My Cultural Life: Bunny Christie

The pioneering set designer on what she’s listening to, reading and more

Set designer Bunny Christie
Johan Persson

From early Fringe shows – in tents, above pubs – to the West End, Broadway and beyond, set production pioneer Bunny Christie has concocted everything from 1960s newsrooms to heady Shakespearean backdrops. The kinetic, computerised world of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time – ‘I wanted the design to be vivid, fast-paced and radical’ – won her a third Olivier award in 2012, and there’s been another since, plus an OBE last year. Now she's back behind the scenes at the National Theatre, where new play The Welkin follows a murder trial in 1750s Suffolk.

The Archies Sugar Sugar 1969 US vinyl
Archive PL

My all-time favourite pop song is Sugar Sugar by The Archies. It’s the first I remember and still the best.

The record that makes me instantly happy is Crazy by Gnarls Barkley. It brings back memories of my children dancing in the kitchen.

The book that has influenced me the most is Anna Karenina. Tolstoy does that miraculous thing of capturing exactly how you feel but would never say. I also love Cry the Beloved Country by Alan Paton, Gregory Crewdson’s book of photographs, Twilight, and Saul Bass, for his thoughts on design and working as a designer.

The film I always go back to is Field of Dreams. It’s not cool or arty, but it’s very soulful and makes me cry every time. ‘If you build it, they will come’ is a great quote.

Kevin Costner in Field of Dreams 1989
Field of Dreams / AF Archive

My favourite cultural spot is Sir John Soane’s Museum. The whole collection is amazing and crazy – that acid yellow drawing room is totally wild. The Hogarths are pretty special and wonderfully, theatrically displayed.

The last gallery I visited was the National Gallery of Denmark in Copenhagen. Seeing its collection of Scandinavian painters – especially Hammershøi – in the flesh in such a beautiful, quiet gallery was gorgeous.

National Museum of Denmark art gallery Copenhagen
National Museum of Denmark / Iain Masterton

My biggest collection? Like all women, I seem to have an accumulation of bras that don’t fit!

On a totally free day in London I’d swim in the Ladies’ Pond on Hampstead Heath, have a wander round Kenwood House and then eat cake. Or I might just window shop on Regent Street or people watch through Soho.

One of my favourite places to visit is Glen Esk in the Angus region of Scotland, where my grandad was a shepherd, my mother was evacuated during the war and where we have spent many family summers swimming in the rivers and cooking outside on the fire. There is no wi-fi and no mobile reception. I stayed there for six months through the autumn and winter when my children were very small and I needed a break from London life.

The Water of Mark Glen Esk Scotland
Glen Esk / Simon Price

A career highlight would have to be The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. I love the show, love the book and I loved dreaming up the look and feel of the production – watching the audience watch Curious is very moving. At the moment it's touring UK schools as a small pop-up version that I designed, so that students can see a piece of live theatre in their own school for free.

I would love to design for contemporary dance, which is a treat for me to go to. Pina Bausch Company, Crystal Pite, Hofesh Shechter, Michael Clark, Cassa Pancho and Ballet Black are all making incredible work.

My relationship with the National Theatre begin way back when I was still a student at Central St Martins – its then Design Associate Alison Chitty asked me to assist her. I’m not sure that I was a very good assistant but it gave me a fantastic introduction to the National, which is a wonderful place to work especially for designers as uniquely everything happens under one roof – set building, painting, prop making, costume and wig making, rehearsals and their three theatres.

The Welkin is on now until 28 March 2020. nationaltheatre.org.uk; bunnychristie.co.uk

A version of this article appeared in the January 2020 issue of ELLE Decoration

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