December 28th, 2021 by Karen Burg with Kimberly Leonard SDSA
BLINDSPOTTING centers on Ashley [Jasmine Cephas Jones], who is nipping at the heels of a middle-class life in Oakland until Miles [Rafael Casal], her partner of 12 years and father of their son Sean [Atticus Woodward], is suddenly incarcerated, leaving her to navigate a chaotic and humorous existential crisis when she is forced to move in with Miles’ mother, Rainey [Helen Hunt] and half-sister, Trish [Jaylen Barron] who might be wilder than he is.
As a sequel of sorts to their original film, creators Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal, again bring a fresh and heightened awareness, expansive and constrictive bursts of expression, and a fresh energetic combination of ultra-realism and immersive magic realism to expand social and cultural awareness. For the series, they wisely chose Production Designer Adam Davis and Set Decorator Kimberly Leonard SDSA to establish the look of the series, an obviously successful collaboration across the board with all departments.
SETDECOR asked Kim to tell us about the experience of creating such a soulful yet real essence of this neighborhood and story...her story about this story. She generously agreed.
Karen Burg, Editor
Rainey’s kitchen...Front: Helen Hunt as Rainey, Jasmine Cephas Jones as Ashley; Left: Daveed Diggs/Executive Producer/Showrunner, Candace Nicholas-Lippman as Janelle; Right: Benjamin Earl Turner as Earl, Jaylen Barron as Trish, Rafael Casal as Miles Turner + Executive Producer/Showrunner. Photo by Eddy Chen ©2020 Starz Entertainment
SETDECOR: How did this speak to you?
Set Decorator Kimberly Leonard SDSA: I had seen the BLINDSPOTTING feature film, and loved and respected the way the guys approached difficult topics...sometimes seriously and heart wrenchingly, sometimes with levity, but they were never afraid to go there. I’ve always tried to be the same way: get resolution, have people consider different perspectives, and open my mind, as well, to other perspectives. Presenting in different ways speaks to different people, and hopefully makes room for difficult convos to start in a more approachable and comfortable way.
SD: You have done such a range of series over the years, why did you choose to take on this one?
KL: Even from when I received the initial call, I knew it was the perfect project for me, and my Set Decorating crew. We always want to be on something inspirational and personal. At the time, I had committed to another project, so it was pretty devastating to have to turn it down. That other project fell through...the universe worked it out, because BLINDSPOTTING was the perfect show for us, and we were the perfect creative fit for them. We found each other, now we just had to nail it!
Rainey’s kitchen...Where to begin in noting the details of this fabulously real familial atmosphere? Just looking to the left: the handheld vacuums on the hall wall...the broom hanging across from them in easy reach...the multi-use beverage cart...the extra-long phone cord...the drop-down ironing board, or our favorites, the wallpaper & banquette as backdrops to collections + the lights! Photo by Tano Tropia, courtesy Starz.
I have always strived to be well-rounded. My mentors, Jim Mees and Laura Richarz (of STAR TREK fame), taught me to push myself and to try different styles of work. That way you know what you love, what you like, and what may not be for you. I started on the set dressing gang, and worked my way through the ranks in the Set Decorating department. When I changed my card to become a Set Decorator, I knew I wanted to make deliberate choices, but I had to carve a path to get there.
When I got the call for the series, I knew I was being presented an opportunity where I was going to be able to take on a personal project that was meaningful to the creators, of course, but also personal to me. This was incredibly unique—to have a relationship, deep understanding and similar feelings/experiences to this “life” that has been put on the page.
Rainey’s kitchen...The kitchen door closed for privacy, more sparks than hugs between these two: Rainey’s daughter Trish [Jaylen Barron] and Ashley [Jasmine Cephas Jones], who is Rainey’s son Miles’s partner & grandson Sean’s mother. Photo by Eddy Chen ©2020 Starz Entertainment
Growing up as a Mixed-race person at time when that was pretty unusual, with a family filled with different cultural and social influences, I’ve been able to embrace and relate to others and to make myself relatable. That is what BLINDSPOTTING tries to portray, that there are still points of relatability, even if you have a “Blindspot” ...and that deeply resonated with me. I also knew that the Set Decorating crew would really be able to have personal and cultural influence, and weigh in on details as well. We have a little bit of everyone on our crew, so I knew they would love it!
