Works and Days

An Unforgettable City: Winter Externship at Mary Howard Studio, Hannah Muellerleile

I wanted to extern with the Mary Howard Studio because as it is a set design studio, I figured I’d see my interests in graphic design, art and photography brought together in a hands-on, real-world way. And indeed I did. All three are expertly and creatively combined to make the magic and beauty one sees in magazines.

But wait, you may be wondering, what exactly is set design? The simplest way I can explain it is this: Mary Howard Studio is a set design studio that works in the fashion industry. So, in every glossy-paged fashion magazine there is the model in beautiful clothes looking effortlessly perfect, right? But there’s also the world behind that model. Mary Howard

Studio makes, designs and places every detail in the set behind that person.

I had always assumed that taking the photos that end up in fashion magazines was as easy as the model made it look. How naive I was. Working with Mary Howard Studio and its masterfully creative set designers, going on set for photo shoots and seeing every step of the behind-the-scenes work made me realize that there is an incredible amount of planning, time, energy and money used to craft the pictures one sees in magazines. There are a million harried photo, set and makeup assistants running around behind the camera to make sure everything is perfect. From how a single strand of hair rests to the placement of a fold in the backdrop’s fabric, every detail is considered, constructed and placed. I found it amazing that this obsessive attention to detail brought together all the different elements of photography, makeup, clothing and design to always make something more than the sum of its parts, and sometimes, even a work of art.

But more than just a chance to see an interesting creative career in the flesh, externing with Mary Howard Studio was an opportunity to live (for free! Thank you to the kind Reedie family that hosted me!) and work in one of the most conflicting, interesting, loud, complicated, famous, and fascinating cities in the world: New York City.

As I lumbered underground on the subway cars with people from seemingly every imaginable walk of life on my daily commute from Queens, where I was staying, to Brooklyn, where Mary Howard Studio is, I saw life in New York City: loud and a bit grimy, but also filled with such humanity and beauty.

And those endlessly bustling people! I had gone into the city expecting the stereotypes of New Yorkers–rude, uncaring, cold–to ring true, but as an antidote to the bitter winter hardness of the city, the people I met were so wonderfully warm, unique, welcoming, and generous. The 

4most wonderful souvenirs I have from my time in New York City are not a couple of “I Love NY” shirts, but the glowing, indelible memories of people I met and the relationships I made there.Every time I came above ground from the subway station, it struck me how essentially human the city is: the towering skyscrapers and careening subterranean trains a testament to our brute intellectual strength and ability to construct things that only exist in our minds; the steel rebelling against gravity, arrogantly blocking the sun and the sky; the gray and black that pave the roads, the skyline and anything vibrant; plants and trees a minute postscript to the love letter written to manmade edifices; birds and their song replaced with trash fluttering in the wind and the honking of the horns of canary yellow taxis. Coming from pleasantly green Portland and the wide openness of the Midwest, the close, cold brutality of the city was disturbing to me. But beautiful as well. The very reasons that I was shocked by the city made me stand in awe of it as well. Sent out to run errands in Manhattan, I would stop and marvel at how the golden light from the winter sun illuminated the avenues, how the towering concrete-and-glass buildings, gilded and dwarfing their inhabitants, stood guard as far as my eye could see. Then, naturally, a car would honk at me for dawdling in the crosswalk and I’d rejoin the never-ending flow of people bustling to somewhere unknown.


Perhaps this all reads as naive and trite description of a city you know much better than me. Perhaps the cliché of a Small Town Girl Goes to Big City echoes in your head. Perhaps you imagine me having big doe eyes that reflect the glittering lights of Broadway and a lower lip that trembled when confronted with having to use a MetroCard. I am not saying that I wasn’t daunted by figuring out how to use the subway the first day or I actually know the “real New York”, but my Midwestern background did allow me to see through the artifice of the big city bustle that New Yorkers pride themselves on. Moreover, my time at Reed gave me to tools to think about and analyze critically the New York City I did see behind that artifice: the smart studio in gentrifying Brooklyn, the working class neighborhood in Queens where I stayed, the posh photoshoots in luxe SoHo and hipster-infested Williamsburg, the storied yet chic Lower East Side, the dark glimpses of the city I saw on my hours spent on the R train that traversed three boroughs. I was only there two weeks, but what I glanced in those two weeks I loved. The city that I did see, taken together in all of its myriad, disparate parts, is confusing and confused, but nonetheless wholly unforgettable.I would like to thank everyone who made this externship opportunity happen. From Brooke Hunter at the Center for Life Beyond Reed,to the Mendoza family for hosting me in Queens and of course, Mary Howard for creating this externship and allowing us into her studio: thank you again.



Tags: winter externship, externship, mary howard, set design, fashion, photography, new york city