Do you ever encounter people with jobs that make you angry that life is too short to have 75 different careers? That’s how I felt when I saw Janelle’s website BECAUSE I DIDN’T EVEN KNOW I WANTED TO BE A PROP STYLIST UNTIL NOW! Today, she’s telling us how she became a prop stylist, where she finds her best props, and how we can all set up better Instagram vignettes.
Tell us a bit about yourself!
My name is Janelle Gonyea and I’m a prop stylist, originally from Detroit and now living in Chicago. I love my job because it fulfills all of the things I would do in my free time anyway: hunt for props at flea markets, hand dye fabrics, paint, illustrate, craft. I like to play creatively both at work and at home.
For those of us who don’t know, what does a prop stylist, well, DO?
Prop stylists source (rent/buy/make) and then style all of the details necessary to create the “look” for a shoot. It is equal parts shopping, hauling, organizing, actually styling, and problem solving, with an emphasis on problem solving.
There are several avenues you can work in as a prop stylist, ranging from big brands to smaller companies, from film and tv, to commercial and advertising. Some prop stylists do it all, while others choose to specialize. For example, prop stylists who specialize in tabletop source the plates, linens, flatware, utensils, backdrops, etc.
For photo stylists the sourcing would be more extensive, including decor, flowers, plants, artwork, and anything else needed to set the scene. We often make things- I’ve created anything from floral arrangements and holiday garlands to lettering envelopes and creating paintings.
There is a lot of prep and moving parts to make a shot look effortless. Once on set, we work with the rest of the team putting all of the pieces together to make magic happen!
How did you get into prop styling?
I’ve been arranging things in space for as long as I can remember. I didn’t know that prop styling was an actual job until my late twenties. At the time I was renting props for events, and began to use my inventory to create styled vignettes to start a portfolio.
Eventually, I wanted to get inside experience and learn more about the ins-and-outs of working as a stylist, so I trained with NYC stylist Robin Zachary, through her Prop Styling Experience program.
Are you self-employed? Are there companies who keep prop stylists on staff?
There are some companies that have prop stylists on staff, or a short list of stylists they almost always work with. Usually these are bigger companies (Knorr, Crate and Barrel, Land of Nod, Kraft) who shoot product so frequently that it benefits them to have someone who knows their style and can jump in easily.
As a self-employed freelance stylist, I’ve done a little bit of everything, and occasionally assist other stylists as well. Usually, I work with small brands to create imagery for their websites, blogs, marketing, and social media. I enjoy working one-on-one with business owners to help tell their stories in a visual way. The rise of social media and Instagram has created a need for beautiful images to represent products and ideas, and that’s where I come in.
Could you walk us through an average day on the job?
The day generally flows like this:
1/ Load in/Show up on set
2/ Meet team members, briefly talk over how the day will go
3/ Unpack and organize props
4/ Reference shot list/style sheets and pull props for each shot
5/ Set up first shot
6/ Be on hand to make any necessary tweaks
7/ If possible during shooting, prepare props for next shot
8/ Get client approval for finished shot/breakdown that shot
9/ Repeat 5-8 until the day is done!
At some point in there, we break for lunch. Sometimes we realize other props are needed for upcoming days, and I do what I can to start locating those on breaks. If there are multiple shoot days, I like to end the day setting up the first shot for the next day. It makes for a much smoother morning!
Part of your job is sourcing props. Where do you find the best stuff?
This really depends on the job! I go where the prop list requires. Beyond prop rental companies, WestElm, CB2, Crate and Barrel, HomeGoods and World Market are my go-tos for tabletop items. Target has great decor.
Here in Chicago, I like to shop local when I want to keep the items after the job, frequenting Alapash in Ravenswood and Unison in Wicker Park. I’ve spent a lot of time collecting vintage and handmade pieces from flea markets, thrift shops and makers over the years, so I use my own inventory to supplement when I can.
Which props are your favorites?
Choosing a favorite prop sometimes feels like choosing a favorite child. Can you have just one? There are so many pieces in my collection that are special for different reasons. If I had to choose, my favorite props would be a set of handmade pottery plates and tea cups from a trip to Japan and a Shibori dyed fabric I bought at a flea market in NYC.
You also rent out your props. Can you tell us how this works?
Yes, I was renting the props before I was styling them! It’s a pretty simple process. Generally people will email me a list of what they’re looking for and for when, and if they’re available for those dates, we go ahead with the order.
Props are usually rented for up to a week, and clients have the option of picking up the props themselves, or paying a delivery fee. Oftentimes the rental coincides with a job I’m working, so I pack the props and bring them along.
What makes a vignette special? What do you add to make a scene particularly memorable?
The pieces in the vignette have to tell a story, to speak to each other somehow- whether that is a common thread in material or color, types of objects or pattern. I like to add vintage or handmade items to vignettes, because those pieces are one of a kind and will add more life and specialness.
Sometimes I will hand draw an illustration or create a painted background to give it more depth. The vignette should have a flow or movement, and feel naturally collected.
Is this a skillset that you actively work on?
Absolutely! Like any creative endeavor, styling is something I’m always working on. Whether that’s getting inspiration by looking through magazines at beautiful spreads, perusing Pinterest styling boards and following stylists on IG, or actively practicing by creating details and playing with vignettes.
Practicing is so vital- you have more freedom to create and try things out without time constraints or added pressure of being on the job.
I imagine many of us have Instagram accounts that could benefit from your expertise. What are three things the average photographer/Instagram user can do to create better flat-lays?
1. Trust your voice and don’t get too distracted by trends. Use items that are personal to you and your style. You’ll stand out from the crowd and people will respond to your individuality.
2. Make sure the composition is balanced. Decide whether you want it symmetrical or not, and go from there. I usually start by positioning the biggest pieces first, and layer in the smaller items between them.
3. Consider using custom backdrops that align with your branding. Your flat lays will stand out on a color or pattern and your feed will look consistent.
Thanks so much for sharing your story, Janelle! Do you guys have any questions for her?