Conquest Of Cool: The Set of AMC's Mad Men
The design community is hot for the Mad Men sets by Amy Wells.
Edie Cohen -- Interior Design, 11/1/2008 12:00:00 AM
Sure, Jon Hamm and January Jones are the stars of AMC's Emmy-winning series Mad Men. But another draw is undoubtedly the show's set designs. Just ask any of the estimated 1.5 million fans tuning in every Sunday night.
Kudos go to set decorator Amy Wells. She puts together the pitch-perfect 1960 environment with production designer Dan Bishop and, of course, the show's creator and producer Matthew Weiner. That Wells was actually around in the '60's also helps.
Her first exposure to modern design was the eclectic Rockland County, New York, neighborhood where she grew up. Later, she earned her undergraduate degree in film and TV production from the University of Southern California. Since then, her large- and small-screen set credits have included: American Pie, Clueless, My Wife and Kids, and the L.A. movie scenes for Sex and the City.
How do the Mad Men sets work?
We shoot on several stages in the complex of buildings at Los Angeles Center Studios. Each episode has four to 10 sets. Last season there were six permanent sets: the 7,500-square-foot Sterling Cooper office, the Draper house, and apartments for Peggy Olson, Anita Olson Respola, Pete Campbell, and Joan Holloway. The rest are what we call "swing sets," which aren't permanent. We also shoot on location. The house meant to be in Palm Springs, California, (season two, episode 11) was actually in Tujunga. The house had some kind of tie-in with Frank Sinatra. We rented it for three days: one for prep, one to shoot, one to wrap.
What is the show's shooting schedule?
We film seven days per episode, 13 episodes a season. Then we go on hiatus for four or five months.
How do you do research?
I've gone through nearly every early decorating magazine and book. Helpful books have been Fifties Furniture, which is from 2005, plus Creative Home Decorating, The Doubleday Book of Interior Decorating and Encyclopedia of Styles, and Inside Today's Home, the last three from the '50's and '60's.
What are your favorite haunts for props?
The Hollywood prop houses, plus Modernica, Room Service, and Futurama in L.A. In Long Beach, the 4th Street vintage shops: Xcape, Vintage Collective, Deja Vu. In Pasadena, Jason Arnold for Modern, Funnel, and the Pasadena Antique Center. In Palm Springs, I go to every antique mall there is.
Do you ever have custom pieces made?
Only the Draper headboard was made from scratch. The steel desks in the Sterling Cooper secretary pool are new; I had the tops made to have an overhang. For curtains, like those in Roger Sterling's office, I rent them from L.A. movie studios. Otherwise, everything else is from the period—fabrics, tchotchkes, even pens.
Why don't we see big-ticket mid-century pieces?
I want to make Mad Men look real, as if the people really have those pieces. It's important that they be imperfect, not iconic. A lot of people had Danish modern at the time because it was reasonably priced, and much of it still exists because it was so well made.
What about colors?
We go with period colors that have different saturations than today's. For example, the Sterling Cooper office has a lot of medium blue and muted green. Palettes also complement each actor. The complexion of Don Draper (Jon Hamm), for instance, looks good against blue. Betty Draper (January Jones) is very blonde, so we surround her with more contrast, like the French blue grass-cloth walls of the Draper house living room or the tan-black plaid wallpaper in the kitchen. Since Joan Holloway (Christina Hendricks) is a redhead, we're careful what we put her against, steering clear of pinks and oranges.
What are differences between set decoration for film and TV?
The only big difference is that TV gets done faster, much faster. Mad Men is as elaborate and detailed as a feature film. All of the Mad Men crew comes from features.
Speaking of your colleagues, how collaborative is the crew?
We all interlock and consider each other's opinion, even, or especially, Matt Weiner's. He's very involved in how the sets are decorated and designed. I've worked on shows where the creators didn't talk to us at all, and they got crap. The Mad Men sets are so successful because Matt works with us.
What project are you working on now?
A Single Man. It's fashion designer Tom Ford's feature-film directorial debut. It's set in 1962, which I'm sure had a hand in my getting the job.
Who are a few of your favorite designers from that era?
John Lautner, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Paul McCobb, Dorothy Draper, Tony Duquette. I borrow from them all.
What's your house like?
It's a small 1920's Tudor-style in Pasadena. I'd much rather have a mid-century house.
Portrait by Billy Kelly. Set and stills by Carin Baer, courtesy of AMC.
I would like to try and find out where Ms. Wells found the headboard for the t.v. Show My wife and kids. My husband and I adore it and would love to try and get one for our bedroom!,Adrienne Harrison - 2012-08-10 23:14:09 EDT
I would love to "give" away my mid century furniture, mom doesnt need it anymore. I have a lot in excellent condition.cecile - 2012-07-11 16:34:17 EDT
We had the pleasure of selling a round glass coffee table (seen in Don Drapers living room) to the set designer and are so pleased that it was put to good use. Beautifully currated spaces and design objects are just one great aspect of Mad Men. Thank you for the great post!Brianne Parmeter - 2012-04-01 19:58:27 EDT
dalia berlin - 2008-12-22 15:57:00 EST
I am such a fan, I look at every detail and the best part is how it truly transports you back in time.