1. What type of education did you receive before going in to the field of set decoration?
I don’t think I had what you could call a traditional career path, but my love of beautiful and unusual things began very early. Growing up with as part of a family that owned a Folk Art antique and art business in New York City (Kelter/Malce Antiques) provided me with a constant window into a world of history, art, and people’s lives that fascinated me. From an early age, I was loading station wagons, helping set up the booths and selling at flea markets—and I loved it all.
My grandmother, who I adored, was my first mentor. She was a woman with amazing taste and a home filled with all kinds of magnificent art and antiques. I don’t think there was a space that wasn’t occupied with something exotic and beautiful. She collected matchstick holders and miniature shoes, and she could needlepoint and knit at lightening speed. I loved to listen to her stories and learned that every object has a tale that reflects the life of its owner. My own home was also full of wonderful antiques and objects and I was lucky that my parents encouraged me to explore my creative instincts and interests that some other parents might have labeled as “different.” They gave me the courage to trust my own instincts and to follow the less traditional paths that I ultimately pursued.
As a teen, I had the great fortune to study with Meredith Monk’s renowned and groundbreaking company “The House“. I performed in some of her outrageous improvisational theatre pieces in New York as well as traveling to England with her dance company.
If you were a child of the 60s like me, the perfect school was Bennington College in Vermont. It was full of radical freethinkers at a time when everything, especially the arts, vibrated with the electricity of change and revolution. It was a very different time, but it still influences and resonates with me today. I majored in theatrical design, and while Bennington had a large theater department, there were very few design students, so I had the opportunity to design, build and paint many, many sets. This was when I first began to fall in love with our craft.
Ultimately, I think our education is about the people we connect with, teachers who take the time to pass on their passion and their wisdom. At Bennington, I was blessed with a most amazing and inspiring teacher, Tony Carruthers. He was absolutely insane, wonderfully fun and most importantly, uniquely talented. One of my favorite memories is of Tony’s “happenings” which we did as often as possible. Once, about ten of us gathered under a large parachute just to see what would happen. Out of nowhere, the inspiration hit us to parade through the campus like a giant amoeba—sort of impromptu performance art. We ended up leaving the ocean of material draped throughout the main Commons Building as we snuck out and disappeared, leaving behind a stunned but appreciative student body.
Tony encouraged me to think outside the box and he always demanded that I push myself further and further with each new play I designed. I believe we all need a role model like that—someone who won’t accept the same old safe solution, but who demands work that is radical, personal and surprising.
During college, I worked in summer stock as a prop master at the renowned Williamstown Summer Theatre Festival. Many Broadway designers have worked at Williamstown and Santo Loquasto happened to there that summer which was an amazing opportunity. But the summer also opened my eyes to the fact that theater design, as a career, was going to be a labor of love, very hard work, and not very lucrative. I also figured out that in film, unlike theater, your work lasts forever as opposed to disappearing at the end of a show’s run.
After I graduated college, my mother managed to get me a job as a P.A. on a film through a New York set decorator she had been renting furniture to. I was instantly and totally smitten! I tried to get other movie work in New York, but couldn’t connect. The 2 unions were very hard to break into.
After six fruitless months, I decided to move to L.A. where I starting to decorate sets immediately, working on two AFI student films. From there, I started to work non-union, projects, doing anything and everything in the art department. Slowly, the projects got bigger and better. I worked non-union for 11 years doing 23 great movies with talented and wonderful production designers and great crews.
It took me a while to figure out how the game works to get into the union. I finally managed to work on a project that moved from non-union to union and took me along for the ride! It was a big event for me when I joined Local 44 and I certainly feel as if I paid my dues. Since then, the biggest change occurred when I had a daughter and decided that television, and it’s filming schedule, would be better for my life than the more demanding schedule that features can require.
2. Which sources would you say are the best tools for research and learning?
Whenever I have been fortunate enough to work on a period film, I love using the Warner Brothers Research Library. I also rely heavily on the photo archives at the Burbank Library, Both have substantial files and materials on whatever project research you may need. A good librarian is priceless.
I love to visit as many antique shops as possible (who doesn’t?) but I find that the best research is seeing how people really live. Location scouts often provide some research you could never get any other way. You can soak up real environments you could never imagine. I remember one incredible home I visited where this total packrat lived. Every square inch was packed with newspapers, and books and bizarre objects. In one corner, there was a huge pile of toilet tissue rolls stacked to the ceiling with various amounts of tissue left on each roll. You can’t dream that stuff up.
