Tribute to Peter Farley (1954-2022)
The Society of British Theatre Designers pays tribute to the remarkable Peter Farley, who dedicated his life to the art of theatre design, brought dreams to life on stage, motivated new designers and inspired creativity with all fortunate to be by his side. From innovation and collaborations to the intricate tapestry of creativity, Peter was an artist who transformed the intangible into the tangible and made a mark on the theatrical landscape.
Peter’s visionary approach, unwavering passion, dedication to theatre design and deep love for our art set him apart. Peter inspired those around him, including the countless designers touched by his mentorship, guidance and support. Peter understood the magic of theatre and how it lies with collaboration and the unity of diverse talents.
Our departed friend also understood how theatre has the power to transform lives and recognise the profound impact the arts can have on society, the human spirit and our collective creative consciousness. Through his work, he sparked conversations and provoked reflection.
At The Society of British Theatre Designers, we pay tribute to Peter Farley in this collection of commentaries dedicated to the man who devoted his life to our art. We celebrate Peter Farley’s legacy, cherish the moments of awe, and honour his unwavering commitment. As a community, we preserve and nurture the vibrant world he helped to create.
Gone but not forgotten, dear friend.
There once was a time, when I became the Head of Theatre Design at what was then called Central School of Arts and Crafts London, that I was surrounded by Peters. I had, unknowingly, also become the ‘Director’ of the Jeanetta Cochrane Theatre in Southampton Row, which badly needed a new look. First Peter Williams , the founder of Dance and Dancers magazine , then Peter Docherty the Ballet designer  and then – like the calm before the storm PETER FARLEY. All these Peters were in the world of Dance , and before long Design for Dance had been incorporated into the new curriculum. A Charitable Trust was formed headed by the father of one of the students, and an office dedicated to Design for Dance was the hub for research and practice. Theatre Design students in their final year could elect to work with a dance company that wanted to co-operate with the scheme. We needed a calm, cool and collected moderator to run this project and Peter Farley was given a 0.5 flexible position in the department. It is certain that for its relatively short life Peter F was the perfect person. We used to call him PP. Peter Docherty also on a 0.5 position shared the office with him.
Their door was kept firmly closed, but from time to time loud shouting could be heard.. sometimes joyful and sometimes not.. PETER FARLEY had applied for and obtained to research and publish a book that became :” From Diaghilev to The Petshop Boys” finally published in 1996 by Lund Humphries in association with Central School. The success of this book brought Peter F to recognise his ability to systematically research a topic, and most importantly bring it to fruition. He was always diplomatic, cheerful and uncompromising in his attention to details, a role he excelled in when he later moved to Wimbledon School of Art to head their research department.
Peter F and I always kept in touch right up to a short time ago, and he was ever willing to give me advice or knowledge when needed. Design for Dance was later incorporated into the Linbury Prize for Stage Design supported by the Linbury Trust and headed by Anya Sainsbury. The greatest tribute to Peter F is the ongoing development of Dance as part of the biennial Prize, now co-run by the National Theatre, and his enormous help in organising the Jocelyn Herbert Archive which is a continuing resource for us all.
by Pamela Howard, SEPTEMBER 1ST 2023
 Peter Williams 1914-1995
 Peter Docherty 1944 – 2020
When I was a second year BA student I was part of the UK Student exhibition team for PQ 2015. Peter was one of the team supporting us in realising our ideas and taking the exhibition to Prague. He was so supportive and encouraging and my lasting memory is how much he wanted us all to have an amazing time! He booked us an apartment right in the centre of Prague that the whole team stayed in, and we had so much fun! That first experience of the Prague Quadrennial really ignited the fire for me to pursue a career in Costume Design and I am very grateful to Peter for being such a significant part of that.
by Rosie Whiting
My close friend and colleague, Peter Farley, was a theatre designer, exhibition curator, academic and teacher who sadly died in August this year after a long illness. Peter’s career embraced a wide range of different areas of design and performance. He was an immensely talented theatre designer, an international exhibition curator, a writer and researcher and an inspirational teacher. He worked tirelessly for scenography and for his peers. He was a long standing committee member and director of the Society of British Theatre Designers. He was the curator and designer of Transformation & Revelation, the UK National Exhibition of Theatre Design for Performance at the Prague Quadrennial 2011, and he curated exhibitions at the V&A in London and in Beijing in China. He was a founding member of the Theatre and Performance Design Education Network, an international organization committed to supporting teaching, research and innovation in theatre and performance design education, which held its inaugural conference at the Barbican in London in 2018.
