Obituary: Carl Toms

CARL TOMS, one of the great post-war stage designers, looked as handsome and elegant as one of his creations.

Always courteous, low-key and impeccably turned out, he could have been mistaken for a Harley Street doctor rather than a man of the theatre. And yet there was a quietly raffish streak: the silk cravat, the upturned collar and his fondness for exotic birds. One room at his Hertfordshire home was given over to six parrots, their shrill antics and vivid plumage contrasting sharply with their keeper's reserve.

In a career spanning 40 years, Toms came under the influence and tutelage of some of the great figures of 20th-century theatre, such as George Devine, Michel Saint-Denis, Cecil Beaton and Oliver Messel. He worked with the revered Messel for six years, as his assistant, an experience that was to inform all his subsequent work, although he once said he was determined not to become "a second-rate Oliver Messel".

In fact, he proved to be far more receptive to new ideas than Messel, and was thus able to take on a wider variety of theatrical work, from grand opera to contemporary drama. Working closely with the director Peter Wood, he designed nearly all Tom Stoppard's plays, notably Travesties (1974), with its surrealistic edge, and the more earthbound Night and Day (1978). Stoppard's least accessible play, Hapgood (1988), was "undesignable" in Toms' estimation, but of course he met the challenge with his usual unobtrusive flair.

"If you can see too obviously where the designer has been," went the Toms credo, "it's no good". Flattering though it might have been, he disliked the old convention of applauding the set. The designer's role as he saw it was to serve the play, not to put his work forward as a separate attraction.

Carl Toms was the child of two Nottinghamshire tailors. He went to Mansfield Art School where he met and befriended Alan Tagg, also to become a distinguished stage designer. They were both greatly influenced by a young teacher from Yorkshire, Hazel Hemsworth, whose passion for the theatre was eagerly shared with the young aesthetes.

Carl's parents would have preferred him to be an architect, and even after he had made his name in the theatre, his mother would still ask when he intended to get "a proper job". After serving in the Royal Ordnance Corps during the war, he went to the Royal College of Art before training under Margaret "Percy" Harris at the Old Vic School in the late 1940s, when great emphasis was placed on studying the text. It was she who fixed him up with a three-week temporary job with Oliver Messel.

The left-wing, anti-establishment influence of the school's co-principals, George Devine - who later formed the epoch-making English Stage Company at the Royal Court - and Saint-Denis - was counter-balanced when Toms left to become assistant to the celebrated Messel, not known for his political radicalism.

It was 1953, Coronation Year, and the young apprentice's first job was to make models for a penthouse suite at the Dorchester Hotel. At the same time Messel was working on a new ballet for the Royal Opera House commissioned to mark the coronation, and three successive operas at Glyndebourne. For Toms, it was a baptism of fire as well as a time of rich inspiration. Messel's passion for French culture - the music of Ravel and Poulenc, the paintings of Dufy and Laurencin - left an indelible mark and stayed with Toms all his life. Many of the masks and models Toms made during this period are now on show at the Theatre Museum in Covent Garden.

Messel's tireless appetite for work evidently rubbed off on his young protege, who rarely had less than three projects on the go at any one time. Yet he wore any stress or strain lightly, and colleagues marvelled at his calmness and good humour. He was also genuinely modest and generous in apportioning credit to fellow craftsmen and women. Lighting design, a frequently neglected aspect of stagecraft, was regarded by Toms as "the medium of magic and trickery. . . an essential part of what one is trying to achieve".

He preferred to work with a small coterie of directors he knew and trusted, cherishing in particular his collaborations with Peter Wood and Tom Stoppard, and his work with Clifford Williams, which included the 1970 Anthony Shaffer play, Sleuth.

This was an occasion when he ditched his own idea - a rather literal set inspired by the text - in favour of the directors' exhortation to create "a room that really intrigues you". He came up with a Gothic interior, based on a corner of Durham Cathedral, that enhanced both the stage and film versions of Shaffer's psycho-drama.

In 1960 he had designed the world premiere of Benjamin Britten's Midsummer Night's Dream at the Aldeburgh Festival. His work for the National Theatre ranged from the 1960s to the 1980s and included Edward II (1968), Cyrano de Bergerac (1970), The Provok'd Wife - for which he won an award from the Society of West End Theatres in 1981 - On The Razzle (1981), Brighton Beach Memoirs (1986), Rough Crossing (1984) and The Magistrate (1986).

Outside the theatre he made occasional sorties into film and television and was design consultant for the Investiture of the Prince of Wales in 1969, for which he was appointed OBE. There followed commissions to redecorate several West End theatres, the Theatre Royal, Windsor, and, most notably, the Theatre Royal, Bath, which he restored to its former glory in 1982.

Despite the debilitating emphysema to which he finally succumbed, Toms was working well into the 1990s, designing such tours de force as Anthony Page's Three Tall Women (1994) and Tom Stoppard's Indian Ink (1995). Perhaps his best known recent job was the hugely successful Peter Hall revival of An Ideal Husband (1992), which played at four different West End theatres.

For all his generosity of spirit, Carl Toms held to the belief that every artist or designer pleases himself first and foremost. That, he once said, was the only way to give your work the vitality it needs.

Carl Toms, stage, film, opera and ballet designer: born Kirkby-in-Ashfield, Nottinghamshire 29 May 1927; OBE 1969; FRSA 1987; died 4 August 1999.