Inside the world of Set Designing: Historical Set Design (2024)

The evolution of set design is intertwined with the development of theatre, film, and other forms of visual storytelling. Set design has evolved through the years in a number of ways since its earliest days in the 15th century B.C. Set designs have moved from natural outdoor lightings such as sun and moonlight to indoor artificial structures where the weather cannot be a determinant of theatre and performances.

The evolvement of set design through the years has had a significant impact on the performances in the theatre. Notably, technology has played a big role in the advancement of set design. It has shaped the type of theatre available and even the mode of watching them. From the days of Magic Lantern, which was developed in 1603 for animation, to 3D animation in recent years, technology has improved set design tremendously.

Here’s an overview of the history of set designs:

Ancient and Medieval Periods

In ancient Greece, theatrical productions were set in outdoor amphitheaters, and several devices were used to move or change scenes. The Eccylemawas a wheeled platform that was usually rolled out from the stage building (Skene) through large doors (Paraskenia). It was used for the purpose of revealing scenes that took place inside the stage building, especially important scenes. It allowed the audience to witness the aftermath of these events. TheSkenewas in the form of a building located behind the stage. It was used as a backdrop for the actors and provided a space for them to change costumes. TheSkenewas mostly decorated with painted panels and architectural elements that represented the setting of the play. It also has multiple levels, allowing for actors to enter and exit from different points.

Periaktoiwas three-sided rotating prisms or columns. Each face of the Periaktoswas painted with different scenery or backdrops, enabling quick scene changes. By rotating the Periaktoi, various scenes could be shown to the audience, giving them a visual representation of various locations within the play. The Machina, was a machine that allowed actors, often portraying gods or divine beings, to be lowered onto the stage or lifted into the air. It was an early type of stage machinery and, of course, special effects. Pinakeswere painted panels that were attached to the Skene or placed in front of it, revealing various scenes or locations relevant to the play. Pinakes were often used together with the periaktoi and other set elements to create a visual backdrop for the actors and improve the atmosphere of the performance.

The Roman set designs attempted to improve the Greek design, but some of their theatres were simple modifications away from the Greek theatres. The most important development in the Roman theatres was the integration of the three separate parts of the Greek theatre, that is, the orchestra, auditorium, and Skene, into one structure.

One interesting result of the medieval theatre was the significant development in the number of special effects such as Hellsmouth. Theatrical performances took place in churches and town squares.

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Rennaisance and Baroque Periods

The Italian Renaissance Scenery is a product of the Italian Renaissance, and it is based on the discovery of the rules of perspective and their application to architecture. The evolution of the theatrical scenery during this period was a result of the work of some artists over a period of 250 years. In 1415, the secret of linear perspective, a system used for creating the illusion of space and distance on a flat surface, was discovered by Filippo Brunelleschi. In 1435, the first treatise on geometric principles of linear perspective was published by Leon Battista Alberti. In 1545, Architetura, the first detailed work on the design of a court theatre, was published by Sebastiano Serlio. Set design saw significant development during the Renaissance, especially in theatre signs. During this period, there was considerable interest in classical models, which included elements of Greek and Roman theatrical practice.

Set design became more prominent during the Baroque period. They used bold backdrops, beautiful architectural facades, and sophisticated mechanics to create striking and visually stunning scenes. The French court under Louis XIV was often famous for its stunning designs by famous artists and architects.

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19th and 20th Century

During the 19th century, the Industrial Revolution added approximately improvements in technology and stagecraft. Gas lighting fixtures were introduced, enabling more revolutionary lighting effects. The use of realistic scenery and three-dimensional sets became popular, bringing approximately a greater immersion in set designs and theatrical productions. The three major scenic trends in set designs during the 19th century were the historically accurate scenery, the box set development, and a revolt against the two-dimensional world of painted canvas.

The trend towards historically accurate scenery began in Germany around 1810 and can be accredited to Josef Schreyvogel, the director of Vienna’s Brugtheater. Introducing the box set to the English stage was the work of Actor-Manager Mme. Vestris.

Towards the end of the 19th century, two designers, Adolph Appia, and Edward Gordon Craig, revolted against the scenic practices of the traditional European acting company. They proposed a three-dimensional actor standing on a flat floor surrounded by acres of “realistically” painted canvas. Their controversial ideas later on, became the basis of the New Stagecraft.

