How to Become a Scenographer

Text by Laura Gröndahl

Studies in scenography as a major began at the Faculty of Visual Communication of the University of Art and Design Helsinki in1973. Before that, education in this field had been available under the title of Decorative Painting and Exhibition Design in the Graphic Design major in the 1960s and for a short while at the Theatre School in the 1950s. Most of the scenographers had started their careers under a more experienced master after some general studies in visual arts.

Recently promoted into the rank of an institution of higher learning, the University of Art and Design Helsinki was a small and cosy community where everybody knew everybody and where it was easy for students to switch majors. The tradition of Functionalist design was in full swing. Teaching was based on learning by doing, on workshops, on fine arts taught to everyone, and on a basic course on the general principles of visual design. Subjects related to professional activities were still taught in the traditional master-apprentice relationship. The teachers would pass their methods of work to their students via practical assignments or shared projects. “Tacit” knowledge was a big part of the contents and many artists were not accustomed to putting their skills to words.

The set decoration students in the early days soon concluded that what they had learned studying their major was far from sufficient and took it upon themselves to start insisting for reforms. Eeva Ijäs, later a long-term lecturer, thinks that she acquired solid bases for working as a teacher by studying herself in the middle of problems: ideas came to light as to what should be taught at set decoration courses. It has been typical for later schooling in scenography too that the students have not only assumed the know-how available but have also related to it critically and have actively created new contents based on their own experiences.

In 1973, the Finnish National Opera set designer Paul Suominen began developing a systematic curriculum in cooperation with students. He insisted on the character of scenography as a form of artistic design which required careful analysis, technical skills, and enough time above all. Mainly a specialist of backdrop painting, of perspective illusions/forced perspectives, and of technical drawing, Suominen acted as senior teacher in scenography and later as associate professor in 1974–1991. He understood his limitations concerning modern theatre and, broad-minded as he was, hired some of his younger colleagues as assistant lecturers. In particular, the classes by Måns Hedström, the scenographer of the KOM theatre at the time, were in a contrast of particular interest to Suominen’s views. Instead of sketches meant to illustrate plays, he gave assignments in which abstract spatial composition was studied with scale models and visual ideas were reduced into as simple a form as possible.

Eeva Ijäs was in charge of cooperation with the Theatre School in the 1970s already. Scenography students were full members of the Tikapuuteatteri training theatre whose productions formed the bulk of the entire theatre training. The objective was to learn a shared method of work by repeating the process of theatre work in model plays staged by a professional director or set designer or in the students’ own productions. Teaching dramaturgy was key because it was considered common for all theatre makers. The so-called Lesart method (known as “Lukutapa” in Finnish) in use consisted in an attempt to reach the main ideas of the play and stage them via careful close reading. For a scenographer, this entailed a close cooperation with the director around a scale model on the basis of text analysis.

The working methods of the Theatre Academy underwent a radical change when Jouko Turkka, who concentrated on physical acting, was elected its rector in 1982. He had no interest in cooperating with scenographers on the basis of advance planning. The links between the schools were severed for a decade with the exception of teaching in light design which had started as part of the Theatre Academy in Tampere in 1986. An entire generation of scenographers and directors studied their respective trades without much contact with each other. This led into separate trains of thought and even conflicts in the field of theatre.

The links between the schools were severed for a decade

The text-based spatial design and visual dramaturgy that had developed on the basis of the Lesart lived on, albeit in a changed form, in the basics of scenography teaching. The students would create fictitious productions with the help of scale models but would also make free-form installations and spatial works based on various texts. They would try their hand directly in professional theatres or in film and television productions until cooperation with the Theatre Academy began to pick up. In 1992, Eeva Ijäs and the director Laura Jäntti devised a design course for directors and scenographers, with dramaturges, light designers, and sound designers joining in later. The large curriculum that stems from it forms the backbone of the current BA in scenography.

Film and television work had been playing second fiddle in the first decades of scenography education. Even in the 1980s, it was still taught only for four hours a week during two years. Teachers would come and go, contents were often inarticulate, and the training productions made with students did not match set designers’ wishes. Things started to improve after Anu Maja switched from the Finnish Broadcasting Company to the post of associate professor in scenography in 1991 and became the assistant rector of the entire institution soon after. The first move towards computer-assisted drawing software, virtual sets, and digital techniques was made at around the same time. The University of Art and Design Helsinki immediately grasped their potential.

The resources of scenography training increased at a rapid pace and there were more teaching staff. Until the mid-1980s, there had been one permanent teacher and around twenty students majoring in set design. Ten years later, scenography had evolved into an independent department with a professor, a lecturer, two full-time assistant teachers, and an assistant. The number of students had nearly doubled. In the beginning of the 1990s, a small studio was given for their disposal for spatial and material experiments. The Media Centre LUME completed in 1999 had state-of-the-art teaching facilities including big and well-equipped film and television studios, a studio stage, wood and metal workshops, and computer classrooms.

