upfronts 2013

How to Design a Set: Mad Men, Scandal, and The Americans

Photo: AMC

Vulture talked to two set decorators and one production designer about how they make three hit TV shows — Mad Men, Scandal, and The Americans — look so good.

This story originally ran in the May 20, 2013 issue of New York magazine.

Set Decorator: Claudette Didul   1. Patio Furniture The table and chairs cost $175 at Playclothes (vintageplayclothes.com), which sells mostly apparel. Didul covered the seats in oilcloth.   2. Couch Show creator Matt Weiner ­requested a sunken living room, “like a conversation pit,” Didul says. Production designer Dan Bishop custom-built a sectional to suit the space, drawing inspiration from books by interior decorator Betty Pepis.
Kitchenware Outlets like the Sherman Oaks ­Antique Mall are good for finding glassware. Didul also relies on Etsy. “Most people think Etsy is crafty stuff that people make, but the vintage stuff is great.” Photo: Michael Yarish/Copyright: AMC 2012
Refrigerator Tracking down this 1964 General Motors Frigidaire with a right-sided handle wasn’t easy (they are rare), but Didul managed it with the help of a local antique-­appliance dealer. “They found it—and in a great color.” Photo: Michael Yarish/Copyright: AMC 2012
Television Built-in TVs were “like the flat-screens of today,” Didul says. This set is from Harry Poster (harryposter.com), a vintage-television dealer based in New Jersey. Photo: Michael Yarish/Copyright: AMC 2012
Set Decorator: Andrew Baseman   1. Silk-Screened ’70s Mirror: Baseman picked this up at a thrift store in New Jersey for $5. “You can’t assume Patterson redecorated in 1981. Like most of us, he did it five or ten years ago.”   2. Shiny Furniture: Patterson is a womanizer, so his apartment needed to look a little sleazy. Chrome surfaces and that front-and-center animal print suggest bachelor pad.   3. Vintage Television: “It came with the owner’s manual and the original clunky remote, which you see on the coffee table,” Baseman says of the 1979 set, which he found in mint condition at an antiques shop in Brooklyn. At $200, it was cheaper than renting a comparable model from a prop house for a week.  
1. Tacky Wallpaper Zhukov’s bedroom is actually a room inside a Brooklyn funeral home; the space had just the sort of garish wallpaper Baseman needed. “If someone called this tasteful, I’d be a little worried.”   2. Red Bedding “We almost always use red for the Russians,” Baseman says. “I wanted the furniture to be over-the-top to show Zhukov’s wealth.”
1. Lenin Wall Art “Anything you hang you have to get clearance for,” Baseman explains. “The exceptions are antiques, anything pre-copyright. So all the paintings that look antique are antique.” But this portrait of Lenin? It’s a blown-up image (purchased from a photo service) mounted on foam board.   2. Red Rug This was another thrift-store bargain ($65), especially since Baseman can reuse it. “Rugs I’ll use over and over again. A lot of times you just see a little piece of it; it’s innocuous enough.”
Production Designer: Corey Kaplan   1. Nonfamily Photos We’re in the dark about Pope’s early life, and for now show creator Shonda Rhimes wants to keep it that way. “You don’t see baby pictures, a mother or father,” Kaplan says. The photos here are instead from Pope’s travels. “Shonda wrote, ‘Olivia goes into her apartment.’ And we were like, What? Olivia’s apartment? Hello! What do you want to see in there? She said, ‘Nothing personal. But parts of her travels around the world.’”   2. The Dining Room “We also had many discussions about Olivia’s dining-room table. I said, ‘I’d love to see stuff there—her computer, her work.’ But Shonda believed that Olivia works right in bed.   Photo: Danny Feld/? 2013 American Broadcasting Companies, Inc. All rights reserved.
Grand Piano Rhimes didn’t request the piano, but she approved it. “Shonda gives you one-word answers: Fine. Okay. No. I believe the piano was ‘Fine.’ And, believe me, it wouldn’t still be there if it wasn’t.” Photo: Danny Feld/? 2013 American Broadcasting Companies, Inc. All rights reserved.
1. The Living Room Because Pope is always working, “she doesn’t do much entertaining,” Kaplan says. The goal, then, was to keep her place simple. “She decorates for comfort. She isn’t that fussy.” As for why we rarely see Pope’s kitchen, Kaplan says, “Does she seem like somebody that hangs out baking?”   2. Pillow Conversation “If Kerry Washington [who stars as Pope] walks in and says, ‘I don’t think that blue pillow is me,’ we’ll have a discussion about it,” Kaplan says. “When we did Olivia’s bedroom and put a wardrobe in her closet, we couldn’t really get the right wardrobe at that moment. But Kerry really wanted the types of shoes that Olivia would wear in there. She needed to know that that was her character’s stuff. So get the lady her shoes.”   Photo: Danny Feld/? 2013 American Broadcasting Companies, Inc. All rights reserved.
How to Design a Set: Mad Men and Scandal