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In the 20th century, set design accelerated its scope with the development of cinema. Film sets became more elaborate; the use of the combination of practical sets, miniatures, matte paintings, and visual results created mesmeric environments. The emergence of avant-garde theater and experimental productions further pushed the boundaries of set design, with artists like Adolphe Appia and Edward Gordon Craig advocating for extra abstract and symbolic set designs. Set designs have been greatly stimulated by artistic movements inclusive of expressionism and surrealism. Technological advancements in stagecraft and production strategies, in addition, increased the possibilities of set design. The introduction of new materials, which include lightweight metals and plastics, allowed for extra versatile and ingenious set constructions. In the 20th century, set design became a more collaborative technique, regarding close coordination among set designers, directors, lighting designers, costume designers, and other creative specialists.

Contemporary Set Design

Today, set design embraces numerous variety of styles and strategies. From meticulously crafted and historically correct sets to minimalistic and idea-driven designs, every method serves its motive to enhance the storytelling process. Set design is an important instrument in developing the mood, environment, and visible narrative of a theatrical production. The design takes the audience in and connects them with the characters and events unfolding before them. As an architecture, set design combines artistic vision, and technical expertise with a thorough understanding of space and aesthetics to create a spectacular setting that serves as a stage for memorable performances.


Encyclopedia Britannica (2003). Stage Design. [Online]. Available at:

Larry Wild. (2002). A Brief History of Scene Design. Nothern South University.

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Inside the world of Set Designing: Historical Set Design (2024)


What is the history of a set designer? ›

A set designer is responsible for creating convincing, creative scenery for a production. The history of set design dates all the way back to Ancient Greece. Giacomo Torelli was an Italian set designer responsible for the invention of impressive machinery used to move set pieces.

What are the components of set design? ›

Elements of Set Design
  • Harmony. The visible things we see in a design.
  • Space. The sense of order or agreement among the parts of a whole; aesthetically pleasing relationships among parts of a whole.
  • Shape. ...
  • Texture. ...
  • Line. ...
  • Diorama Project: ...
  • Balance. ...
  • Principles of Design.

Why is the set design important? ›

Purpose of Set Design

One of the most important functions of set design is to communicate where the action is taking place. The setting can be as general as a city or as specific as a room of a house on a particular street in that city.

What is the future of set design? ›

Elements like Computer graphics, green screens and LED walls are the present and evolving future of set design in movies. Like architecture, the design of the set stands out and works in a limited capacity while at the same time evoking a strong sense of place.

When did design history begin? ›

Historians trace the origins of graphic design to early cave paintings from about 38,000 BC. These early forms of cave paintings were how people communicated from one generation to another. Subjects in these cave paintings mainly featured animals, handprints, weapons, and other references to hunting.

What are 3 things set designers do? ›

A set designer's job on a movie or theater production is to design, prototype, and build a set.

What is the concept of set design? ›

Set design is the creation of the physical space in which the action of a performed event takes place. Primarily used to describe theater productions, it constitutes all the scenery, furniture, props, appearance, and overall look of the stage.

What is the most important part of a set design? ›

The most important part of set design is to convey to the audience where the action of the play is taking place. A scene change often occurs between acts (or during an interval) to indicate a shift in location, but may also be carried out throughout the production.

What makes an effective set design? ›

As well as conveying the setting, the set design should suggest the period. of the play. For example, a play set in a living room in the 1970s could feature yellow and browns within the patterned walls and floors and large retro furniture associated with the era.

What is the main goal of the set designer? ›

The main goal is to design and create the overall scenery, where the performance will take place. In short, the set designer creates a look of the set. When everything is done, the set will hopefully create the correct mood and atmosphere required for the script.

What is the first thing a set designer comes up with? ›


The set designer creates a design concept, which extends the director's production concept into a complete plan for the visual aspects of the production.

Is there a demand for set designers? ›

Vacancies for this career have increased by 25.60 percent nationwide in that time, with an average growth of 1.60 percent per year. Demand for Set and Exhibit Designers is expected to go up, with an expected 4,410 new jobs filled by 2029. This represents an annual increase of 4.46 percent over the next few years.

Do set designers build the set? ›

A set designer is a creative professional tasked with conceptualizing, designing, and overseeing the construction of sets for theatrical, film, or television productions. They utilize their artistic abilities and technical skills to create environments that enhance the narrative and aesthetic of the production.

What is a set designer? ›


A set designer is a creative professional tasked with conceptualizing, designing, and overseeing the construction of sets for theatrical, film, or television productions.

Who was the first designer? ›

An Englishman living in Paris, Charles Frederick Worth (1825 - 1905) is regarded as the first designer in the modern sense of the term, with a large business employing many largely anonymous tailors and seamstresses. A former draper, Worth's success was such that he was able to dictate what customers should wear.

Who was the first American set designer? ›

Robert Edmond Jones (December 12, 1887 – November 26, 1954) was an American scenic, lighting, and costume designer. He is credited with incorporating the new stagecraft into the American drama.

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