Magazines, such as Metropolitan Home and Domino, ones that show real people’s homes, can also be useful. It’s more important for me if their layouts are full of character and not just architecturally beautiful. Pretty is easy. Character is hard.
The Internet, of course, allows you to explore the world from your home computer. The amount of time you can spend surfing can be a bit overwhelming and my challenge on the Web is to stay focused and use my time productively.
3. Name your favorite projects and why.
What makes a project fun and exciting for me has to do with the people I get to work with. Those relationships keep my work full of life and energy.
For the past seven years, I have been working in television and currently I am having a terrific time working on “Rules of Engagement” for Sony on CBS. Bernie Vyzga is the production designer and he is a joy because he is so talented and he can draw so beautifully. It seems as if that is less and less common among production designers.
His sets are always full of depth and detail and it is so wonderful when he can whip off a sketch on a napkin that shows me exactly what he is looking for. More importantly, his designs are always character driven. The work is not about how beautiful a set we can execute but how accurately it reflects the character. When you have that kind of direction, it makes my work so much easier and so much more interesting.
Projects that include weddings always manage to capture my heart and the ones I’ve worked on with production designer, Steve Wolff, another great and talented man, have been among my favorites. One was a pilot for David Kelly Productions called “The Demarco Affairs”. Steve’s design included an enormous “wedding palace facility” set, full of antiques and every crystal chandelier in Hollywood—a total of 21 in all! Even the infamous “Big Bertha” chandelier from Warner Brothers made an appearance. She is so big that she has to be moved with a crane and special lowboy truck. Phew.
Several years later, the pilot got picked up and renamed “The Wedding Belles.” Peter Politanoff designed a wonderful and very different wedding palace for this incarnation. The challenge with weddings is to stay true to the characters and situation and still try to pull of something that hasn’t been seen a million times. It was great fun to do two to three weddings per episode and a real challenge to dreaming up bigger and more outrageous possibilities. Thank god, I was able to hire two additional set decorators on the show, Tara Stevenson, and Jarri Schwartz, who both did fantastic work.
Another favorite was “Dr. Vegas,” a one-hour television series starring Rob Lowe. While the design was a contemporary Las Vegas casino in deco style, the fun with this project involved executing a design that recreated the emotional reality of Vegas casino architecture. If you’ve been there, you know that Vegas can give you this sense while wandering through the resort of never knowing exactly where you are. It keeps the customers a bit off balance and confused and the goal is to ultimately lead everyone back to the main casino floor. I think we were able to convey that sense of special disorientation to the television audience as well as a great sense of what the space is really like. And it was different than anything else you would see on television, which I believe is another important challenge in our work.
My first big television movie, “The Executioners Song,” was the true-life story of the serial killer, Gary Gilmore. Though the story was incredibly disturbing, the project was fascinating to work on. We went to all the actual places where Gary lived and worked and killed, and recreated the sets as close to real life as possible. We were not very popular in Provo, Utah! But then I suppose the truth is often not very popular.
“Weekend at Bernie’s” will always be one of my top memories. The set involved building a house from scratch on state park land. Because of the environmental constraints, we had to be extremely careful about where we laid the boardwalks, etc. The area was also a nesting area for endangered sea turtles and one night while we were filming, it was discovered that the movie lights were confusing the turtles, who were crawling toward the lights rather than toward the moon and out to sea. We had to shut down shooting. It was nice to see that some things take precedence over Hollywood and I think it is a great lesson for all of us. As the planet becomes more “green” conscious—I hope—we will all have to deal with environmental issues such as this on location. And hurray for it. Hurray for the turtles.
4. What has been your biggest challenge as a set decorator?
“Eating Raoul,” hands down, was the biggest nail-biting off-to-the-races challenge I’ve encountered. Filming a feature in two weekends and ten days several weeks later, utilizing a huge number of locations, a large cast and no money, is something I would only wish on the young and insane. But the director, Paul Bartell, had tremendous energy and faith in the project and our ability to pull it off. I believe that is what makes the difference in every project, the kind of energy that comes from the top creatives and inspires the rest of the crew. Projects with plenty of time and money can be miserable and others, with crazy time and budget constraints can be a dream.
5. List SDSA business members you like and comment on them.
Wow, having been on the committee and been a past Chair of the annual "Marketplace" committee, I have had dealings with every business member at least once, if not dozens of times. For me to choose, would be difficult, however I must point out a few of the hardest working business members that have been a major part of the success of Marketplace in years past, and that would be: Dan Shultz at Lennie Marvin's Prop Heaven
(They have very cool things from coffee shops to antique toys, and everything in between. Dan Schultz and Keith Marvin are so pleasant and accommodating and it’s a pleasure to shop there), and Corri Levelle at Sandy Rose Florals
, thank you both for being such strong supporters of the SDSA!
