“You have to embrace them and all their flaws—they're not perfect and that's what makes them funny.”
—Jesse Tyler Ferguson, as Mitchell Pritchett
The unique hit comedy series MODERN FAMILY revolves, often at whirlwind speed, around the extended Pritchett family. Sets are key to defining each “branch” – their homes reflect their personalities and life situations and give clues to the relationships. From the first moment the logo appears, the exteriors of the domiciles establish that there are distinct differences; the set decoration takes us further into each of their lives. Set Decorator Amber Haley SDSA, who took over during the first season, gives us insight into the families through their sets.
Haley notes, “Christopher Carlson decorated the pilot and the first 12 episodes, and did a terrific job. The pilot was shot using actual locations for the interiors. When the show was picked up, those locations were replicated on stage. I came on fairly early in the series, so there were still a lot of rented pieces that needed to be purchased or replaced, as well as most of the art. The challenge was to preserve the overall look with a lot of new pieces.”
Jay and Gloria’s House—the modern family:
Patriarch Jay Pritchett [Ed O'Neill] has a second family with his much younger, vivacious Colombian wife Gloria Delgado-Pritchett [Sofía Vergara] and her worldly pre-teen son Manny Delgado [Rico Rodriguez II]. The obvious irony is that the father’s home is the most contemporary, urbanesque.
“Jay bought this house after his divorce. If he hadn’t married Gloria, it would have been an upscale bachelor pad,” explains Haley. “With Gloria, Jay gets a very healthy dose of spice in his life, and it’s evident throughout the home. Her dramatic personality is reflected in the red walls, exotic animal prints and tropical flowers. Think of the scheme as a macrocosm of Gloria’s appearance — a gorgeous, curvy brunette with bright red lips.”
“Jay has succeeded in keeping some clubhouse elements, which are upscale because he is clearly proud of his success, including deep cognac-colored leather sofas and a very expensive pool table,” Haley reveals. “It may be unusual to use such traditional furniture in a totally modern space, but it works…just like the couple.”
“Gloria’s presence is most evident in the kitchen, the dining room and the bedroom, where contemporary furnishings are embellished with her own flair. Jay’s home and marriage have become modern and somewhat flamboyant. Some walls are painted a deep, rich red balanced by white or black surfaces that pop with colorful modern art and strong Latin influences. There are unique patterns, such as African tapestries and zebra prints, which meld Gloria’s exotic nature and Jay’s big-game bravado.”
“This home and marriage is unlike anything seen before on TV,” Haley states. “The most controversial element of all the show’s sets is the large painting that hangs near Jay and Gloria’s front door. I have had so many fans inquire about this artwork entitled “Junk Food” by one of my favorite artists, Nathan Röhlander. I just love it. This is one of those pieces either you love or hate—which often mirrors people’s opinion of Jay and Gloria’s union. I think, even if you don’t like it, it sort of grows on you…like their marriage has grown on Jay’s adult children.
The Dunphy House—the suburban family:
The Dunphys—Jay’s daughter Claire Pritchett Dunphy[Julie Bowen], her husband Phil [Ty Burrell] and their children, teen Haley [Sarah Hyland], smart middle child Alex [Ariel Winter] and naive pre-teen son Luke [Nolan Gould] are the most typical family.
When queried about conveying Claire’s over-reaching need to be the perfect mother and Phil’s befuddledness, Haley replies, “I approach Claire’s character as not only the dominant force of the Dunphy family, but also the real core of the extended family. She’s the most determined in getting everyone to do all of the family things she thinks are important, and this is reflected in her home, especially around each of the holidays.”
“At first glance the Dunphy house is very Martha Stewart/Pottery Barn-esque,” says Haley. “But upon closer examination, imperfection is everywhere — evidence of the messiness of running herd over four children, the oldest of which is her husband, Phil.”
Haley points out, “There is the recurring story element of the creaking step in the middle of the stairs, which Phil never finds time to fix. Claire doesn’t really ever expect that he’ll actually fix it because he’s not mechanically inclined. She is keenly aware that she married the opposite of her father. We hung the art in their house asymmetrically to demonstrate both Phil’s ineptitude and Claire’s sheer lack of time. The artwork is also crowded in spots to emphasize a growing family of strong personalities. However, much care seems to have been given to the photos of the children, clearly indicating what Claire values most.”
“I think most suburban American mothers, whether they have careers or not, can relate to Claire, who strives to have a perfect family and home,” Haley reflects. “Of course, it’s impossible to achieve anything close to perfection, as perhaps the brightest character on this show has to learn over and over again.”
“Nothing is really perfect in this house,” Haley attests. “The walls are neutral, the furnishings individually are all on-trend for upper middle-class America, but collectively, it’s a hearty stew of stripes paired with mismatched stripes, floral prints with more mismatched prints — chaos yet balance. We constantly change the dressing around to suit the action and give the house life.”