Peter studied theatre design at Wimbledon College of Art in London in the early 1970s and went on to develop a lifelong relationship with the college. He was in the first student cohort of MA Scenography at Wimbledon (now MA Theatre Design) taking on the role of course leader in 1996 for a short time, before becoming a long serving lecturer on the BA Theatre Design course until his retirement in 2019. Over that period, he was a major influence on emergent designers from all over the world who studied at Wimbledon, many of whom have gone on to have illustrious careers in the industry.
As a young man, one of Peter’s major influences, was the artist, theatre and film designer Yolanda Sonnabend. Peter, worked closely with Yolanda over many years on design projects for theatre, opera and ballet at her house in Hamilton Terrace in London, which was a magnet for artists and designers in the 1970’s and 80’s. Their later working relationship notably included Peter collaborating with Yolanda to recreate several works for the Royal Ballet at the Royal Opera House Covent Garden by the late Sir Kenneth MacMillan. Their friendship lasted for over 40 years and indeed it was Peter who wrote an obituary for Yolande in the journal Theatre and Performance Design when she died in 2015.
Peter had a lifelong passion for dance and in the early 1990’s at Central St Martins (then called Central St Martins College of Art and Design) he joined designer Pamela Howard and the ballet designer Peter Docherty (1944-2020) in the early stages of an experimental dance project that became known as Design for Dance. Dedicated to Peter Williams (1914-95), designer, writer and founding editor of Dance and Dancers. This was a collaborative project between final year student designers and students from the leading London dance schools, including the Royal Ballet School and London Contemporary Dance working with established choreographers and musicians, under the guidance of professional designers. The performances they produced were staged at The Cochrane Theatre in central London. Following on from the success of Design for Dance, in 1993 with Marina Henderson, Peter devised and curated the exhibition From Diaghilev to the Pet Shop Boys, a celebration of 20th-century dance design and contributed three essays to the volume of the same name published in 1996. Even after his retirement, Peter was still engaged with Design for Dance, guiding collaborations between student designers from Wimbledon with dancers and choreographers at the London Contemporary Dance School making original dance works for the stage.
 Farley, P., Yolanda Sonnabend (1935-2015) Making her mark Theatre and Performance Design Vol 3, Issues 1-2,2017
 Docherty P., and White T., From Diaghilev to the Pet Shop Boys Lund Humphries, London in association with The Lethby Press, Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design , London 1996
Peter was always interested in the designer’s process; how abstract ideas materialised in the model box and were then translated onto the stage in performance. In 2006 he was awarded an Arts and Humanities Research Council Fellowship to examine how the theatre designer’s process might be more effectively documented and disseminated. As well as interviewing working designers he also began researching design archives, particularly the archive of the British theatre designer Jocelyn Herbert ( 1917-2003). This seeded a fascination in Peter in the value of design archives, not as historical documents, but as a vital resource for new creativity. He was instrumental in setting up the Jocelyn Herbert Archive Project, initially at Wimbledon when the Herbert archive was housed there and subsequently with the National Theatre archive which now houses this extensive collection. The drawings, model boxes and notebooks, as well as Herbert’s correspondence with leading playwrights and directors during second half of the twentieth century which constitute the Herbert archive, offer a unique insight not only into Herbert’s process during that period but also the social and political context in which she was working. The Jocelyn Herbert Archive project, which happens annually, gives second year design students from Wimbledon the opportunity to critically engage with selected materials from the archive, to explore their historical context but then crucially to use them as the starting point to make new work that speaks to the present. Design for Dance and the Jocelyn Herbert Archive Project have both contributed to Peter’s lasting legacy at Wimbledon.
