Studio Visit

Sonia Rentsch

Lucy Feagins
Lucy Feagins
17th of February 2012
'Sweet Treats' - a still life series conceptualised and styled by Sonia Rentsch, photographed by Scott Newett
'Sweet Treats' - a still life series styled by Sonia Rentsch and photographed by Scott Newett
'Dinner Etiquette' - a still life series conceptualised and styled by Sonia Rentsch, photographed by Scott Newett
'Dinner Etiquette' - a still life series styled by Sonia Rentsch and photographed by Scott Newett

I can hardly bring myself to share the amazing work of Melbourne multidisciplinary designer, art director and still life stylist Sonia Rentsch with you today.  I am TORN only because Sonia is still somewhat of an unsung hero and I KNOW every good editor in the land will be gobsmacked by her stunning work, and in all likelihood will be dreaming up a brief for her before the day it out :)  Because she is that good.

But my good heart and generous spirit has won out today because this girl really deserves some excellent projects with excellent budgets!   SO I hope she still remembers TDF when she is working for Vogue Living or Chanel or *Wallpaper magazine. :)

Sonia is a sweet, thoughtful and rather tiny person, whose immense talents are sometimes hidden by her quiet, almost timid nature and genuine modesty.  After studying Industrial Design and working with respected Melbourne events / production company Moth Design for a time, Sonia followed her heart to Berlin, where she tracked down famed art director Sarah Illenberger and scored a job assisting on the most weird and wonderful art direction projects over there.  This inspiring time has ignited in Sonia a burning passion for truly imaginative prop styling and art direction - a niche she's keen to fill here on home soil.

Sonia's star is certainly on the rise - in addition to her inspired editorial styling projects, Sonia collaborated on Kimbra's ‘Good Intent’ music video last year, and she's just won a grant to produce a city laneway installation with artist Ben Davis later this year.  Watch this space!

As you can see by the incredible body of work here, Sonia really does see the world in a unique way.  By pulling together her magical stylised arrangements with the utmost attention to detail, she highlights beauty and interest in the most unlikely places.  The result is so striking everytime.  Each and every one of the images we've selected here demands a double take - how can a spotted cupcake wrapper and two silk scarves look SO incredibly beautiful!?  Sonia just makes it so. She's a magician, I tell ya!

Massive thanks to Sonia for sharing her incredible body of work with us today - thanks, too, to her collaborators, especially photographer Scott Newett with whom Sonia created the amazing 'Sweet Treats' and 'Dinner Etiquette' series we have featured so heavily here.  What a team!

You’ve had a varied mix of jobs and work experience overseas too – can you tell us a little about your career background - what path led to what you’re doing now?

I originally completed an Industrial Design degree after an inspired art teacher pushed me firmly towards working in a creative field.  I was in the last group of folk who still studied mechanical and hand drawing as well as funny things like welding, foundry and model building, all of which enabled me to construct things visually, not just with my head but my hands.

I specialised in exhibition and product design and spent a good few years afterwards creating things like door handles and lights.  It never quite felt right though, and I took a short sojourn at the National Design Centre overseeing the production of a little publication called The Design Papers. I got to spend hours researching and collating other peoples' work while also working with an incredible team of women who pulled together international programs and exhibitions. One of these woman was the amazing Kate Hannaford whose company, Moth Design would do all the outsourced production on events. She picked up on my visual sense and took me under her wing. Perhaps it was a natural evolution that I eventually ended up working beside her at Moth. There we designed for large scale but short term events and spaces, like sets for the L’Oreal Melbourne Fashion Festival and Marquees for the Spring Racing Carnival. It was a brilliant job and an amazing, feisty team who constantly pushed me to think creatively.

After a number of years with Moth, I moved to Berlin where I chased down a woman called Sarah Illenberger. I had seen her work and was blown away by her capability to produce projects full of inspired idiosyncratic splendour - even for mainstream editorial publications. I spent a few months working with her, responding to requests like ‘can you carve this pumpkin into a motor bike helmet?’ and ‘do you mind building an atomic mushroom cloud out of chicken wire and kleenex?’ The pace and construct of her ideas teamed with an invariable ability to think outside the box was awe-inspiring, and I learnt an incredible amount from her.

On returning to Australia I realized there existed great possibility in continuing that style of work here.

I’ve been styling Still Life projects and film sets ever since. I love what I do!

Prop styling is such a super specific thing and SO amazing when done well - yet it’s rarely done in an inspired or original way, at least here in Australia.  What drew you to prop styling originally, and what is inspiring or informing your styling work at the moment?

The painter John Constable once said ‘I never saw an ugly thing in my life: for let the form of an object be what it may – light, shade and perspective will always make it beautiful’.

If you take a moment to look at the world, the design of objects or the things that happen in nature - the form of a flower, the texture of a field of grass, the curve of a vase - you start realizing that everything in it’s own way has beauty in it. I enjoy manipulating and focusing in on those details. Simplicity is the best kind of complexity. Colour, form and light have endless possibilites within them - you make small alterations and a whole universe appears.

