A worn couch sitting squarely before a wood veneer wall, accented by the head of a deer. A child’s room with green- and white-striped wallpaper and matching furniture. Unremarkable on their own, but quite something else when you step back and take in the surroundings—busy New York City streets, graffitied walls, and rickety chain-link fences. Photographers and designers Justin Bettman and Gözde Eker are making waves with this new spin on set design, constructing meticulously designed photo settings on city sidewalks that appear to be found objects and transforming what would be a one-off photo shoot into an Instagram and Twitter hashtag phenomenon known as #setinthestreet. The duo have five of these rogue installations under their belts, with another coming in early 2015.
The Daily Beast caught up with Bettman, who works a day job as the art director for a national advertising firm, to get the rundown on his setups.
What got you started making these? Where did you get the idea?
So I wanted to do really stylized sets for a while. I started reaching out to a lot of set designers and set design agents, and then I met with Gözde, and she was interested in the same aesthetic I was going for. But both of us being artists, and with no brand behind it, we were like, “Well, how do we do this on a budget?”
We were on her roof talking and trying to come up with ideas, to think of alternatives to renting a studio. And I was like, “That wall down there on the street and the sidewalk make a right angle, and that’s literally all we need. Can we just shoot it outside?” From there the idea developed…If we were gonna shoot it outside, we thought it would be cool if we did it with furniture that we found or that people didn’t want.
The first set that we did, we didn’t leave it up after. We didn’t want to litter. But people were fascinated with what we were doing, and what we were shooting. My friend Jackie suggested, “Why don’t you leave it up?” And I was like, “That’s not a bad idea.” But I wanted to know what people were doing with them once I took the pictures, and that’s when I came up with the idea of doing an Instagram hashtag, so that it curated all the content.
How do you find the materials, and how do you manage to get them across New York to the sites?
Everything is a different situation, depending on where I find it and what the circumstances are. I’ll rent a U-Haul to pick it up, or I convinced a taxi SUV to put a couch in it for an extra $20 tip. It was only like 15 blocks. I was like, “I promise you I’m not crazy!”
I’m a big runner. I run to work every day. It’s like seven miles, and I try to do a different route every time. So a lot of the stuff I find while I’m running. Then, depending on how urgent I think it is to get it, sometimes I have to go back home and drop it off. My friend lives around the corner. He has a parking spot they don’t use, but it’s a padlocked, gated area, so that’s where I store all the furniture.
Once you’re ready to build, how do you design it? What’s the creative process behind it?
Usually the first step is finding a “hero piece.” I really wanted to do a bathtub and was looking for a month, and finally I was like, “I’m going to give up if I don’t find it today.” And I found a fucking bathtub! With the first set I did, the colors of the couch determined that the rest of it would be blue and yellow and white. So there’s the first hero piece, and then there’s smaller things that you add to make one piece into a whole set.
Do people ever give you a hard time?
We set ’em up overnight, so that way we can shoot it during sunrise and then leave. Hopefully it will be up for the day, if not a few days or even a week, before people start stealing shit. It takes two to three hours.
At night there’s really drunk people in the Lower East Side who are peeing on a wall and laughing, but people generally think that we have some reason to be there and no one actually questions us too much. And we don’t get any permits or anything, so that’s good.
So you’ve never had any run-ins with the authorities? That’s amazing.
A cop made a joke. I was walking by one of the sets like five days after it was up, a living room in Brooklyn, and the cop was like, “You want to stay here? $100 a night.” He had no idea it was my set.
Now that you’re gaining some fame, is there any negative reaction?
Some people are saying we’re littering, but when I build the set, there’s a sign that has the hashtag and below it there’s an asterisk that says it will be removed. Whatever isn’t stolen by a certain date we plan on cleaning up. Everything has disappeared so far, so we haven’t had to clean anything up.
What’s the underlying theme or message behind this as an art project?
It’s a message on how much waste there is in New York. People are blown away with how beautiful these sets look, and if they don’t see the zoomed-out picture, a lot of people think these were shot in a real home or a real set, and it’s almost entirely stuff that’s been thrown away. I think it’s an interesting commentary, that there’s a lot out there if you look for it.