Peter was also an accomplished researcher and writer, bringing that same attention to detail and encyclopaedic knowledge of the history and practice of scenography so evident in all his practical projects and his teaching, to his written published work. British scenographer Kate Burnett, in a tribute to Peter, published on the Society of British Theatre Designers website shortly after his death draws attention to a particularly insightful interview he conducted with the designer Richard Hudson, published in Theatre and Performance Design, describing it as ‘a masterpiece of focused dialogue that elicits fascinating detail of process and approach behind some of the most influential designs of the past 30 years.’
I was lucky enough to work with Peter on a number of productions, notably the award winning Ten Thousand Several Doors, which won best production at the Brighton International Festival in May 2006. This was an adaptation of Jacobean playwright John Webster’s tragedy The Duchess of Malfi, and the success of the production owes much to Peter’s subtle and compelling use of space and immaculate detail in costuming.Ten Thousand Several Doors was a site-specific performance that took place in a number of rooms in a what had once been a hotel overlooking Brighton Station on the south coast of England. Peter drew on the history of the site to inform the costumes and the design, subtly enhancing the rooms themselves to create the illusion of a lived-in place whilst simultaneously maximizing their potential as performance space. In his tribute to Yolande Sonnabend, Peter describes her ‘exquisite delicacy of touch’ in her drawings and her finished designs. My experience of working with Peter was that he displayed those exact same qualities combined with a whole range of practical skills that meant he didn’t just visualise what he wanted, he could make it too. As a collaborator he was always great fun to work with, endlessly patient, with a wicked sense of humour.
 ‘Gasp and stretch one’s eyes. Richard Hudson in conversation with Peter Farley’ Theatre and Performance Design Volume 1, 2015 – Issue 1-2
In 2015 Peter led the curatorial team of the largest ever exhibition of European theatre design in China, hosted by the National Centre for Performing Arts in Beijing. At the time he was already beginning to suffer from ill health, having been diagnosed with emphysema which affected his breathing. Many friends advised him against going to the most polluted city in the world. But Peter was determined to go even at further risk to his well-being and of course once he arrived in Beijing, he loved every minute of it. In the documentation of the installation of The exhibition there are numerous photographs of Peter clearly in his element. Directing operations with meticulous attention to detail, striving to display scenography, the work of his international colleagues and those from the UK, in the most impressive and accessible way, talking to the press and to students, sharing his knowledge and phenomenal practical expertise, he was, as always, generously giving of his time.
As well as our professional working relationship Peter was a very close friend of my family for over 30 years. Sharing Christmas together and of course the summers in Brighton which he loved so much. He came to my youngest son’s first birthday party, and I was able to take my grandson to see him shortly before he died. I still expect to bump into him at Brighton station or somewhere in town and grab a quick coffee. With PQ on the horizon, I can’t believe he won’t be there to share the experience and discuss the exhibits and the state-of-the-art of scenography with friends and colleagues over dinner. He will be greatly missed by us all.
by Jane Collins,
Professor of Theatre and Performance, Wimbledon College of Arts, University of the Arts London, UK
It must have been twelve years ago that Peter and I had to move offices. Chance for a spring clean and reflect on the previous ten. We had so many videos of student’s work but the project that we had a consistent collection of was Peter’s Design for Dance. Every year he religiously made a fine edit of the highlights. It was pure gold. The invention and beauty of the student’s work shone. What Peter and Karen Greenhough at London Contemporary Dance School, with Mickie Mannion’s sculpted lighting design, managed to pull off was a superlative act of collaborative teaching.
Every year he brought together young artists, two institutions and, using personal funding, formed a genuine model of team practice. That ran to a further project for younger dance and design students and by asking first-years to crew the shows, he had, in a single stroke, stitched together Wimbledon’s entire theatre design course. We exhibited the vids in the foyer. The air fizzed with creativity. It was a flagship project of a flagship human being.
