Marina Skye, owner of Set by Skye.
Marina Skye, owner of Set by Skye.

Marina Skye was born an artist, but becoming a business owner took a bit more work. 

Skye, a native of Los Angeles, originally moved to Atlanta to attend school at Clark Atlanta University. She’s now the owner of Set by Skye and specializes in creative direction, experiential events, and more. 

Some of Skye’s work includes stage design for Wale’s Under a Blue Moon Tour, and stage design for artists like Summer Walker and SZA on “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon” and “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” respectively. She also worked on rapper T.I.’s Trap Music Museum in Atlanta, and won a Clio Award for her work on rapper 21 Savage’s Motel 21 interactive exhibit. 

“I’ve learned so much, and I’m still learning so much everyday,” Skye said of her journey since starting Set by Skye. “I think being an entrepreneur is this ever-growing, ever-evolving space that can be very stressful, a little frustrating sometimes, but also just so incredibly beautiful and freeing, and satisfying and gratifying.”

Things were not always so gratifying, however. The beginning of Skye’s professional journey was marked by personal tragedy. Rough Draft Atlanta interviewed Skye about this time in her life as well as her career trajectory.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

How did you get started in the industry? Were you interested in design from a young age? 

Marina Skye: I think I’ve always been creative. I’ve always paid attention to colors and shapes, and how experiences and environments made me feel. I come from a pretty creative family as well, on my mom’s side. I think that element of my personality has just always been there. But I think as I grew older and got wiser and more experiences under my belt, the creativity just became more pronounced. 

What kind of creatives were your family?

Skye: My mom is a painter, and she’s also a baker. My grandmother is a seamstress and a clothes maker. My uncle is very, very big into music – yeah, just different elements of creativity. No one has ever done the set design route.  Also, I’m from L.A., and obviously L.A. is a very creative, free-thinking space, you know? So I’ve always grown up around environments that allowed me to feel comfortable being creative. 

I went to Clark [Atlanta University] and the [Atlanta University Center] is also very creative. Atlanta obviously has a huge music space,  and now a booming and huge entertainment in general space, which is so beautiful to be able to watch and see grow. I think that part of my personality was able to flourish a bit once I got here, and was around other like-minded creatives.

After you graduated, did you consider going back to Los Angeles or did you always want to stay in Atlanta?

Skye: Once I graduated, I didn’t really know what exactly I wanted to do, but I knew that going back to L.A. and figuring that out would be very expensive [laughs]. I think that I’d, to a certain degree, grown accustomed to my space? My freedom, in having gone to college here. I knew that I would be going back to L.A. where I’d be going back to live with my parents, with my mom, in a smaller space. So I think the decision to stay in Atlanta and figure it out – whatever the it was – was the best option for me because at that point, I called this home. I had fully been adopted into Atlanta. The space, the creativity, the way it feels here – I’d fallen in love with the city so much. I couldn’t picture myself moving back to L.A. and figuring out things. I much preferred to figure it out here, and then go to L.A. whenever I needed to, because I still, very much so, love my city. But I think it was just a better environment for me, to figure my life out here in Atlanta.

Your resume now includes projects with Summer Walker, and SZA. What was your first big project after college and what did your career trajectory look like? 

Skye: I always tell people that this business grew from tragedy. When I graduated school, like I said, I decided to stay in Atlanta and figure it out. But I also had two brothers that came to Atlanta from L.A. with me, and both of them went to Morehouse [College]. 

One of them, in 2012, was shot and killed. When he was murdered, that was really a turning point for me. It was in a space where I was newly graduated. I didn’t really know what I wanted to do, and then that major, life-altering situation happened. You know, people always say that when tragedy strikes, you have this “aha” moment where you realize that life is too short. It sounds super cliche, but that really is what happened to me. I literally had to sit down and be like – okay, I need to figure out what I want to do, and if what I’m doing right now is not it, I need to stop this immediately because I literally just saw the epitome of the example of life being too short happen to someone who I didn’t think it was going to happen to. 

When he passed away, that really catapulted me to figuring out what I wanted to do with my life. I ended up quitting the job I had and sitting down in front of my desk and writing down all of the things that I felt I was good at and I could make money at, that I wouldn’t mind starting a business with. One of the things on there was a clothing line. I’ve always been good at fashion – it wasn’t necessarily a passion of mine, but I knew I could make a living from it. So I started a clothing line, and that clothing line ultimately led me to set design. 

My first project was I did the interior design and experience for a nightclub that used to be on Trinity Ave. in Atlanta. I was called DayDreams [Fantasy Lounge]. It was basically – I still don’t even know how to explain it. It was like a ridiculous, immersive experience in a nightclub setting. I took concepts that happen in Tokyo – I’m very obsessed with Tokyo nightlife subculture, and took that concept and brought it to Atlanta.  Atlanta has always been a space that loves a big theme. They love experiences, we love to dress up. So the nightclub was a Willy Wonka meets Alice in Wonderland themed nightclub. There were clouds on the ceiling that changed colors, the bar stools were mushrooms, there were flowers coming out of the walls – it was just absolutely ridiculous. 

