Monetizing Memories and Personifying Brands

Prop master talks passion and being his own boss

1124_CAR Kenyan Lewis_BB1

Lewis staged photo shoots and boutiques in high-end department stores for the rapper Andre Benjamin's Benjamin Bixby clothing line. (Source: Grace Kelsey)

When [I] buy a piece [at an antique show,] I charge [my] client at least five to eight times what [I] paid for it, if it is a good deal. There are definitely industry standards on some of the pieces, so you can’t get too crazy. There are no written rules. I research, get things appraised, and go to shows. How much I charge varies from piece to piece and the condition of the piece. A lot of [demand is based on] trends. Things are hot one moment and not the next.

I try not to sell a lot of my stuff. It is better for me to rent because I continually make money off of [the same] pieces. I charge a day rate, and per piece. I set rental rates at 35%-45% of the price of the item for seven days.  I also charge from $1,500 to $3,500 per hour to [consult with my clients about the image that the company wants to instill in customers].

How did you break into the prop design business?

I was a merchandiser at Bloomingdale’s. I assisted with windows, dressed mannequins, set up [boutiques] and did stuff around the store. It was $25,000 a year job. It’s not a lot of money. You have to make a name for yourself [to start your own prop business]. I freelanced at other places and used my experience with Bloomingdale’s, [which got respect from smaller stores]. I decorated parties, friends’ boutiques, worked with party promoters. A lot of merchandisers freelance as set designers on photo shoots. You have to be out there hitting the pavement.

What training do you need to be a prop master or set designer?

There really is no school you can go to learn set design, prop design, or prop buying. Take art, visual and interior design, and art history classes. Art history classes teach you about the history of certain styles so you know the era. You have to bring all of those [skills] together. These things are homegrown. I did visual arts in college and I did stuff on my own and [sought] people that were creative.

Painting or drawing classes come in handy when you are restoring a piece. Seventy-five percent of my business is doing signage right now. I just painted seven foot letters on the Ralph Lauren Polo Store on 72nd and Madison Avenue. Signage was definitely something to fall back on when the economy tanked. It is doing really well right now.

What skills translate well into your career?

Anyone who is very organized and has an eye for design will do well. Every time I walk in a place I am touching and feeling things, looking under tables, and looking at labels to see if it is real.

In this industry, is it better to work for yourself or a department store?

Both cases are good. You have the security if you are working for someone else, but it is a disadvantage when layoffs occur. Companies usually bring me on board as a consultant and have their team work around my ideas. I think it is best to be on the sidelines and come in and be the boss. Then you have the freedom to do whatever you want, and you can implement your style to them. You have more of a voice because they are looking for your style, so you have control. If you do a good job, they will end up calling you back and you could have a lifetime client. If you are working for that company you are under their control.

RESOURCES

USAntique Dealer

Movie Props Association

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