This article explains what a set decorator is, what her responsibilities are, and how to become one.
How to Become a Set Decorator
First, it's very important to know what a set decorator is and does. A set decorator is the man or woman who works with the production designer to furnish the sets with every physical element that isn't built by construction or brought in by props. So if it's a living room set, for example, construction will build the infrastructure, doors, walls, windows; props will bring in the hand props (anything touched by an actor); and the set decorator literally does everything else. She chooses the furniture, style, color size, lights, carpet, curtains, window treatment, plants, ornaments, accessories and art on the walls of the set.
You need to get hands on experience working in the art department of the set of a film or TV. Because set decorating is a very high-ranking position in the art department, the first thing to do is get experience as an art PA, a set dresser, a shopper, and then you might be ready to be a decorator. You also might want to work as an art director to be able to understand all the demands of the art department.
Once you've gained the knowledge and skills form lower-ranking positions, try to find a set decorator who will mentor you or hire you as his assistant. If you can't do this, apply to be a set decorator on smaller indy projects that might be posted on Craigslist or that your friends might even be working on. Often smaller shows won't even have a set decorator, so this might be a good opportunity for you to step in and gain the experience.
Once you've gotten one job as a set decorator, you will see that you have to be the type of person who can multitask like crazy, conceptualize themes and aesthetics without ever seeing a location, have a good head for numbers, and be very creative. When you first start on a show, you'll need to make a budget for all the sets in the script. Then you have to get creative on how to make the sets as original and interesting as possible while still keeping within the director's and production designer's vision.
You will work with the first AD (assistant director) to figure out your schedule of pickups and returns, a very complex part of the job since the schedule is constantly changing. You have to know exactly what shoots when and how to plan for a pickup with rented items and return them on time so that you don't get charged more (most rental house rent things on a weekly basis). You have a truck and a lead man to help with this, and several swing guys to run around town and pick things up. But it's critical that you, as the set decorator, understand what is needed when and that you are able to fix a situation if the schedule changes--which it will.
Get to know the major prop houses in your area, both the big studios and the small specialty houses. Make friends with the people who work there. If you become a regular (a polite one) they will cut you deals, recommend stuff, cut you some slack on late returns and hold things for you that they might not for others. Also, when you get really established you can cut big deals and get huge discounts. Above all, be ballsy. Don't be afraid to ask stupid questions, and keep making connections and piecing together the different elements of your job until you get it.
Being a set decorator is a great job, but only for someone who has a Type A personality and can handle lots of pressure and be very creative. It's important at the same time to be flexible and a people person. Because things will change all the time on a set, if you can't change with them, you will fail at this job.