assistants?

SF: No, she’s the only one and she gets health insurance, the whole shebang. I could seriously write a book - and I’ve thought about it - about how to be a good assistant in New York City. Especially in this day and age, things have changed so much.  But what I look for is… Someone like me! Focusing on one of people I love working with right now is my assistant, Chris. He is young and eager, with those wide eyes I know I had in the beginning. He’s excited and enthusiastic. This is hard work; it isn’t just about making fun things all the time. He’s a hard worker. He’ll go above and beyond. We routinely go into overtime & he sticks with it. So I suppose I’ll add dedication and being organized.

There are things I’ve learned looking back, and I know why people might have been frustrated with me when I was assisting.  I learned some hard lessons like becoming too close with assistants, talking too much about my personal life, or working too much to the point of being fried and burnt out.

TP: How do you go about finding assistants?

SF: We have placed ads, for example in Art Cube ad and follow up with in-person interviews. Then, we may take on some interns or try a few people on trial jobs, before we take them on. My assistants Chris & Carmen started as an interns.

TP: Wow, Sara, look how your role has changed & come full circle - from assistant to individuals who often didn’t have the capacity to teach you, to now taking on that role of being generous with your assistants, showing them the ropes and even letting them use your studio for their own work. You’re teaching them skills, giving insight on how this industry works and you’re giving them the freedom to have a creative outlet of their own - that’s really lovely!

SF: David Lawrence took on that role for me - he is one of the best people I have ever worked with. He’s still a good friend of mine and I met great people through him. I could call him up and just ask him all sorts of questions and now that’s what I want to be for my own assistants. My former college also reached out to me about internship placements. When I came out here to New York, I didn’t know anybody. Simply knowing a few people in the business can be your “in.”  Yeah, we may have worked our butts off to get to a certain level in our career, but we wouldn’t have gotten here without the help of others!  

TP: That gratitude and appreciation is so important. Thank you for sharing your story Sara!

Sara Foldenauer is a set designer & prop stylist based in Brooklyn, NY.

Check out what’s in her toolkit by reading Tools of the Trade.

Interested to learn about having an agent from the perspective of a set designer? Read Sara’s thoughts “On Representation” here.

Interview by Annika Howe

Photos by Adrian Alston