Editors note: please see archived article on "Marketplace 2007" below for more information.
I can't end here, who am I kidding, here is some more...
For me the business members are everything. To be a good Set decorator you need your sources. My favorites are High Wheelers
, Bob and Vickie Treppinier, have the most amazing antique bikes and anything with wheels. Their home is filled with fine antiques and junque, all for rent! Over the years they have been invaluable, and are such nice folks. I also love Louis Equipment
, Manny louis has everything to outfit any boat or dock or warehouse no matter how big. I decorated an Aircraft carrier built from scratch on “Hot Shots”. Both these business members love their stuff, and were so lucky they do. I love the folks at Sony
’s prop house. It is an incredible resources for most everything, and their prop house is full of great character pieces. RC Vintage
has fantastic lighting and fun stuff. With all the art clearance problems these days I simply shop at cleared art prop houses. Between Hollywood Studio Gallery and Pinacoteca
, and Art Pic
, I can always cover the walls. On my current show “Rules of Engagement” I often use Modern Props
, they have great contemporary furniture and are always pleasant to work with. I adore all the folks at Linoleum City
, they have whatever we need or can get it, no matter what the time constraint...I could go on and on.
I am nothing without our fine business members. We as Set Decorators are often in a hurry and not always in the greatest of moods. The pressure on us is great and getting greater. It means everything to be greeted with a smiling face and a cold drink
6. What are the current contents of your car?
Every decorator has all the typical tools of the trade. But I’ve noticed over he last several years my digital camera is probably my single most effective tool in my arsenal. To have immediate reference photos for all the things you see in a day is a big plus.I also carry a paint wheel so if something comes up or a change happens, the production designer can call out a paint color and I’m good to go!
7. What advice do you have for those interested in the field of set decoration?
I would heartily recommend that anyone interested in set design take a good look at where the business is going and how it has changed and make a very informed decision. As we all know, the business has changed radically over the past few years. There are fewer jobs and pay has not kept pace with inflation or the normal rewards of seniority and experience. That sucks. But if it is a path you truly love and want to follow, then go for it. Say yes to every job that comes along even if you think it is a dead end. And learn how to get into the Union and make that your goal from day one.
8. Which tools of your profession can you not be without?
You can’t do this job without a good crew. I worship my lead man Patrick Lees because he has saved my butt a million times. It is important to know your strengths and weaknesses and I always underestimate the amount of time things take. My lead man knows this fatal flaw and keeps us on track. And the rest of the team follows his lead—I worship them all. A good on-set dresser is also so important. We work so hard to get a set right, and they maintain it and create to camera the sets best look.
And my other secret weapon is the relationships I’ve developed with various vendors over years of working together. Priceless, as they say.
9. What was your biggest set decorating disaster?
I try as hard as I can to block those things from my memory because I can still have nightmares but I would have to say “Dr. Vegas” can still keep me up at nights. The production designer fabricated all the sets at 12 feet. Unfortunately, when the Director of Photography arrived on set, we discovered that the set needed to be built to 20 feet. Oops. A big heart-stopping, ready-to-run-away-forever oops moment. So Steve Wolfe came up with a genius solution which was to extend the set with a ballooning silk fabric that cascaded down to fill in the eight feet. It looked gorgeous and not at all like an afterthought. The only other snag was discovering that those zillion yards of silk needed to be fireproofed. Oops.
10. What advice would you give other members of SDSA on how to get the most benefit from membership?
My advice for other members that may feel like they are on the sidelines is simple. Stop waiting until you “feel like” volunteering or attending an event. Just do it. Show up, even when it feels inconvenient of that you are already doing too much. Once you get there, you will be glad you did. As I said, the business is about the relationships you make along the way and some of my sweetest relationships are with people who others might see as competitors. But these are the guys and gals who really understand what you go through on a job and can provide help and answers when you need it.
And for fun: If you designed your dream bedroom, what style would you choose?
For me, my bedroom is my sanctuary, a place where I can rest and relax and an oasis away from my visually active life as a Set Decorator. Therefore, my dream boudoir would be absolutely minimalist, completely white with nothing on the wall to distract your eyes or occupy your mind. It is all about visual rest and soothing surfaces. The focus would be the bed, the mattress and the linens, all designed for comfort and luxury. It’s called the bedroom for a reason and the bed would be the focus.