The 1990s were a period of intensively expanding views when teachers developed new teaching, travelled, and became more internationalized. The entire university institution was reformed. Work for creating systematic degree requirements, study programmes, and course descriptions as well as for collecting student feedback was begun. The degree was divided into BA and MA studies. A school-like timetable was rejected in favour of periodical teaching which made organizing project-natured courses easier. New technologies such as computer-assisted design (CAD), digital image processing, virtual set design techniques, and use of light effects, videos, and projections in productions gave birth to new teaching needs. Artistic and practice-based research were taking their first steps.

Students majoring in design also wished for new kinds of artistic contents when Suominen and the other senior teachers retired in the beginning of the 1990s. Many students including Liisa Ikonen, Pauli Hurme, Anne Karttunen, Tarja Väätäinen, and Kimmo Sirén stayed at the Department as teachers straight after graduating.  Like the previous student generation, they too aimed at bringing up in their courses what they felt they had lacked themselves. Experimental workshops were set up where students engaged in dialogue with various spaces, built installations, wrote their observations down, and broadened their views on set design. Given the short supply of courses shared with the Theatre Academy, they were free to study visual and spatial dramaturgy without having to care about the necessities of stage action. Independent practice strengthened the students’ artistic identity, but this came under criticism in the field because it was feared that the situation would alienate them from hands-on work.

Upon the completion of the LUME centre, the Film Department moved under the same roof with the rest of the University of Art and Design Helsinki from locations along the Pursimiehenkatu street and in the water towers of Ilmala among other places. Cooperation between the training programmes in scenography and film became closer and, in 2001, they were integrated into the same department. Film productions began to take more and more time in the scenography students’ schedule which was also burdened with courses in digital techniques and with the research and theory subjects included in the new degree requirements. Theatre and film studies simply could not fit in the same degree anymore and, in 2003, scenography was divided in two areas of specialization. The five-year degree education in costume design which had been preceded by a two-year pilot MA programme was launched in the same year.

The Production Design, Scenography, and Costume Design areas of specialization constitute the current Department of Production Design and Scenography which, together with the School for Film and Television,  is part of the Department of Film, Television and Scenography, Aalto University School of Arts, Design and Architecture, Finland. At its best, the School for Production Design and Scenography had a teaching staff of three professors, six lecturers, two workshop masters, a study coordinator, and a departmental secretary. At present, the number of lecturers has gone down to four.

During the 21st century, teaching scenography has been more clearly integrated into either theatre or motion picture education. Students in motion picture and television design, film directing, production, screenwriting, cinematography, editing, and sound and costume design initiate themselves together to every phase and sector of filmmaking. Practical assignments proceed from smaller-scale jobs towards work on short films that resemble professional productions.

The cooperation of scenography in performing arts as an area of orientation with the Theatre Academy has thrived in the 21stcentury and has become even stronger than before after the Department of Light and Sound Design moved to Helsinki in 2007. The shared courses and productions currently form a significant part of the studies but, administratively, the scenography option has remained a tiny isolated isle in the middle of a department specialized in filmmaking. The fusion of the University of Arts and Design into the giant Aalto University in 2010 did not facilitate inter-university coordination of teaching. Indeed, the students in the field submitted in the spring of 2017 a unanimous motion for moving Scenography into the Theatre Academy where they feel mentally at home.

Main sources

Laura Gröndahl. 2015. “Stage Design at the Crossroads of Different Operational Cultures. Mapping the History of Scenography Education in Finland.” Nordic Theatre Studies 27:2. 86–102.
Elisa Joro. 2012. Taideyliopistojen toiminta-alusta. Helsinki: Theatrekorkeakoulu and AaltoARTS.
Timo Kallinen. 2004. Teatterikorkeakoulun synty. Ammattikoulusta akatemiaksi 1971–1991. Helsinki: LIKE
Outi Lahtinen. 2010. “Koulutusta teatteriammatteihin” in Mikko-Olavi Seppälä – Katri Tanskanen (ed.), Suomen Teatteri ja draama. Helsinki: LIKE.
Sotamaa & al. (ed.) Ateneum Maskerad. Taideteollisuuden muotoja ja murroksia. Helsinki: Taideteollinen korkeakoulu.
Eeva Ijäs, interviews on September 15 and 24, 2014
Liisa Ikonen, interview on September 12, 2014
Maija Louhio, interview on January 14, 2015
Eeva Ijäs’ archives.