Framing space, using light

The set design wizardry of Ming Cho Lee.

Robin Pogrebin ’87 covers the arts for the New York Times.

“The art of designing stage sets for the theater is not an illustration, it is not a flat image,” says Ming Cho Lee. “It is body and soul.”

Lee, 83, is “the most eminent set designer of his generation,” says Robert A. M. Stern ’65MArch, dean of the Yale School of Architecture. Lee has been creating his innovative, arresting spaces since his college days in the early 1950s and has taught at the Yale School of Drama since 1969. Along the way, he has gathered an impressive collection of awards—including the National Medal of Arts—and mentored some of the theater world’s leading set designers.

Set design has always occupied something of a no-man’s-land—falling somewhere between art and architecture, never quite getting its due from museums. Over his long career, Ming Cho Lee has come to accept that benign neglect—“You get used to it”—taking joy instead in the work itself. But he’s pleased that Yale has put on a retrospective of his work, on view at the architecture school through February 1. “My students at Yale had actually never really seen my work,” he says in a recent interview in the Manhattan apartment where he lives with his wife, Betsy. (The Lees have three grown sons and three grandchildren.)

Lee hasn’t designed a show since 2005. His eyesight is failing, along with his hearing. He uses a walker now and has more difficulty getting around, taking a car service to New Haven instead of his usual train. But he continues to teach at Yale twice a week with his usual fervor.

“He’s handsdown the best classroom teacher I ever had,” says James Bundy ’95MFA, dean of the Yale School of Drama and artistic director of the Yale Repertory Theatre. “What he interrogates people about is the play in relation to the design. He’ll begin with who the characters are. He’s famous for saying the best set designers are the best dramaturgs.”

Although technology has advanced considerably since he started designing, Lee says he always preferred to do things the old-fashioned way—scribbling his initial ideas on yellow legal pads and eventually ending up with highly detailed models. With a computer, he says, “you’re always dealing with finished product, which doesn’t give you the opportunity to go through the process to arrive at it.” He has always kept his roughs, and many of them are included in the show: “Sometimes the drawings on the paper napkin are the most revealing.”

Yale runs in Lee’s family. His father, Lee Tsu Fa, graduated from Yale College in 1919; his oldest son, Richard ’85MusM, ’86MusAM, attended the music school. Born in Shanghai in 1930, Ming Cho studied Chinese landscape painting as a teenager. In 1949 he enrolled at Occidental College in Los Angeles, where he began to focus on stage design. He moved to New York in the 1950s to become an assistant to the renowned designer Jo Mielziner, a “wonderful watercolorist.” But Lee says Mielziner was largely, if humorously, dismissive of models: “He felt the designers who spent all the time making models are trying to fix the fact that they didn’t have dollhouses to play with.” (Lee would later popularize the production of fully painted scenic models.) Lee also assisted the Russian-born designer Boris Aronson and was inspired by the aesthetics of Bertolt Brecht, the German playwright and theoretician. During 1962–73 he was the principal designer for Joseph Papp’s New York Shakespeare Festival, designing productions from Hamlet to Hair. Some of those productions made it to Broadway, but unfortunately, few of them were hits. “My career on Broadway has been atrocious,” he jokes.

Over time, Lee became known for his innovative use of scaffolding, steps, platforms, collage, and nontraditional materials. “He’s not the kind of set designer who creates a room that looks like a room—with draperies on the windows and so forth,” Stern says. “He uses pure abstract elements, beams, columns, posts—framing space, using light and scrims to change things in a way that certain architects dream about for their work and can never achieve.”

Lee has received Tony and Drama Desk awards for set design and a Tony Award for Lifetime Achievement in 2013. He was inducted into the American Theatre Hall of Fame in 1998, and he was awarded the National Medal of Arts in 2002.

Lee is his own toughest critic. He is proud of his Electra—“even though it’s very real, it is abstract”—but he feels that he overdid it on the Metropolitan Opera’s 1974 Boris Godunov. As for his Swan Lake at the Pacific Northwest Ballet in 2003: “I’m not proud of it.”

Others who look at his work see the career of a master. “He’s the major force of theater teaching in this country and the father of American contemporary set design,” says Michael Yeargan ’72MFA, cochair of design at the drama school. “Ask anybody who the father of scenic design is, and they would say, ‘Ming.’”

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