It’s interesting that the clothing line led to the set design track. What was that trajectory like, and how did you make the switch from one to the other?

Skye: I was realizing that I would go to my trade shows, right, and I would set up my booth, and people would come and take a look at it. But as I was sitting there, I was starting to realize that I was focusing more on how to make my booth look different from everyone else’s. I researched what that was, it was in fact set design, and then set design led to creative direction. It was almost like an “aha” moment from there. Once I realized what that was, there was really no turning back. This is what God wanted me to do, and he just used the clothing as the vessel to get me to this point.

You mentioned being inspired by Tokyo nightlife for that first project. How would you characterize your design style, or your influences? Do they change from project to project, or is there a thematic connection?

Skye: I think I have a general style. I’ve heard people say that they could tell that I did something based upon this thing. Nature is a huge part of who I am, my personality, how I recharge. So I think there’s always going to be a small element of nature in whatever I do. I do a lot of things with flowers, with grass, with clouds – environmental elements are the things that I focus on. I think those are the things that make me happy internally, and I think that there are certain things that are so cool about bringing outside spaces inside. 

I think my design style is maximalist, and the sprinkling in [the] natural environment within that maximalist concept. 

So you have your own style, and then working with these artists or clients, they also probably have their own input into how they envision certain things. How do you balance that out and work with a client to make sure they get what they want out of it while still incorporating your personal style?

Skye: I always start with the client’s wants. So usually, we have conversations, one or two conversations, about what the concept is and where they want the direction of it to go. Then I ask and I push for them to send me at least one inspo photo of what they like. It doesn’t have to be whatever the concept is all full out, built out. But if you want your music video to feel ethereal, send me a photo that represents that to you. I think starting with the basis of the creative themes from the client is the biggest thing for me, because that allows me to know what direction I’m going. Because if I start with it, we could be running parallel, in the same direction, but on two totally different streets. And that’s a waste of both of our time.

Looking through your career, you’ve worked with a lot of artists and musicians. Is that something you gravitated towards naturally, or did it just happen to work out that way?

Skye: I think it’s a little bit of both because as I’m speeding through my life right now, music has always been the current. It’s always been the undertone of everything. My family loves music so much. I grew up with both of my grandparents – I’m very close to them – and music has always been extremely big for them, so I’ve always listened to everything. I think I took that part of my personality, and then coming to Atlanta – which obviously is a huge music haven and has been for so long, and is only getting better with time – I think it was just like the perfect marriage. 

Is there any one job that you are particularly proud of or anything you think stands out?

Skye: It’s so difficult! I think there are certain projects that will always hold a special place in my heart because of the way in which they made me grow. I think the Trap Music Museum is absolutely one of those projects. I didn’t know we were building this beautiful, history-making monolith while we were making it. You know, we worked our butts off. We were working for three months, seven days a week, like 12-15 hour days. I think when you’re so deep into something, it’s just kind of difficult for you to pick your head up and realize what is happening in the present. Like, we would be working at 2 o’clock in the morning and then TI would come in with like, C-SPAN. At 2 o’clock in the morning, randomly. And we would have no idea that that was what was happening, but we’d see him walking with some people in suits, and we were like, okay – there he is again, hey! And we would just continue on with what we’re doing. Then like, two weeks later, it would be on C-SPAN and we’re like, wait! I could’ve done my hair that day, you didn’t even tell me! 

That’s definitely a project that is so special because it challenged me in so many ways,  and then ended up being this amazing part of culture, history, that I just had no idea it was going to be. So, definitely the Trap Music Museum, and the team and the family that I created from that experience. I think the 21 Savage project [too], because I had no idea that a little brown girl from the hood of L.A. could do something that could catch the attention of a huge advertising and marketing agency, and then for it to win a Clio Award? That was special, because it opened up my eyes to the possibilities of what I could do. 

I’m working with Underground [Atlanta] right now, to help them with their creative direction. This is a project that – the ink is supposed to be drying in a couple of weeks for this –  but I think from a current/future perspective, I’m really excited about that. When I came here looking for colleges to go to as a high schooler, I went to Underground when it was open. I saw it when it was a thing, and then to see it, you know, dilapidated for so many years and now see what it’s turning into, I think it’s just so special. 

Edgewood used to be this space for the creatives, and the weirdos, and the painters, and the artists, and the skateboarders. I don’t think it’s that anymore, and I think that Underground has the capability of becoming that. That area, that space, that environment that Edgewood used to have is what made me fall in love with Atlanta. So if I could be a part of, you know, something that could bring that type of joy and creative freedom to another person considering moving to Atlanta, I’m totally down.

Sammie Purcell is Associate Editor at Rough Draft Atlanta.