Meet the #GIRLBOSS: Set Designer Adi Goodrich

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LA-based set designer Adi Goodrich builds stuff, paints stuff, designs stuffs, makes stuff. And she's good at all of it!

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LA-based set designer Adi Goodrich has a whole heap of energy. She kinda needs it, given that she currently oversees a six-man team, who help bring her awesome sets (for clients including Target, Cheerios, Paper Magazine, and Native Shoes) to life. We love Adi's work because it's vibrant, humorous, and full of energy, and we're obsessed with Adi because she's all of the above in person. Learn a bit more this hardgrafting #GIRLBOSS below.

What advice would you give to young women who want your career?

I get a lot of emails these days from younger ladies who are interested in set design, which is a newer thing for me. I don’t think so many people were into set design as a career, at least in a ‘hip’ way before… I think it’s becoming cooler. It’s exciting to hear young girls reach out and say: “I don’t know how to build, what do I do?”

What do you tell them?

To find an old guy, a mentor, to teach you how to build!

Who taught you how to build?

My Dad. He was a woodworker and a semi-truck mechanic, so I’ve just been building forever with him.

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Where did you grow up?

In a tiny farm town called Momence, just outside of Chicago. My brother didn’t really pick [the building] up so much, and my dad needed a kid to hand him tools. He had an architectural restoration business and when we were younger he was a mechanic, too. Every Saturday I would put on my little coveralls and fix trucks with him. Eventually, I quit high school to be a woodworker with him, and we ran the restoration/antique business together for a while.

I always remember having a tool in my hand. I don’t think he particularly wanted me to be a builder, but he ran his own business and he needed a free set of hands. So he was like, “Hey kid. Can you knock down this wall?” And I always loved it. I also always drew and painted. When my sister was in school, she would teach me how to paint when she got home from community college at night. Eventually I went to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

Why did you drop out of high school?

Because I was done! It’s a small farm town, so they kind of let anything go - kids dropped out to have babies, or because they didn’t want to be there. I presented the idea that I would be a woodworker, and work full-time, and then travel to Italy to study architecture. I was 17. It was some kind of crazy idea, but my principal was like: “Sounds good.”

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What did you actually do?

I did exactly that— worked with my Dad for a year, and then went to college.

Was college a better experience for you than school?

No. It was pretty awful. There were a lot of partying kids not really taking it very seriously, so I just nerded out alone. There’s a museum attached to the school, The Art Institute of Chicago, so I’d just go into the archive and the permanent collection, and ask to see Cezanne’s sketchbook or Matisse’s sketchbook and totally geek out and immerse myself. I made friends with the paintings instead of the students, who would party all the time and then bring some awful painting into class. That was hard for me to see, when I was working full time.

You were working a full-time job while you were at college?

Yes, I was working at an art supply store and assisting an artist,Tony Fitzpatrick. I was also making my own work; lots of illustrations and paintings. I did a lot of collage work. Fibers. Printmaking. Animation. I kind of bounced around all the departments, which I regretted slightly when I graduated - I felt i should’ve specialized in one medium. Now I can see that’s exactly what I needed. Every set I design changes and requires different skills. Sometimes we’re painting murals, sometimes we’re building, sometimes we’re working with fabric. So it actually made sense in the end!

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What was your first job out of college?

I randomly got a job at Barneys New York in Beverly Hills doing window displays, so I moved to LA to do that. Eventually I moved to Anthropologie to do their windows. In the meantime I met this guy named Jimmy Marble, and he asked me to do sets for his movies. I didn’t know how to build sets, but I knew I wanted to be friends with this guy ‘cause he was the coolest! So I did that. I’d wake up at 4.30am, go to work, and then get off at 2pm or 3pm and make movies at his place all time. Eventually I quit my job and started a business doing production and set design.

That can’t have been easy. Where did you find the energy?

I don’t know! You just have to find it… Not to get morbid, but I often think about there being an expiration date on things. There’s an expiration date on life, right? There’s an expiration date on fads. One day the world won’t think that sets are coolest, so you have to make as much sh*t as you can now, while you’re young and you have the energy and ideas. So I guess it’s just about remembering the fleetingness of things, and keeping that in mind when you work.

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Do you find it difficult to create work that gets torn down after the photo has been taken?

It’s tough, but the photo lives on. That’s the most important part of it.  We do put a lot of effort and time into the things that get built, and then we either throw them away or reuse the materials. But this is what I’m doing currently, and we have to do as much as we possibly can. Every project is tough so we’re learning, we’re collecting all these materials and ways to make things. I don’t know if I’ll do this forever, but it’s about making as much as you can now, so your fingers remember those moves to make new things in the future, whatever it may be.