Creating Still Life work was to me just a slide in the scale of my ideas – instead of conceiving spaces that you function within, I now create modest-sized sets that 90% of the time fit on a tabletop.  It allows me the freedom of rarely having to compromise an idea due to budget restraints or client requests, engingeering or safety – it’s a constructed, contained space where anything goes.

More from 'Dinner Etiquette' - a still life series styled by Sonia Rentsch, photographed by Scott Newett
More from 'Dinner Etiquette' - a still life series styled by Sonia Rentsch and photographed by Scott Newett

What have been one or two favourite recent projects?

I’ve been fortunate that people have been really open to my work and my ideas since I got home, which means I’ve been really busy. It’s hard to pick favourites as I feel like every project is a like a new pair of shoes... and I do so like shoes.

There is a little piece I created for a magazine entitled ‘The Wearers Right’ that is about to be launched that I sourced 35 hands, 5 legs, one foot and a series of ears, noses and eyeballs for. The moment of discovery when I found a man who had all of those things in one warehouse times a thousand was a memorable moment I’ll never forget - I wish I could take you all back there with me.

I’d also have to say that working with the talented Guy Franklin in creating the Kimbra ‘Good Intent’ clip was a challenging and fun foray into another media, as was a short comedy piece I did with Ed Goldner & Rhys Mitchell staring Glenn Robbins at the stunning Boyd Baker House (the latter is still being edited but I’ll post it on my site when it’s done).

Working with the photographer Scott Newett on a few little pet projects has also been amazing – we’re talking about making the stories into limited edition prints – Scott is a genius when it comes to lighting and simply watching him work is a bit of a thrill.

I was also just awareded a City of Melbourne Laneway Grant in collaboration with the mulit-talented artist Ben Davis. The piece is called ‘ Our Flower Garden’ and will be going up in the city around June/July. Being handed a laneway to claim as our own was a pretty exciting moment.

Keep your eyes peeled!

What does a typical day at work involve for you?

Generally you’ll find me composing ideas and taking rough snaps of them to pitch or when I’m in a studio shooting I’ll be moving things millimetres to get them ‘just so’.

I spend a lot of time meeting with photographers, emailing people I’d like to collaborate with, sourcing all sorts of weird things that I think ‘may’ turn into an idea and generally moving at high speed like a mariachi.

'A Balanced Existence - concept and food styling by Sonia Rentsch, photography by willem dirk du toit

Which designers, stylists or creative people are making work that you are loving right now?

Right this very minute!

Visual genius - Carl Kleiner

Flat lay the right way - Scheltens Abbenes

Colour and repetition - Lucas Blalock

Humour -

Inspired friends - Craig and Karl

Can you list for us 5 resources across any media you turn to when in need of a bolt of creative inspiration for a new brief or new project?

In no particular order..

1. always, always amazing.

2. overload in a good way.

3. on the pulse.

4. dream land large scale.

5. photographers are hot.

Can I add more? My magazine collection is out of control – if you ever need to find me I’m possibly in Mag Nation – my rotation includes Apartamento, I Love You Magazine, Acne Paper and Qvest.  A must own in the book collection is also Julius Shulman;s – ‘Modernism Rediscovered’.

What would be your dream creative project?

Being paid to fly anywhere to shoot for the New York Times T Magazine or any of the publications I just listed.

What are you looking forward to ?

See above.

Produced by Sarah Illenberger, assisted by Sonia Rentsch for Suddeutsch Zeitung Magazin in Berlin.  photography by Attila Hartwig.
Produced by Sarah Illenberger, assisted by Sonia Rentsch for Suddeutsch Zeitung Magazin in Berlin.  photography by Attila Hartwig.
Melbourne Questions

You favourite fossicking spots in Melbourne for prop styling gold and/or home accessories?

You can’t beat a good op shop, though I tend to stray a little further away from the city for the real gold. I’m not sure I can give away my greatest secrets but coastal is a good hint.

I generally find that for Still Life work, Swan Street haunts like Dimmy’s and Victoria Street 2 bob stores are still the best things around.

When I’ve been a wise woman and put my money into the ‘savings’ account or I have a nice budget to play with I do also like:

Modern History (their staff are easy on the eyes – always a bonus)

Like Butter - These guys whip up the most amazing lighting/furniture/all terrain anything you need in record time and always with a smile – that’s a hot ticket in my book.

What and where was the last great meal you ate in Melbourne?

My friend Najib’s house.  Seriously - I’ve just asked him to give me cooking lessons.

On an affordable, friendly and delicious publicly accessible scale - Yim Yams on Smith Street is a regular, and when I’m feeling dandy, even one course at Cumulus sets my heart a-flutter.

Where would we find you on a typical Saturday morning?

In my dressing gown and slippers, eating breakfast off a tray by the open window in the morning light... most likely reading one of the publications above or the daily news.  I still have a big thing for reading printed materials rather than sitting in front of a computer when I have the time.

Melbourne’s best kept secret?

I have two particular favourites.

Gerald's Bar on Rathdowne Street - You can’t beat a seat at the bar with a good friend.

And in summer time – the Carlton Gardens. Did you know you can have pizza delivered there?  Everything about that place is good.

'Sweet Treats' - a still life series styled by Sonia Rentsch and photographed by Scott Newett

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