Justine Dunn

You may not have heard Justine Dunn’s name, but chances are that you have seen and admired her work.  Her Art Department credits include diverse titles, Crazy Rich Asians (2018), Thor: Ragnarok (2017) and Anna and the King (1999) among them.  She has been a set decorator, props master, and senior buyer for major films and acclaimed television series’.  The artist played a major role in bringing the world of Orphelin Bay to life in the Netflix series Tidelands (2018).  Dunn, and the entire creative team, portrayed the gritty, working-class fishermens world against the glamorous mystery of the island L’attent.  The thread of folklore, and a romantic web, hung between the two settings in the script and in the visual design.  Learn more about Justine Dunn and her work on Tidelands in our Q&A below.      

How did you get into the world of production design?

Originally, I studied for a Bachelor of Arts in Theatre at Queensland University of Technology and specialized in Stage Design in my final year. As part of my course we had to participate in work experience, which lead me into the world of TV commercials where you have 30 seconds to tell your visual story. The planning and detail of every shot by the Art Director and Director of Photography was fascinating. I didn’t even know such a job existed. After a short stint in the TV commercial world, I realized I was more interested in the bigger, more meaningful stories of Film and TV Series where you can develop whole worlds based around the script and its characters.

What drew you to scenic design?

The Production Design and Set Decoration roles are part of the story telling process. I have worked in many different roles that fall under the Art Department umbrella – On-Set Standby Props, Props Master, Buyer – but through Set Decoration we can build on a character’s background with the things we place around them in the set. The set decoration and background set should complement the story with colour choices, fabric, wallpaper and textures, lighting, furniture choices etc. For example a film set in the 1800’s will be researched for appropriate examples of what we know about the character i.e : age, occupation, gender, class, family history, Nationality, economic status.  But if we don’t have much information from the script, we create a backstory that helps us make the creative decisions for each set.

Dunn working on set.

Describe your most memorable projects:

“Anna and the King” filmed in Malaysia in 1999, starring Jodie Forster and Chow Yung Fat. Designed by Luciana Arrighi, it was nominated for an Academy Award in Production Design. It was the first film that I had worked on that was on such a grand scale, but still with amazing attention to detail.  With the restrictions of filming a story set in Thailand, but actually building the film sets over the border in Malaysia (a very different aesthetic and culture from Thailand), 1000’s of extras, elephants carrying actors, dinner parties for 300 people, it was epic. We had to smuggle statues of Buddha over the border into Malaysia for filming, as we had to re-create the Emerald Buddha Temple for the final scene of the film. I was based in Thailand as the Props Buyer, sending props and dressing by the truck-load over the border into Malaysia. I used to spend every Saturday with a wad of cash the size of a house brick at the ChutuChut Markets looking for fabrics, carvings, furniture, ceremonial and religious items, lighting, boats … 

If you could live in one of the sets that you’ve worked on, which one would you choose?

Great question and I often think about that when I’m working on a set ‘What would I do if I was living / working / hiding here?’  Probably the Jones House in “Swinging Safari” (2018). It was a cool party pad with sunken lounge and shag-pile carpet. It had a massive deck and a pool and a great record collection.

“Tidelands” premiered on Netflix here in the United States last December.  You were a part of the production team.  What was the creative vision for “Tidelands” before the show came to fruition?

It was writer Stephen Irwin who came up with the story and concept. We were given a detailed character breakdown, which gave us a lot of history and backstory for a realistic, grounded approach to a fantasy genre. Production Designer Matt Putland and I wanted to create a world that felt like the Tidelanders could have been living amongst us for centuries unnoticed. The actual commune of L’attent, we wanted to feel historical, symbolic and have strong links to the sea and water. We wanted the rest of Orphelin Bay to be grungy and look functional, like the Devil’s Tail, Bill’s Boat, and the Fish Co-op.

Is the premise of the show based on a particular myth or legend? 

It is a world created from the imagination of Stephen Irwin (the Writer and Co-Producer) then fleshed out with the input of Tracey Robertson, Nathan Mayfield and Leigh McGrath from Hoodlum Productions. Because Stephen is a novelist, he wrote the backstory for us and we received an extensive dossier of the Tidelanders history. 