SD: There is awareness-building, yet it’s through humor as well as dramatic aspects. Would you like to talk about that?
KL: This is a very delicate time, in the world, but particularly in this country. There are incidents still happening that have happened for centuries, but there are still a lot of people for whom this is new. BLINDSPOTTING digs a little deeper with examples of the buildup and confluence of events that lead to many things...wrongful imprisonment, extended incarceration, frustration, racial profiling, etc.
How the message gets across really is a great part of it...i.e. drama vs. humor...it’s just getting the message out there that’s important. And BLINDSPOTTING invites everyone into the world without judgement, provides clarity and insight, and provokes thought. I mean, for a half-hour show to do deep dives into a family, multiple generations, with Mixed-kids, absent fathers, single moms, dealing with social oppression, prison, daily life and navigating that all together...that’s a big ask. And, however they needed to get there, they’ve done it!
Rainey’s house...One of the quitter moments and spaces...Helen Hunt, Atticus Woodward. Photo by Eddy Chen ©2020 Starz Entertainment
SD: Tell us about collaborating with co-creators Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal...
KL: Daveed and Rafa are great! In fact, all of the Executive Producers and Producers were incredible. We had a few meetings about the house and character development, and once I did the Set Decorating presentation, they just said “Do what you gotta do, we trust you, because you totally get it.” What a feeling! That’s so unusual these days to be able to vibe and get that trust on something so deeply personal. But again, having similar background and experiences, they understood me, and I understood them. Truly a gift.
SD: And collaborating with Production Designer Adam Davis...
KL: Adam is great! He brings an incredible background of architecture and other worldly experiences to the table. The design of those two main characters houses was spot on. What we really enjoyed together was learning about the culture of the Bay, embracing that, applying our artistic vision and watching that grow during the season. He is collaborative, creative, and listens with a unique sensitivity. We had a blast!
SD: There are so many ways in which this series steps beyond, yet maintains its core of reality. How did you work out the set details with the choreographers?
KL: Working with the choreographers during Covid was a bit of a challenge. They are incredibly creative, and would just go into the set and pretty much figure out their movements within what was there. What we would often do, because we couldn’t be in the set with them, would be to watch through a monitor off set, or through another part of the house (or location) that was much further away (so they could stay in their creative zone), and see what areas we would need to address, shore up/secure, etc. Then, it’s just confirmation if things change or adjust for safety.
SD: Speaking of...you did this series during the early return from the pandemic hiatus, when COVID protocols were first put in place? Tell us about that experience!
KL: It was our first show working with the pandemic, and we were all nervous. Our Covid team did an incredible job of keeping us all safe and informed. It was definitely difficult getting used to the constant masks, testing, etc. But whatever we had and have to do to keep everyone healthy, we were up to. The constant availability of testing certainly is a gift, and we never take that for granted. A little over a year later, it’s still a challenge, but I think everyone knows how to navigate the working environment with the Covid protocols, which are essential.
What was a unexpected challenge for me, personally, was I didn’t realize how much wearing the mask would affect me and communicating “who I am”, as a Mixed-person, to people who didn’t know me yet. At times, it felt like, “They aren’t going to get that I really get it, because half of my faced is covered.” That got a little emotional at times. This is a visceral show, and relatability is key. You don’t really know how the mask is going to affect you when trying to communicate your artistic and passionate interpretations of their life experiences.
SD: Because of that, the interiors were done onstage in LA? How did you work out the dressing of the sets, which must have been intense in those early days back?
KL: The only main difference that we found with dressing sets was the amount of people that could be in them at once. So, whether locations or stage, we had to develop a ballet of sorts to satisfy the covid team. We do this anyway, but it was just a little “extra”. Example: we couldn’t just have drapery come install at any time as the schedule allowed. Now with covid, we have to schedule a test, wait for results, notify on the prep schedule there will be a person who isn’t “on the crew full time” coming in, etc. But we figured it out.
Rainey’s house...The Art room is flanked by the dining room and living room [right, blue]. Go ahead, stare for hours, you won’t discover everything, but you’ll have a great time looking! Photo by Tano Tropia, courtesy Starz.
SD: Rainey’s house...This set has its own musicality, tell us anything you wish about creating it!
