14 October 2020
“The designer should begin with a clear mind so that style can be the outcome rather than the point of departure.”
Philippi, Herbert. “The Styles of Scene Design.” Stagecraft and Scene Design. Cambridge, Mass, USA: Riverside Press, 1953, pp. 164-184.
Published in 1953, this is a chapter within a scene design textbook that lists and describes the various common styles of set design found on the American theatrical stage of its time. It is meant to be practical and useful to a beginning set designer or set design student. The categories, in order, are:
Brief descriptions of each style are provided along with some basic art historical context, simple illustrations and examples of each style that relate to the theatrical productions on the American stage contemporary to the time of the book’s publishing. The author repeatedly stresses that no particular style is ever found in a pure form and most set designs incorporate a healthy mix of different styles. Notably, the “styles” are presented as things in and of themselves, respectful of the plays and performances which they serve. They are not presented as organic components of theatrical creation driven by artistic vision or impulse.
How does this relate to scenography?
Certainly, this text is out of date and does not sync well with today’s postmodern ideas about style and design in either art history or theater. However, it is useful to students by creating a springboard for a general discussion of style on the stage. By providing the exact names and definitions for certain design categories, it establishes a basic vocabulary that students may decide to accept, reject, update or build upon. While a reader may find it hackneyed and old-fashioned, its sincerity and simplicity can also be viewed as a refreshing counterpoint to today’s more complicated understanding of theatrical practice.