Peter was famously well-connected. By that I mean he connected very well indeed. ‘Well’ is an understatement, and the way he connected throughout Europe and beyond was also understated. He was never self-serving. He served the idea of bringing young artists and seasoned professionals together through the Society of British Theatre Designers, at the Prague Quadrennial (or PQ) and OISTAT, the international organisation of Scenographers. He curated the UK’s exhibit, ‘Transformation and Revelation’ at PQ11, then stunningly re-mounted it at the V&A with which he had a long and fruitful relationship. An unforgettable strand of this project were the ‘Staging Space’ events through which these inter-generational links rooted and bloomed. Later milestones were World Stage Design of 2013 and our last project together in China, that Simon [Betts] has told you about. Championing not only visual but also aural design, his distinct voice was clearly heard on the world stage.
At the centre of his interests, research, if you will, was a fascination with not only ‘how’ designers make what they make but the more mercurial concerns of ‘why’ they make it – what he coined as “invisible design”. He passed his insights on to generations of students who, because of him, now ask their own questions.
As a colleague he was unshakably calm and reassuring under fire. Infinitely resourceful, like all good theatre designers, he could turn a tricky situation to the advantage of not only the moment, but the whole endeavour.
Peter had a discerning nose for work that had integrity but also an eye for the spectacular. His own aesthetic was big on the rules of form but within that, a mischievous fancy for the un-ruly, a bit of rough, and the contradictions of life that make great theatre.
He was a heady blend of classicism and modernity. He was as comfortable with Stravinsky as with The Sopranos. He loved a good soap opera, and one or two dodgy ones as well. I guess he just liked the telling of tales. Having said that, as a rule, he was frustratingly hard to get gossip from.
Peter taught ‘the Wimbledon Way’ – that is, celebrating the individual. He understood the value of who had influenced him and in turn, how his experiences could be passed on – his legacy. He had foresight – he could spot the next hybrid ‘thing’, and use the potential of the next genre.
Above all though, I’ll remember Peter’s simple relish of everyday snapshots and his love of those absurd quirks in all rich stories and thought-provoking images.
I feel sure he would have found some little gem of poignancy and amusement about today!
Michael Pavelka 04.09.22
I am so sorry to hear of Peter Farley’s death.He was a generous, fair, kind man and a hugely supportive, perceptive and erudite designer, curator and academic. I was lucky enough to experience Peter’s skill and judgement in all of these roles and especially as a professional colleague through his 12 years as a Committee member, Director and Curator for SBTD, as long running Treasurer with ACTD, now PDEC (Performance Design Education Collective), and in his rich career with Wimbledon College of Art as leader of the first UK MA in Scenography from 1996, then as Senior Lecturer and Researcher.
Peter was a rare designer, who had great interest and skill in enabling, interrogating and presenting the work of other designers. From his training at Wimbledon, in the 1970s, his Associate work, especially with Yolanda Sonnabend at the Royal Opera House, through to his most recent teaching and curation, he combined an appreciation for the lyrical and decorative along with perceptive enquiry into contemporary eclectic and abstracted styles. His interview, Gasp and stretch one’s eyes. Richard Hudson in conversation with Peter Farley, for Theatre and Performance Design Volume 1, 2015 – Issue 1-2, is a masterpiece of focused dialogue that elicits fascinating detail of process and approach behind some of the most influential designs of the past 30 years. He wrote many other accomplished pieces for academic and SBTD journals.
Peter was fascinated with the origination of ideas, and how they develop into scenographies. This was integral to his research, with a 2006 Arts and Humanities Fellowship, into the documentation, archiving, exhibition and dissemination of scenographic process, with particular reference to the archive of designer Jocelyn Herbert. He has brought his erudition and richness of enquiry to a range of international curatorial projects, not least the elegant Transformation & Revelation national exhibition for the SBTD, and especially to his teaching, working with grace and humour through his recent years of increasing illness.
Peter was wonderfully supportive as an External Examiner to our Theatre Design team at Nottingham Trent University for two terms of office. He was also funny, wickedly observant and good at choosing battles (or not). I valued all of these qualities enormously at NTU and also when I was also curating for the SBTD. I always looked forward to seeing Peter – and often Stefan too, on our various projects and now look back with great affection on meals out and socials in various cities in the UK and abroad on OISTAT and PQ events. I’m so sorry there won’t be any more, he leaves a considerable legacy, but also a real absence.
by Kate Burnett
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