What do you love about what you’re doing right now?

It’s cool that people are excited to see completely created worlds. They actually want things physically made from the ground up, and that’s what I do. I rarely do prop-shopping; we make literally everything on set. It’s exciting when someone comes to me and says: “How would you want a build a city scene in the Netherlands?” And I’m like, “OK, we’ll build it like this.”  It’s crazy that they say “yea, ok!”

All your projects are very different but have a consistent aesthetic. How would you describe it?

I often say that people just want me for my shapes and colors, and I guess that’s the greatest common denominator of my work. It’s very graphic. Sometimes people call me a graphic designer, which a lot of people think of as an artist who just works digitally. It’s really all about basic shapes and colors, and the ways those two things can interact with each other to create the world we’re trying to illustrate.

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When did you set up your own practice?

I’ve had a studio since college. I quit my ‘proper’ job four years ago, but I’ve been doing production design for five years. Back then, we made our own films - my first project involved building a 40 foot submarine. I had absolutely no idea what I was doing! We didn’t have any money, so we built everything out of cardboard and just painted it to look right. We made an entire engine room for about 25 dollars.

So that era of your career was all about learning to be resourceful?

Yeah, that was a big thing. Now we have budgets so it doesn’t always have to be cheap, but we’re still resourceful. Sometimes we’ll build things out of carpet, and we’ll get remnants from an old warehouse—all the ugly colors that no-one wants.

How do you manage a team?

It’s tough! All of the people who work for me are friends.  Eric Johnson has been working for me for two years officially, but we’ve been building together for 20 years. We used to build skate ramps together in Momence, Illinois and now we build sets in Hollywood. Everyone who works for me has a side business - either as a musician or an artist or a furniture designer - these guys are constantly working with their hands and figuring stuff out for their own projects. That helps.

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If you hadn’t had an ‘old guy’ for a dad, how would you have gone about find someone to learn from?

I grew up with a woodworker dad, but what I do now is not fine woodworking or architecture. When I wanted to learn production design, which is completely different,  I got a job cleaning houses and contacted all the production designers in town who I thought were really cool, and just asked if I could work for them. I said I’d do anything. One guy who’s now my mentor, Bradley Thordarson, was like “Yeah, come on by.” I worked for free for him for a bit, then he hired me. After that, I started to get my own jobs, and eventually I started doing my own thing.

You’re a hustler!

You have to be! And you have to be humble, too. Never be a know-it-all. Approach the people you really admire, whether it’s a Joe Schmo or somebody ‘famous’. Email them, call them, do whatever you can to tell them that 1) they’re amazing, 2) they inspire everything you do, and 3) you want to meet them and work for them.

What was the first job you got on your own?

Oh my god. It was a music video. We had a $500 budget, I worked for two weeks and made $12. I did everything by myself. It’s been five years of figuring out how to actually make money while still putting money into the materials and crew.

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And how have you figured that process out?

When I started out, it was about using affordable materials. But mostly it was just doing everything myself - I’d stay up all night hand painting a patterned wall so I didn’t have to spend money on the printing.

In set design, there’s always a basic crew of a lead man, builders, set dressers, and an art coordinator. When I first started, I would pretend that I had a prop builder working with me. I’d tell my clients that my prop builder needed a little more time when actually the prop builder was me! So I’d just do it all myself, not sleep, and look like total garbage. There was a three-year period when I just looked like a total garbage can. I just didn’t have time to look after myself at all.

What’s next?

I have a couple of ad jobs coming up, one with Instagram. And, I’m designing a wedding for Sarah Kissell, an art director at Nasty Gal.  But because I’ve spent the last five years working for clients and gathering a crew, right now I’m just trying to figure out how to make time for personal projects. All my work seems personal - I get to make whatever I want to make, pretty much - but there’s always a brand behind it. Right now I want to make work where I’m the only author - maybe build some small sets, and take all the photos myself.

Is it difficult being a woman in your industry? 

Being a girl in my position is actually very empowering. Girls really have a mind for organization. They know how to be strong bosses, and how to care for people, and keep goals in mind. Sometimes when I show up to set, people are taken aback by the fact I’m a girl. But when I actually start doing the work I’m organized, I’m kind, I’m on top of it, I’m respectful, and not acting like a total dick head. So it’s actually really great, and I hope more girls start to get into it— they seem to be interested, more and more. Girls are going to start doing it, and they can all come over here and work for me!

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