From sculpture to set design: Jessica Ciantar, Lord Whitney’s designer and assistant
Jessica Ciantar was working at a coffee shop in Kent when her manager put her in touch with Lord Whitney founders Amy and Rebekah. With a degree in fine art from London’s prestigious Slade School of Art, Jessica specialised in sculpture and painting before taking freelance work as a set-design assistant as a graduate. But it was in Lord Whitney that she finally found just the right job – moving all the way to Leeds to secure the position. She tells us about her experience of leaving the capital, and details a role that sees her designing and building a wide range of scenes – learning from YouTube tutorials and mastering her glue-gun technique along the way.
Designer and Assistant Art Director at Lord Whitney (2015–present)
Freelance Set Design Assistant (and various coffee-shop jobs)
BA Fine Art, UCL (Slade School of Fine Art), 2009–2013
How would you describe your job?
A bit of everything really – being adaptable is key. I am an assistant for large jobs on set, and then help with the running of the studio and workshop, making sure things are stocked and in the right place. I also lead on smaller jobs that don't require Bek or Amy.
What does a typical working day look like?
Typical working day? Not sure that exists at Lord Whitney Studios. But we all have breakfast together when working in the studio and then get on with our tasks for the day. I live just down the road which is really great. In the summer there is a really nice walk to work through woods and a farm. It's a great start to the day.
When we have a big job on it gets a bit hectic as most projects have a short turn-around time. You can leave the studio after a chilled evening sorting the workshop, and the next day you’ll come in to email carnage if a job has been confirmed.
“After going to uni and living in London, Leeds is a dream.”
What do you like about working in Leeds?
It's extremely affordable. After going to uni and living in London, Leeds is a dream. The creative scene here is small but vibrant and everyone seems to know each other. It’s great having the financial freedom to say no to certain jobs, and have time to focus on our own individual creative projects. The only downside is having to travel to London for most of our work, but you get used to it. Once you move out of London you realise that there is life in the rest of the UK, and it's only a car or train journey away.
How did you land your current job?
I was working in a coffee shop in Kent, and my manager told me about a friend in a duo whose work I would love, and the duo were Amy Lord and Rebekah Whitney.
I emailed and did a week’s work experience and loved it. They were looking for an assistant designer so I offered to move to Leeds and they took me on. I think I just slotted into the studio quite easily which helped. I'm still working on getting the rest of the team onboard with my questionable music taste, one tune at a time.
Where does the majority of your work take place?
Half is studio-based and the other is on set, mostly in London, sometimes in Manchester. There are a lot of van journeys and hotels, which I don't mind as I would hate to be in front of a computer all the time.
At the beginning of a project I will be computer-based, doing design sheets and set visuals. As the project goes on I am prop sourcing, painting in the studio, packing art kits and more.
How collaborative is your role?
I work with every member of the Lord Whitney team at some point on a job, but mainly my role sits alongside Bek or Amy, then Rufus and other set builders. Externally , if I am the lead, I work with producers, set builders – lots of different people. At Lord Whitney it is definitely a team effort. We are a tight-knit unit.
Does your job allow for a good work-life balance?
Yes, but I think that is because we are based in Leeds. We can afford to not have a big job on for a month, and take some time to restock and recoup.
What has been the most exciting project of the last twelve months?
We did Primark's Christmas campaign and the crew working on the job were amazing. We all worked together as a team, whereas some jobs it can feel very 'us and them'. We always joke about the different departments eating on separate tables at lunch on a shoot, like in a school dining hall. Art department aren't allowed to hang out with the cool kids.
What skills are essential to your job?
Like most creative jobs, knowing how to use Adobe programmes is essential. Also a general knowledge of different materials for building. In this role you have to be constantly learning and experimenting with new materials and techniques. Also, not taking your self too seriously!
What tools do you use most for your work?
My MacBook, multiple notebooks, Trello, and the physical tools used on set are endless (I’m a dab-hand with a glue gun!)
How I Got Here
What did you want to be growing up?
All my older siblings had done art for A-level and I wanted to be an artist in the most romantic sense possible. I did have an actual passion for the subject by the time I matured, but mainly I never wanted to grow up and art was the best route for that.
What influence has your upbringing had on your work?
I come from a family full of very confident, loud females. My parents encouraged me to do whatever inspired me. My dad was an electrician and a wizard at all things DIY.
From a young age I learnt that men and women can do the same jobs regardless of their gender. My mum was the main bread winner in the house and definitely in charge, but she couldn't do the things she did without the support of her wing man, my dad.
How (if at all) is the subject you studied useful to your current role?
At university I specialised in painting and then half-way through moved to sculpture. In my final year I tried to learn as many different techniques and materials as possible. I think my degree was perfect for the work I do, but it took a while to find the right job.
“There are so many different skills required in set design; praise be to the YouTube tutorial.”
What were your first jobs?
I worked my way through all the big-name supermarkets as a teenager, then progressed onto bars and restaurants at uni; I also assisted set designers for a year in London before moving to Leeds.
Assisting showed me all the alternative ways you can address situations. Being thrown in at the deep end really helps. You learn to adapt quickly, which is key for set design.
What skills have you learnt along the way?
There are so many different skills required in set design; praise be to the YouTube tutorial. Some are ridiculous and some are feats of impossible engineering. You just have to crack on!
What’s been your biggest challenge?
The biggest challenge is explaining what I do to my parents. The second is internal monologues of self-doubt. It’s so hard to know if you’re doing the 'right' thing. I try to not think of the future too much as it scares me. There isn't a huge amount of money to be made in the creative sector.
I worry about the industry as a whole with the recent cuts to the arts. Schools are discouraging or cutting funding for creative subjects. There needs to be more government backing, but I fear this won’t be happening soon.
Is your job what you thought it would be?
The pace shocked me at first. It’s all or nothing, and it took a while to get used to the quiet periods. The amount of emails surprised me too and still does!
What would you like to do next?
Have more confidence in my personal work. I am a very private person when I work, so sharing a studio was a big step for me. I need to care bit less about what people think of my work. I am currently undergoing a social media detox!
Words of Wisdom
What advice would you give to a young creative wanting to do the same kind of work?
Show initiative and have resilience; having lots of followers on Instagram doesn't make you more employable. Read a book, go to the library and do your research!
Get your head out of your phone and engage with the world around you. Stand out for your work ethic and personality rather than being outrageous and nonchalant.
Interview by Indi Davies
Mention Jessica Ciantar
Mention Lord Whitney
Photography by Sophie Stafford