For All the "Mad Men" Fans

I love “Mad Men” – it has become one of my favorite series. I enjoy the story, but I enjoy the sets and the cultural references just as much. I ran across this great, short interview about the set design and thought you might like it too!

‘Mad’ World
How set decorator Amy Wells gives TV’s Mad Men its back-to-the ’60s vibe.

By Charlotte Stoudt | Posted on Jan. 15, 2010
Critics and audiences alike have fallen for this seductive time machine, which meticulously re-creates JFK-era Madison Avenue. Emmy-nominated set decorator Amy Wells has worked on a dizzying variety of scripted worlds, including Last of the Mohicans, There Will Be Blood and Sex and the City. Raised just north of New York City, Wells went to film school thinking she’d be a producer, but when set decorator Gretchen Rau invited Wells to work on Come See the Paradise, something clicked. Wells had found her calling.

STIR: What part of the show’s look are you responsible for?

Each character’s world is so personal. It gets very specific. What kind of chair do they sit in? How messy are they? How much do they cook?AW: Set decorators choose and place all of the décor on the set — furniture, books, art, rugs, mess, etc. We work as a team, with the art department, the producer and director. First we read the script and talk to the writer. Then we start to interpret the characters through their surroundings. The production designer chooses the overall colors, and then I make the set come to life. The easy sets to do are locations like a men’s club or a restaurant. Domestic spaces are the challenge. Each character’s world is so personal. It gets very specific. What kind of chair do they sit in? How messy are they? How much do they cook?

STIR: How do you use color to achieve the feeling of the period?

AW: Last season was set in 1962, so that meant most of the décor was from the late ’50s and early ’60s. For my research, I use everything: Sears catalogs, decorating books with paint and carpet samples. Everything was incredibly different then. They did really off stuff, like weird browns with oranges and then some blue thrown in.

STIR: What colors do you associate with the lead characters?

AW: I start by asking questions: Who are Don and Betty Draper? What kind of taste do they have? Do they have enough money to buy the things they want? In the Draper bedroom, the wall color is oatmeal yellow. Then I added a vibrant blue period headboard for contrast. There are no primary colors; we’re not in that era yet. When I think of Don, I think of graphics and the color of his office — deeper blues, black. With Betty, I think of pastels.

STIR: Is most of the furniture built to order, or actual antiques?

AW: I shop constantly. A lot of my ideas come from original pieces. I know all the dealers, from Palm Springs to Fullerton. And some of the studios have fabric left over from those decades that they’ll let you buy. It’s so evocative. With furniture, I try to find something with its original fabric cover. That carries you a long way.

STIR: Has Mad Men influenced your palette at home?

AW: I live in South Pasadena, where we have a little 1927 cottage with mission tile. It’s quaint. Mad Men colors wouldn’t work in there. My home colors are all muted: French gray, Palladian blue. They’re subtle and beautiful. I’m a gal who’s been living in the past for a while. I barely look at contemporary stuff. A lot of it is so … imitative.

STIR: Why do you think Mad Men has struck a chord?

AW: I think people respond to the show because they’re starved for interesting characters. And the storytelling is so beautifully rendered. Everyone on the crew looks forward to reading the scripts. We’re all so involved in the characters. It’s great to work on a TV show I actually want to watch! What’s important to me is not to go for the iconic, the “designed.” Because I lived through the Mad Men era, I saw a lot of midcentury houses. Part of me recorded every house I ever visited. All that lives inside my brain. So I try to have the design be as real as possible. People respond to that realness. It’s not a cartoon.

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