Designer Crush: Deborah Riley


1. How did you get your start in design? 

I started my adventure in design as an architecture student in Queensland, Australia.  After three years of that, I moved across to a three year course in Stage Design at Australia’s National Institute of Dramatic Art (NIDA).  A couple of years after I graduated, the first Matrix came to town.  It was there that I had my first experience inside a film art department and was hooked.  Following The Matrix came Anna and the King which shot in Malaysia and Moulin Rouge, which is the highlight of my early career.  Also working as an art director in the art department of the Sydney Olympic Ceremonies was a very valuable and memorable experience.  Working inside other art departments was an important step for me before pursuing being a production designer myself.

2. Creating the visual world of the beloved Game of Thrones must have been an intimidating endeavor — how did that opportunity come about and what was your process for taking it on?

Yes, as I joined Game of Thrones in Season 4, it was already a beast of a show. Having met with HBO many years earlier after I first moved to Los Angeles, I was working on a tiny film in Baton Rouge when I received the call to interview for the position of production designer. It was quite a long interview process that required a lot of back and forth, showing my visual interpretation of the new city that was to be established, a pyramid city called Mereen. It was very exciting to be able to work with the art department on new sets, but in some ways equally as exciting to be the new custodian of the sets that were also already established, like Castle Black. It was through the execution of these sets that I understood the tone of the show and was then able to take that work and expand it into the new realms. 

3. What are some of the ways production design differs from traditional interior design and what are some ways in which the two worlds overlap?

The most obvious difference is that production design and set decoration for film are in response to story, characters and the movements of the camera.  Design for film can also take place in any time period or in a completely made-up world. I have never worked in traditional interior design, but imagine that the biggest overlap would be with restrictions of budget and time.  No matter what the project, there never seems to be enough of either and you always find yourself trying to create the impossible.

4. If you weren’t a production designer, what would your dream job be and why?

I often wish that I had of become a doctor.  I know it is so very different to the career path that that I find myself on, but it is the only other thing that I ever seriously considered when I was growing up and it still gnaws at the back of my brain today.  Working in the entertainment industry can be an indulgent and selfish pursuit. I have a deep respect for those that dedicate their life to the betterment of others. 

5. How does Australian design differ from California design and in what ways, if any, are they similar? 

One of the best exhibitions I have ever seen was at LACMA, called California Design 1930 – 1965: Living in a Modern Way.  I believe it has even been shown in Australia since. It is here that I first understood the roots of Californian design and where the inspiration of the greats like Charles and Ray Eames springs from.  The dawn of the Atomic Era and the influence of mass production, plastics and vehicle design set the design path for the decades that followed. Post-war Australia looked to the United States for cultural influence and given the similarities between our values, climates, and lighting conditions, parallels can be drawn.  As Australia grew and became more confident, we became aware of an Australian design aesthetic that speaks to an Australian style that is uncomplicated and reflects our own unique landscape, materials and environmental concerns.

6. Describe your ideal vacation.

It sounds simplistic, but as my working life is spent outside of Australia, my ideal vacation is to go home to Sydney and be in my own space and recharge.  It is important to remember where you come from.


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