The set is very imaginative.  L’attent (the island where the sirens live) could have been a cliche beach-y design – all tan and turquoise.  Instead, the island feels like an otherworld.  Adrielle’s house on the island is a very rich setting.  Lots of velvet and dark wood.  What was the inspiration for this?

We wanted to show a history and tradition of the Tidelander people.  So, we wanted the house to be historic, not modern. The colour palette was a selection of sea greens and dark, inky blues with flashes of silver, like an underwater effect. We placed water elements throughout the set and used all practical lighting which always looks moody against the glossy dark wood. We knew there was going to be a lot of bloodshed…

How long did it take to create Adrielle’s house?

From construction drawing to completely dressed…9 weeks and that is 3 different departments with slight crossover: Construction, Scenic, then Set Decoration. 

Where did the inspiration for the stainedglass window come from?  Also, who made it?

Matt Putland oversaw the Design Assistant Stephanie Brooke, who drew it by hand then transferred it to digital. It was symbolizing the matriarch of the Tidelands with her people at her feet.  It was actually printed onto vinyl in full scale then transferred to glass, each section stained individually, then edged with a substitute to look like lead-light. It had to be reworked a few times as one of the first versions was ‘too busty’ …LOL !

What was your favourite feature on the set of “Tidelands”?  Furniture, wall color, etc.

Definitely the sparkly wallpaper (From Zepel Fabrics) in the Foyer of Adrielle’s house… but I also really loved the 5m drop waterfall drapes in the main hall …and the bespoke resin filled dining…and … 

Follow @justdunnthis on Instagram to learn more about her work and see behind-the-scenes images from Tidelands and her other projects.

Alison Dahl Kelly – Flora Obscura

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Flora Obscura was born from the plant life of designer Alison Dahl Kelly’s Brooklyn, New York backyard.  Sustainably sourced plants provide their painterly touch to versatile kimonos, tunics, and wraps.  The garments are purposefully accessible to many shapes, sizes, and tastes – whether you dress to feel out of this world, or you’re looking for a statement piece.  Mysterious and demure, moody like a dark sea, and startling vermillion hues are all found among the line of high fashion silk pieces.

Ancient, all-natural dying techniques are an enduring craft in Alison’s Brooklyn and Cape Cod studios.  Born in Vermont, she studied fashion and metal smithing around the globe, before settling back in the North East to create collections of her own.  Inspired by her life-long love of nature the artist approached plant life to create prints.  Wildly harvested, homegrown, and rescued from the florist, each plant has a personality of its own.  Alison found that some leave a mirror of themselves on the silk, other finicky specimens transfer little or not at all.  Still, other plants possess a natural compound that makes them extract the color of the fabric instead, providing a ghost-like effect.  From Alison’s mastery of these dyeing techniques Flora Obscura became a line of truly unique pieces.  They can make you feel like a fantasy novel heroine, or update your urban wardrobe with an unexpected, sweeping touch.

Learn more about Alison and her fascination with flora and design in our Q&A below:


Where did you grow up?  Did that influence your work as an artist?

I began my life in the mountains of Vermont and then we moved to Cape Cod. Cape Cod was a beautiful place to grow up and I spent much of my childhood outdoors.  I was a total hippie as a teenager, an “artist in the making,” sewing my own clothes, eating vegetarian, painting the seascapes, taking artful photos in nature. The coastline varies dramatically across the Cape, and it’s covered with ponds, marshes, gardens and lovely woods to walk in. The native flora has always been a source of inspiration and I’m thrilled to be using it directly in my work today.

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How did Flora Obscura come to be?  

Before F.O. I had a wedding and bridesmaid dress line called Dahl. I did this for about 7 years, my own wedding having been the catalyst for the first collection. Eventually I began aching for something new. I ended up getting pregnant and was so sick that I had to spend the first few months in bed. I had A LOT of time to think. During this time, I decided that I wanted to create my own prints on fabric. I wanted to make a simple garment that was uniquely printed or hand-dyed that many different people could wear, hence the kimono. I took a dye class and then read as many books and online sources I could find about natural dyeing. Slowly, I built a collection and quietly created a website and Instagram account.


