Set decorators use decor to flesh out characters
Our rooms speak volumes about us -- and set decorators for television shows specialize in knowing what they can say.
Using colors, accessories and telling details, set decorators help flesh out a character, whether it's a working-class stiff in a worn-in apartment or a wealthy doyenne in a slick salon.
For Los Angeles-based set decorator Lynda Burbank, "homey" means vegetable soup. "I love the soup palette of sage green, burnt orange and warm beige -- these colors are very soothing and make people feel comfortable in the set," she says.
For the sitcom "Mike and Molly" on CBS, she packs her sets with details: "Mike's mom's house was a delight to do. I found a fabulous blue recliner with a drink holder where she spends a lot of time. She's surrounded by nail polish and various medications. Her house reflects that she reads a lot, mostly romance novels. She's Irish Catholic, so there are statues that reflect that. When the set first appeared, people came up to me and said it reminded them of their Aunt Sally in Wisconsin, and I was so pleased."
In one scene, Mike's mother's boyfriend Dennis was supposed to represent a cautionary warning to Mike about leading too solitary a life. Burbank put Dennis' personal kit from the Vietnam war on the dining room table, as if he'd been sitting and reliving his past. "Also a couple of shirts on the back of the door in plastic bags from the dry cleaners -- so impersonal, so lonely," she recalls.
The room was only seen once, but it drove home a plot point: Mike realizes what might be in store for him if he doesn't take a chance on love, with Molly.
For the pilot of the CBS show "Two Broke Girls" (the show is currently decorated by Amy Feldman), Burbank worked with Glenda Rovello on the loft of a young, wealthy woman who has twin babies and not a clue about motherhood. "The set reflected that, with a lamp shaped like a gun, sharp-edged sculpture and other things that weren't child-friendly," Burbank said.
Clutter and collections of things give a room a "lived-in" look, says Archie D'Amico, set decorator for ABC's "Cougar Town." He also has worked on "Ugly Betty" and "NYPD Blue."
Set decorators have hundreds of prop houses and stores in Los Angeles or New York from which to shop. "Very often I'll need something tomorrow, if not sooner," says Laura Richarz, who has decorated sets on "Married with Children," "Everybody Loves Chris" and "True Blood."
Richarz says she starts by trying to see the room "through the eyes of the characters that live there. What would happen on a daily basis in this set if it were a real home? Who uses it, how old are they, what's their means of support? Do they watch TV, do handcrafts?"
Starting with the basic furniture, set decorators then add "layers" of dressing. Half-read newspapers, stacks of mail, pet leashes, half-burned candles, a knitting basket, remotes and phones, well-scrunched cushions, a full wastebasket, even a plant with leaves on the floor.
Juliann Getman, who designs sets for NBC's "Parenthood," thinks about her own home. "Not everything's in its place. Laundry might be folded but on the sofa because I got distracted by a phone call."
This nuanced approach makes it easier for viewers to imagine lives in progress.
Characters' social or economic status can also be telegraphed through the quality of furniture, accessories and art. Bright, clean rooms say one thing, while a timeworn or messy space says something else.
Richarz recalls working on the "Three's Company" set: "Three single people living in a rental in Santa Monica. The mismatched pieces conveyed the idea of roommates without much money, throwing together stuff they'd found to fill the space. Wicker was inexpensive back in the early `70s so there were several pieces of that. The dishes were brightly colored plastic -- certainly not mother's china."
In "All in the Family," Richarz notes, "we know before we see any characters that this is a working-class, traditional family." The furniture and decor are from a different era, the walls dingy. The furniture is worn, the art is traditional. "Things have been added over the years, but nothing has been taken away. It looks real," she says.
Beth Kushnik, set decorator on CBS' "The Good Wife," notes that while the main character's world was downsized after a divorce, "she still had a comfortable degree of wealth. Her apartment was created as if she'd hired a decorator to give her and her two teenagers a relaxed haven. I used lush fabrics, silk lamp shades and beautiful linens."
Kushnik started a blog called "The Good Look of the Good Wife" on CBS.com, in part because she was getting so many questions from viewers about the sets. She shares the provenance of room details, including paint colors and furniture sources.