Tue 30th June

Meet Tony Hornecker, the Magpie Mind behind Per Götesson’s Suggestive Show Sets

Text   Dino Bonacic

Breathing his personal stories into installations, performances and objects, Tony is one of East London’s prime craftsmen with a finger in every pie on the table – sometimes even literally.

As one of the fashion industry’s OG set designers, Tony Hornecker has worked with a whole range of brands – both big and small, British and international. His unique approach to building sculptural installations while using mostly found objects has become a creative signature that transcends the pages of magazines or fashion show venues he builds. Tony’s magpie aesthetics of turning charity shop tchotchkes into these grand objects represent more of a lifestyle that weaves through everything he does – whether that’s a cabaret supper experience or a window display for a luxury store. However, one of his most fruitful partnerships is with Swedish-born, London-based menswear designer Per Götesson, with whom Tony has been working continuously since 2016.

“Tony was one of the first people in the industry [Fashion East founder] Lulu Kennedy introduced me to while I was still studying at the Royal College of Arts. I think she saw a connection in our work,” remembers Per. At the time, he was newly recruited into Fashion East’s menswear platform for emerging designers called MAN, as part of which he had been scheduled to present his spring/summer 2017 collection. “He came for a cup of coffee, and my space was quite telling,” says Tony, adding: “I think he knew I was the guy.” Their first collaboration remains to be both of their favourites. “It was basically a stack of about 12 mattresses that I found on the street which we’ve built on top of a platform with runners, and then added ladders and all other sorts of things onto the sculpture. It was wheeled onto the catwalk before the show,” explains the set designer. And in many ways, that initial partnership remains the perfect representation of both of their artistic expressions. “He has an ability of creating poetry from what is at hand which resonates with me and elements in my work,” tells Per.

Originally from Texas, Tony Hornecker moved to the UK in the early 1980s before settling for his current location of East London about 20 years ago. “I moved into an abandoned warehouse and started building my studio and home there… Then I kinda fell into the fashion crowd and began working with various photographers on shoots as a set designer,” Tony says, describing his choice of career as a “happy accident.” At the same time, his resourcefulness separated him from the few other people that worked in the same field. “My own style developed from moving into this abandoned space with no money, finding things on the street and trying to build and create things from them,” he notes. “In fact, it took me a long time to realise I’m actually a collage artist.”

Over the past four years, Per and Tony have created some magical show moments together. Between the hot pink streamers for spring/summer 2018, the crafted porch for spring/summer 2019 and the most recent recreation of the legendary queer writer Joe Orton’s Islington bed-sit for autumn/winter 2020, an overarching theme of homoerotic domestic scenes runs throughout.

But what does the process of making one of those installations look like? “We will literally just have one meeting where Per would show me what’s happening and share a rough idea of what he had in mind. We spend about an hour before we nail the concept,” explains Tony. A lot of what ends up on the catwalk is actually a reflection of the very personal experiences that happened behind the scenes. “For autumn/winter 2019, we talked about making a bed and I had just broken up with my boyfriend and had an awful Christmas where I stayed in drinking whiskey and eating pizza. And then it sort of got to January and it was two days before the show, but we were still wondering what we were going to do. So I transformed my bedroom into this bed filled with whiskey bottles, cigarette boxes and even a mirror with lines of white powder on it. That was my Christmas of 2018,” the set designer adds. 

Per Götesson AW19

The ode to Joe Orton for AW20 was another very personal project for Tony, who first found out about the writer from a documentary on Channel 4 when he was 14. “It was all about gay writers, at a time when it was so hard to find any information that was vaguely positive. I noted down all of these books and authors while watching the show, and then went into a Luton library where I’d sit in the corner and read Joe Orton’s diary. So when Per came to me with the references to him, I was really excited.” The late writer was also an avid cottager which inspired Tony to scatter urinals across the catwalk, along with a plastered statue of a pissing boy which he originally found on eBay. At the beginning of the catwalk was a recreation of Orton’s flat which he shared with his partner Kenneth Halliwell who bludgeoned him to death out of jealousy – completed with a typewriter.

Per Götesson AW20

The first Per Götesson x Tony Hornecker collab outside of the fashion week schedule happened last November, when the two hosted a Swedish-themed dinner in celebration of Per’s partnership with Absolut Vodka. Set at the Hornecker Centre, Tony’s home/studio/gallery in the heart of Dalston, the event was essentially a special edition of the notorious cabaret dinner club that established his original space, the Pale Blue Door.

Up there with the now-closed, “you just had to be there” queer spots like George and Dragon or The Joiners Arms, The Pale Blue Door began as an impulsive idea of the set designer and collage artist who imagined it as just a momentary extension of his creativity. “It was meant to be for just one weekend to get some money,” he remembers. During its four-year run at the original location of a cobbled back alley in Dalston, the nature of the place was intimate and exclusive, but totally different from anything out there – if you were lucky enough to get a spot, you would get to dine in Tony’s wondrous world plastered all over with the most chaotic curiosities while being entertained by gender-fuck drag performers. Thanks to the Hornecker Centre and all the other experiential events Tony has launched since, its legacy continues to live on.

Per Götesson x Absolut at the Hornecker Centre; photo by Roxy Lee

And while the nation-wide lockdown did indeed limit the possibilities of hosting live events in the foreseeable future, Per and Tony’s collaboration continues. For his digital presentation at London Fashion Week’s digital iteration this June, Per Götesson decided to slow things down by creating a set of lockdown visuals re-contextualising his archives. By remotely working with stylist Gary Armstrong, photographer Jessie Lily Adams and collage artist Patrick Waugh aka BOYO, he gave a new life to the elements of his past. As his contribution to the project, Tony built a sculpture out of parts referencing all of the past sets, which Jessie and Gary captured in his studio and Patrick then incorporated parts of into the moving collages. “This most recent project was very important because it was the first time we created a fashion image,” says Per. 

“I’ve always felt very constricted by shows being in these white spaces. Everything is online anyway, so why would you have to have 600 people when you can make something that’s much more of an interactive, immersive experience for perhaps a smaller number of people but can then be digitally reproduced and experienced through film?” asks Tony, who has also come up with a completely new output during this period. For the first time ever, he has downscaled his collage work into sellable objects in the form of Frankenstein-ed ceramic figurines which he markets via his Instagram account. The idea to cut the existing sculptures and patch them together once again came from a lack of resources: “I usually find inspiration by going to charity shops and finding rubbish on the streets. But all of that was taken away so I just had to look around at what I had, and that’s how I started ripping things off the walls. Just like when I opened the Pale Blue Door, this new direction came out of a really depressed moment…  I guess I have to become quite desperate before I can become creative.