KL: This house was so much fun to decorate! Rainey, Miles’s mother, was a character that was being newly introduced for the series. The basic notes that we had were that the house was multigenerational, Rainey had lived there probably since the ‘60s, she was a hippy, and well-traveled. Well, I was off to the races with that! I knew we really had to dive into that Victorian layer, since those are still so prominent in Oakland. So, that was our foundation, and just layered on from there.
Helen Hunt, who plays Rainey, was great. She just really wanted to make sure she had a lot of things to interact with. So, between the prop master and me, we made sure she was never bored or appeared boring!
Rainey’s house, living room...The one thing Ashley was not about to part with when she and her son Sean had to move in was her new couch! So what if it’s a Victorian house filled with furniture? Trish has her humongous black screen. Atticus Woodward, Jaylen Barron, Candace Nicholas-Lippman, Helen Hunt. Photo by Eddy Chen ©2020 Starz Entertainment
The sets are living and breathing and morph, just like life does. So, things move, change and shift. The dishes will be different in the sink, Sean creates a different piece of art, Rainey must have made a jello-mold because the copper mold suddenly isn’t there (Who did she make that for? What kind of jello? Or is she using it to do something w Sean?) The couch change—which is a story point—is obvious. But other things change as well: plants moving (maybe they are outside being watered), candle wax on the runner (When/why did that happen?). Many little details that we had fun doing.
SD: Speaking of wonderfully dense details, please tell us about creating that incredible, amazingly expressive home filled with layers of memories we can all relate to in some way.
KL: What’s interesting about dealing with sets and characters like this is to be able to resist the urge of having them look decorated. Not everything needs to be neat, balanced and perfect. There can be stacks of newspapers by the door that no one has taken out for recycling, there doesn’t have to be that “perfect piece of art” above the bed, there doesn’t always have to be a coordinating throw blanket. This wasn’t that show and that wasn’t the goal. We wanted to make it relatable, comfortable and familiar. You don’t get hung up on that stuff, so you can pay attention to the real message of the story. And yes, the newspapers were from the BAY-EAST BAY TIMES.
Rainey’s house, Art room reverse...Note the lamps and fabrics and textures...radiators [See article below], rolled canvases, stack of newspapers, rumpled pillows...touches of real life everywhere. Photo by Tano Tropia, courtesy Starz.
SD: Were the key elements for each room chosen first, or was it in flex? What might we not notice right away but would want to know about?
KL: There were definitely “motivators”...the chandeliers were an incredible find. And, of course, the Rain Lamp! There aren’t many sets you can use those on, and to be able to use them as practicals and add our color changing bulb...that was fun. The two Hoosier cabinets: one still being used in that tradition and one Rainey has converted to her desk. All great anchors.
The six matching radiators in the house are from a mansion on the Gold Coast, specifically Pacific Heights in the Bay area, which was built during the gold rush and remains in the same family. I found these radiators on Craigslist/San Francisco, and I had to have them! I was immediately in contact with the owner of the house, and within the week, they were on the stage. I didn’t want to do the fiberglass radiators- they never look real to me. These have lions on the bolts, are extremely heavy, and can’t be duplicated!
Of course, as the truck was on the way to pick them up in the SF area, I said “Oh wow! Look what else I’ve found!” There was a “curb alert”, also in the Bay area, of a butler’s pantry! I got on the phone and convinced the homeowner to lovingly guard it, and the truck would stop there first. “We will take good care of it, and it’s going to the right place!” These pieces are perfect, upcycled, and quintessential Bay area!
Rainey’s house, dining room...See article below for details. Photo by Tano Tropia, courtesy Starz.
SD: This home is so amazingly character-revealing, and not just of Rainey’s, but also how the others live and react there. Would you like to talk about that?
KL: Trish (Jaylen Barron), Miles’s sister, is a breakout star! She’s a hustler and is going to make it. She uses every bit of that house to bolster her success. So, you can see her layers: ring lights, the flat screen with back lighting, soundbar, etc. She’s most comfortable in this environment, so even though she’s going to level up, is she ever gonna move out? That’s just as much her place as her mom’s, so her stamp is all over it as well.
SD: It would be impossible for us to choose favorites in that house, so what are some of your favorite elements or scenarios?