What were your early experiments like?

I immediately dove into bundle dyeing, a process where plant matter is laid directly onto fabric, then tightly bound to be steamed or immersed in a hot dye bath. The heat permanently transfers alluring imprints & colors from the flora onto the fabric. It can be wonderfully mystical or totally disappointing – but I had to try. It was Springtime in Brooklyn and I had collected flowers from my backyard and rolled them up in silk and waited for the magic to happen. The very first item I made was a silk dress to wear to a friend’s wedding. I was so encouraged by the positive comments I got from it, it all just seemed so right, so it became my next adventure.


What inspired you to use natural dying techniques?  How did you learn about this?

An interest in natural dyeing came to be while I was pregnant and experimenting with synthetic dyes – there are so many dangers and precautions one must take into consideration when using synthetic dyes. Textile mills are some of the top polluters in the world because of the dye and dye processes that are in use. I wanted an alternative, and thankfully there were a few pioneering women, like India Flint and Irit Dulman, sharing resources and experiments for natural dyeing. I started experimenting myself and was thrilled with the results of my first try. From then I was hooked.

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Describe the steps of your dye process:

Flora Obscura items go through a multi-step process. The plain white silk is first hand-dyed with a specific color in mind with dyes made from plants, then the silk is imbued with flora through an alchemical steaming process (which we call bundle dyeing or eco-printing). These steps may take place again until the desired color palate is achieved. Finally, my favorite part, the silk is cut and sewn into a garment.


How are the beautiful plants sourced? 

Dye materials are harvested wildly, homegrown, attained from certified organic vendors and salvaged from florists. Some come from walks I take with the dog in Brooklyn, many come from harvesting the natural flora of Cape Cod.


My assumption is that each flower dyes the same color as it’s petals.  Is that true, or is there room for variation?

If only! I know many natural dye artisans who, like me, become disappointed when a vivid color fades or doesn’t transfer at all. Some flora does indeed imbue the natural color it possesses, but many don’t or need the help of mordants or modifiers to achieve a certain color. Hibiscus is an example of a plant that gives quite a literal imprint that is true to the natural color. Then there are plants that “discharge” or remove color from the fabric, such as sumac leaves, leaving their imprint in place. There’s a lot of trial and error and there’s no one way that something will work every time. Each experiment is unique. So, when you get something good you’re thrilled and hopefully took notes.

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You’ve studied in the US, Italy, and Mexico.  Were these experiences similar, or did each one teach you something different about art?  

My college experience was tailor-made to suit my desires: to be a bohemian and an artist, and somehow my parents were okay with it. My first year of college was spent at the Instituto de Allende, in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, as a Fine Art major. I fell in love with silversmithing and mainly concentrated on that. Then I spent 2 years doing the Fashion Design Intensive Program at the Lorenzo de’Medici Scuola de’Arte in Firenze, Italia. I ultimately came back to the states and earned a BFA in Fashion Design from Massachusetts College of Art & Design in Boston.


How do you re-charge when you hit a creative slump?  

It can be quite depressing when one isn’t feeling inspired or excited to get to work and I struggle to find balance as a wife, mother and artist. Unless I have to, I try not to work when I’m not feeling it, otherwise I tend to be lazy or make poor decisions. To recharge I try to get out in nature, read inspiring books, look at art.

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What do you like to do when you are not designing textiles?

I’m a mother of a 2-year old and she takes up a lot of my time. However, I practice yoga every day, like to take walks with my Shiba Inu Sargent, drink coffee, read about the latest natural dye techniques and experiments, take art classes and eat good food.


What is your favorite plant and why?

Staghorn Sumac. You can make a delicious cocktail with the berries, which in turn are glorious eco-printers, both the berries and the leaves.


See more of Alison’s work at floraobscura.nyc

All images courtesy of Flora Obscura