By Design

When rapper 21 Savage released his 2018 album, I Am > I Was, he premiered it with a multimedia experience at an Atlanta motel where the rooms were turned into sets channeling the vibe of some of the songs. The interactive Motel 21 project won a Clio Award for designer Marina Skye who helped bring it to life, and whose work as what she calls “a mood magician” has also been featured on music tours, in stores and restaurants, and on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon.


 “I love the fact that people who may not know each other, have never met, will never see each other again, can come into a space and feel something together,” she says of her “three jobs in one” as a set designer, creative director and an art director.


Helping turn clients’ ideas into reality involves flair and flexibility: she has helped convert shipping containers into writers’ rooms at a recording studio and hunted down 1970s pencil sharpeners and rotary phones to make a period video look authentic.


 “God has blessed me with the ability to create spaces that can make you feel anything,” says Skye. “It could make you feel small. It could make you feel warm, happy, fuzzy, scared.” She starts by determining “how do I want people to feel when they walk into this space? If it’s a stage for a tour, how do I want the crowd to feel? Do I want them to feel this individually or as a collective or does it vary by the song on the setlist?”


Skye “stumbled” into what she now describes as her “beautiful passion.” She was working in marketing for IKEA after graduating from Clark Atlanta University with a degree in public relations and a minor in U.S. history when her brother was shot and killed. His death was the catalyst for her “taking a deep dive [into] what I really wanted to do. Like, What am I doing with my time? What do I want to do to make a difference?”


Quitting her job, she spent the next 18 months living off savings and doing creative work for free—photo and video shoots, set creation. She also started a vintage clothing line, Youth Has No Age, which led to her designing booths for trade shows. “I started to realize I was making my booth look very different than everyone else’s, and I was no longer paying attention to the clothing at all,” she says. “It was all about the aesthetic, the background, the environment, how I’m making people feel.”


Skye’s first big project was Club Daydreams in Atlanta, a multilevel nightclub that she designed to be “a mixed world between Alice in Wonderland and Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.” More work soon followed, including Atlanta’s Trap Music Museum celebrating hip-hop (and founded by rapper T.I.), described by National Geographic as “one of the best musical landmarks in the Deep South.”


Humility and confidence
In addition to taking on new projects personally, Skye wants to establish a hub for others starting out in her world. “There are no Black female prop shops in the state of Georgia. I want to create a space for young creatives to go and play around in… whether you’re a photographer, a model, an upcoming set designer, a movie producer; a prop shop is something that Atlanta definitely needs.”


That period when she was working for free was formative, helping her get the experience she needed to get where she wanted to go. It required a balance of confidence and humility, she says. “You are never going to go anywhere if you assume that you know everything or the person who’s giving this job to you needs you. It’s quite the opposite actually. There are thousands of people that do the same work; you’re just one of them, you know?


“I’ve always had this, at times probably just like delusional, inquisitiveness: I will try it, whatever it is. If it’s something that I feel like could better me or I could learn from, I’m going to do it and it doesn’t matter if it pays me or not.” What’s important is that “it feeds my soul, and it makes sense.”


She attributes that attitude to never having been afraid to get her hands dirty. “Even as a kid, I was a tomboy who was climbing trees and stuff like that, skipping rocks. I’ve always been this I’m-not-too-good-for-anything type of person.” At the same time, while being open to learning from others, she hasn’t wanted to work for them forever. So, she founded Set by Skye (which describes itself as “the intersection of art and imagination”).


“Doing this for another company, it’s never been a thought,” she says. “It was always like, ‘I’m just gonna figure it out.’ I want to be able to have these ideas, take them, and create them in real life without any limits, to be the decision-maker. I always felt I might come into roadblocks if I was working under a big company, so why not just start my own?”


What’s one piece of advice Skye would like to have been able to give her younger self? Don’t be in such a hurry to get there that you miss the blessings of being here. “Try and be present; figure out what that looks like and feels like for you,” she says. For too long in the early stages of her career she was always thinking seven steps ahead, “so even when I would be doing a project, I didn’t give myself the time to be excited in it because I’d be creating a set but be thinking about the fourth set after it.”


To young people setting out in life, Skye says document your dreams, so they don’t evaporate. “All the crazy ideas that people think are just out of this world, write them down,” she suggests. They will become reference points as you get older.


“There are so many ideas that I come up with in the middle of the night, or I’ll have random conversations and things will just pop into my mind and they’ll just be absolutely insane. But I take notes of these things and then they end up being a part of sets later on. Never count anything out. Everything, anything—literally anything—is possible.”


MARINA SKYE: MY WAYMAKERS
My family has always been supportive throughout this whole journey of me figuring out what I do… They would just know I’d be up at all hours of the night, coming home at crazy hours, doing random things and they’d be like, “I support you. I don’t really know what’s happening, but we believe you, we love you and we support you.”


People that I do not know, but I hope I am able to meet soon: the absolutely amazing [costume designer] Ruth E. Carter is a huge inspiration for me. She has paved ways for herself and others that are just incredible and she’s done it with such style and grace. Then there’s an amazing experience and set designer Es Devlin. She’s based in the UK, and she was the first female set designer I’d ever heard of. She has an amazing way of balancing creativity and then including tech in that. They’re very big inspirations for me.

From an interview with Louis Carr