KL: Well, the fabrics and textures were mostly driven from period influences, particularly reflecting Rainey’s life and things she had either inherited or collected: Chenilles, Damasks, acrylic, needlepoints, plastic seats and tablecloths, rugs from India! We covered the gambit of textures that really lean into the different decades represented in the layers. There are even authentic Dashiki/Ankara textiles represented in neighbor Nancy’s house, custom door beads from the Ukraine, and lots of rattan and wicker.
Rainey’s house, kitchen, reverse...See article below for delicious details! Photo by Tano Tropia, courtesy Starz.
The kitchen and the Butler’s pantry are my faves. The interior doors of the butler’s pantry are lined with vintage newspapers from Idaho, and more Idaho newspaper also used on broken panes of the pocket doors in the dining room. The NOS of the dustbuster and flashlight duo, wall-mounted in the butler’s pantry, we really laughed about for a long time. The kitchen island was a piece that I found on Offerup, and then had customized, the built-in ironing board with a small binder of ironing and stain tips plus Faultless spray starch, and of course, the extra-long phone cord in the kitchen...
SD: Nancy’s House...
KL: Nancy [Margo Hall] was a character we saw in the feature film, so we felt like we could build upon that and really develop her character more within the set. We decided she was the matriarch of the community, a continuing activist and advocate for social change, a trusted and relied upon person for many generations, and she had an open-door type policy. This is also where we get introduced to Earl [Benjamin Earl Turner], who is incredible. We learn so much about him over the series, and his background, which is unexpected.
Nancy’s house, living room...Margo Hall as the community matriarch. Homage to culture and mothers in these sets. Jaylen Barron, Atticus Woodward, Benjamin Earl Turner. Photo by Eddy Chen ©2020 Starz Entertainment
The main inspiration for Nancy’s house was a combination of my Mom and my stepmother. The art, custom done and based upon art that I grew up with, all a representation of what drives her to be there for her community. Games like mancala, “proper” dominos, the brass crab...even her record collection (Tower of Power, EWF, Brides of Funkenstein, Apache 12”, Teddy P., Maze, etc.) was curated especially for her by me. She has a nexus to the BPM, and Back to Africa movement. While looking for art for Nancy’s, I was introduced to someone that represents artists that do custom art for The Black Panthers. We hit it off right away, and the art that I was able to source from him was the core of who that character is. It really inspired me, and others, when the images were on the set.
Nancy’s house, living room...Read Kim’s beautiful description below! Photo by Tano Tropia, courtesy Starz.
It was a really special set, and everyone who walked in there said “Gosh, I’ve been to so many houses like this.” What an honor to hear that. The goals of detailing any set, seen or unseen, are to create that motivating and realistic environment. It doesn’t matter that we aren’t playing the records on her functioning period correct technics component system! When Daveed walks in and goes through the records and says, “Man, I grew up with this exact record collection!” ...that’s what makes it all worth it.
Creators Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal give a brilliant, ebullient set tour on their Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/tv/CQHGq0rBcIu/
Check it out, then check out the SDSA & SETDECOR Instagram! https://www.instagram.com/officialsdsa/
*From Kim about the cars:
Although we call them “donuts” here in LA, in Oakland, they call them “sideshows” and the cars are “swingin” -- something I also learned on the show! I’ve been into cars and car culture my whole life, been to dozens of car events from street races to concours, so this was a lot of fun! Comparing and embracing the difference in LA car culture vs. Oakland car culture, nerding out about it with the guys and owners of the cars in the Bay was a lot of fun. They have their own style of cars that have grown from their environment and perspectives...from the actual car, to paint scheme, to the way their have their hydraulics. The culture is completely different, but the cars always allow for that natural and immediate bond.
Kim wanted to give a shoutout to her crew...
The crew is so great! I’m lucky to have worked with the same crew for about 10 years, with some great new additions. We have a very diverse crew that has come together organically. They are all very talented, qualified, and we all benefit from everyone’s different experiences.
And her resources:
Practically everything for the two houses was purchased via Craigslist, St. Vincent de Paul, Ebay, Etsy, Offerup. For the swing sets, we had the support of so many incredible local vendors such as: Advanced Liquidators Office Furniture; Faux Library Studio Props; Hollywood Studio Gallery; Lennie Marvin’s Prop Heaven; LCW; Practical Props; Sandy Rose Floral Inc; Warner Bros. Property, Drapery, and Sign Shop.