“What makes this home feel real and relatable to America is the contrast of upscale chain-store furniture mixed with older, distinctive pieces — items Claire probably salvaged from her parents’ first marriage. The result is a decor that is slightly eclectic, which is unintentional and therefore goes unnoticed. Despite Claire’s best effort at presenting a perfect family portrait—the opposite of hers as she was growing up—she’s created a home that is both flawed and very livable. And at the end of the day, that’s perfectly fine for both Claire and Phil.”
Mitch and Cam’s Home —the gay family:
Jay’s son Mitchell Pritchett, his partner Cameron Tucker provide a strong sense of family for their adopted Vietnamese baby daughter, Lily Tucker-Pritchett.
“The biggest surprise with Mitch and Cam’s place,” says Haley, “…is that they live in a duplex, on the bottom floor. If you look closely at the exterior shot, you’ll see two different addresses on the same building. Whereas Jay and Gloria’s place would also fit in urban Miami and the Dunphy’s house could exist in any American affluent suburb, I think Mitch and Cam’s home is most representative of Los Angeles, with its Spanish architecture in muted earth tones, accented by brightly colored artwork…a reflection of the natural surroundings.”
“What I really like about this show is that the writers don’t try to hide that these families live in Los Angeles,” declares Haley. “I think most people who have not been to L.A. would be surprised that a lot of the architecture is not modern. This home is an updated twist on a traditional concept, like their union.”
“Like their relationship, their home is a combination of Mitch’s need for order, demonstrated in its clean lines and understated aesthetic, only to be punctuated by Cam’s larger-than-life bursts of dramatic color.”
“This is the only home where the contribution from the couple is equal,” Haley notes. “They both have good taste, but left up to his own devices, Mitch would border on the bland and Cam on the brash. I like to think Mitch has chosen three-quarters of the items because every little detail is important to him and he would put in the most work decorating. Like his sister Claire, he’s a perfectionist, but he is driven less by trying to create an image of perfection and more by neurosis. Cam pulls his weight with the sheer power of his contributions, driven partly by his narcissism and partly by what he sees as the need to pull Mitch out of his shell. The most obvious example is the nursery, which was probably largely decorated by Mitch, only to be ultimately defined by Cam’s very big contribution, a mural of them portrayed as angels.”
“More emblematic of their collective good taste is the living room, with its muted shades of green interrupted with an oversized, loud red and orange painting,” Haley describes. “It’s a yin/yang that works well for the space and for them. I think this home shows their character without defaulting to stereotypes, which is critical.”
“One interesting note about this set is that it almost burned to the ground between season 1 and 2,” discloses Haley. “Luckily the Fox Studio fire department managed to save it and we lost very little. Most of what was lost were small hand props that once belonged to my son. We donated them anyway, but it was still hard to see some of my child’s toys burned!”
“For season two, we updated some of the window dressings to reflect more of Cam’s influence on their home. At a subconscious level, this makes perfect sense to the audience, because they often witness Cam eventually getting what he wants despite Mitch’s better judgment. And Mitch is learning to be more comfortable expressing himself.”
“Cam’s imprint can also be seen in the ever-present fresh cut flowers,” she adds. “In fact, all of the sets have fresh flowers all of the time. They further define the different personalities. And like any good show, the characters evolve and their surroundings need to keep pace.”
Alternate [swing] sets have ranged from transforming an extant nail salon into a spa to a complete redo of an old house, interior and exterior, to serve as the Dunphy’s crotchety elderly neighbor’s home. Of course, a number of restaurants, shops, schools and hotels have been depicted, as well as the unusual: a columbarium, for example. As Haley points out, “There are a lot of locations and we’re usually in and out of them on the same day.”
When asked, “What/who has inspired you?” Haley’s instant reply,
“Other decorators! I was a buyer for over a decade in this business and I was fortunate to learn how to do this job from the very best in our industry. I’ve worked for the following decorators and learned something from every one of them…Cindy Carr SDSA, Lauri Gaffin SDSA, Sue Benjamin SDSA, Cheryl Carasik, Kristin Messina SDSA, Gary Fettis, Maria Nay SDSA, Don Diers SDSA, Bonnie Bennetts SDSA, Kristin Peterson SDSA, Jennifer Gentile SDSA, Cloudia Rebar SDSA, Ann Shea SDSA, Amanda Moss Serino, Christopher Carlson, Amy Feldman SDSA, Sandy Struth SDSA, Lisa Alkofer and Julie Smith. I’d also like to say that being on the board of the SDSA and interacting with the crème de la crème of our business has been invaluable.”