Express yourself through set-design

Young V&A
January 28, 2022

Young V&A will showcase a variety of creative careers relating to our collections, to inspire and inform children. In the new Imagine Gallery, young visitors will be invited to explore a magical array of set and costume designers through displays of V&A collection objects.

This February half-term, we will be exploring what it’s like to be a set designer with children at the Tower Hamlets Holiday Childcare Scheme, using simple materials and objects to create a 3D world that express emotions.

Introducing Debbie Duru

Debbie Duru, theatre set designer, still from a film made by Mmoloki Chrystie © Victoria and Albert Museum

We have been developing our workshop with designer Debbie Duru. Debbie works in theatre, film and fashion, and designs spaces for performance.

Set design can communicate emotion and feeling in theatre. Debbie explains how:

A set designer is responsible for creating a world for stories to exist on stage. Colour, shape and texture can all help us tell stories to the audience.

What colours or shapes might you use for a happy or sad story? Can you think of other feelings or emotions that you want to express through design?

Inspired by the V&A Collection

(Activities recommended for 5+)

Set designers often use smaller-scale models to test their ideas, before creating the version that goes on the stage. There are many of these models in the V&A collection.

Look at some of these models for set design; some of them have brighter colours than others. Some designs have figures like animals, while others only have simple shapes which could become many things in performance. Square, circle, and triangle … what do you think these shapes could represent?

Set model for the ‘Under The Sea’ designed by Erté, 1938. Museum no. E.1325&A-1970 © Victoria and Albert Museum
Set model for ‘As You Like It’ at the National Theatre, designed by Ralph Koltai, 1967. Museum no. S.474-1980 © Victoria and Albert Museum. Notice how Koltai used clear perspex and reflective materials instead of creating a realistic design.
Set model for ‘King Lear’ at the Palace Theatre by Isamu Noguchi 1955. Museum. no. E.5324-1960 © Victoria and Albert Museum

What stories can you imagine happening on these stage sets?

Colour, shape and texture for a season

It’s now your turn to think like a set designer.

Pick a season as a starting point for your design. These are some questions to help you think about this season.

  • What do you like – or not like – about the weather right now?
  • How does the season make you feel?
  • What kinds of colours, shapes or textures can you find in nature at the moment?

For example, you might pick a winter theme. Winter makes me think of outdoor walks on a cold sunny day. And I would be well wrapped in a big coat and a scarf.

Now, look around your home, and find materials and objects that have colours or textures that remind you of the season.

Our example of materials and objects found at home, representing the theme of winter

What can you find at home?

Create a shoebox set design

Let’s create a set design in a box!

You will need: an old shoebox or cardboard box with a lid, scissors, cellophane x 2 colours, decorative materials (found objects from a previous activity, modelling clay, pipe cleaners, kitchen foil etc.), glue, torch.

We will use a gift box, blue and red cellophane, and modelling clay in white and blue for our winter-themed set! If you don’t have cellophane, transparent sweet wrappers can work.

1. Create a peep hole and skylights on the box

Cut 2 windows on the lid, which will create a lighting effect, and 1x window on the side of the box, which will be a peep hole.

Once you created windows using scissors, put 2 layers of cellophane to cover the holes on the lid.

Now you have the base for your set design!

2. Create a set design inside the box

Now is the time for you to get creative with the materials you found at home.

Cotton wool made us think of snowy ground. We also used kitchen foil to create a sparkly effect to represent frosty plants and trees.

Keep looking through the peep hole to see what else you might want to add in your design.

Fix the materials inside the box using tape and glue.
This is the final design of our set when you look from the above.

3. Play with light!

Now is the fun part! Look inside the box through the peep hole and use a torch to put the light through different angles. You will see the coloured cellophane will create different effects.

This is what our set looks like when you see through a peep hole.
See what happens to the colours when you play with the light from different angles. What kind of stories do you think might happen?

If you enjoyed making a set in a box, why not putting your toys as characters in your set design, and create your own performance?

Share what you create with us on Instagram (@young.vam) or Twitter (@young_vam).

And don’t forget to sign up to our newsletter to follow the latest news on the development of the Young V&A.

1 comment so far, view or add yours


When I was a little girl, we had no television, no radio, lived in the country, and there was no money. I’m not sure I realized we were poor, but it does motivate creativity. I was always so happy to find a small cardboard box. When I could find some cartoons in a newspaper, or somewhere, my sister and I would cut them out and using wheat flour & water to make a glue, we pasted them into a long strip. The ends of the strip were glued to a pencil or a stick at each end of the box. Watching the cartoons was done by twirling the stick to have the strip pass by the viewing hole cut into the bottom of the box. We made our own cartoon TV. As much fun was had with the making as with the viewing. Thank you for this inspiration for a young generation of creatives.

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