Pioneers of the science of human sexuality, William Masters [Michael Sheen] and Virginia Johnson [Lizzy Caplan] are the center point of the lauded series MASTERS OF SEX. Their research touched off the sexual revolution, taking them from a Mid-western teaching hospital to the cover of TIME magazine. He is a brilliant scientist out of touch with his own feelings, and she is a single working mother ahead of her time. The series chronicles their unusual lives, romance, and unlikely pop culture trajectory.
The move from pilot to series is an interesting dance the best set decorators and production designers do so well that we don’t actually notice the small and huge differences in the sets! For MASTERS OF SEX, the entire production was moved from New York to Hollywood, offering even greater challenges.
Set Decorator Halina Siwolop SDSA takes us through the rebirthing process and describes how the seeds are incorporated into a full season of incredible sets, then gives us a hint of the new season that is beginning to unfold!
SET DECOR: The pilot was shot in New York, with Ellen Christiansen SDSA as Set Decorator, Rena DeAngelo SDSA as Buyer and Andrew Jackness as Production Designer. However, except for that first episode, the entire season was filmed in Los Angeles with you as Set Decorator, Eva Firshein as Buyer and Michael Wylie as Production Designer, and you are now currently immersed in filming the second season. Please tell us the backstory to this!
Set Decorator Halina Siwolop SDSA: Well, they had planned on doing the series in New York, but the actors wanted to stay home so they pushed to have the show transferred here to Los Angeles. We were then hired on as the new design team for the series. There were certain elements that we needed to replicate or keep similar, so there wouldn’t be a big jarring difference between the pilot and the rest of the season.
The most obvious set to keep constant with the look of the pilot was the hospital, Washington University Maternity Hospital, St Louis, Missouri. The pilot was shot mostly on location, but since we had the luxury of building all of our sets, we could change them to fit our needs and improve on the location’s basic look. There were so many details we had to acquire and add in… all the fixtures, the vintage drinking fountains, medical equipment…but we tried to keep it similar to the look of the great old hospital they used in NY.
We also tried to keep the same look of Masters’ house, but Michael completely re-designed it and changed the floor plan. If anyone were to look very closely, the pilot had a sunken living room and ours is on a raised platform, with a lower bar area and mini-office leading to the entry. But the orientation of the kitchen to the living room is the same, and since that’s mostly what you saw in the pilot, the transition of the look worked really well.
We did have a lot of the furniture inventory from the pilot, which we incorporated into our sets. We tried to reuse and repurpose as necessary. For instance, Ellen had a great sofa and chairs for the living room that we reused, but then we had to fill in the rest of the room with our own purchases.
The kitchen was all new. The one for the pilot was much smaller, more of a galley kitchen from what I could see from location photos, and had different appliances. That gave us the leeway to start with a fresh look. Michael designed a larger, more camera friendly space and then we added our own design elements. I started with a really great copper-front oven found at Sav-On Appliances and then had a cooktop painted to match. The curtains were all custom-made. We tried to keep their house pared down and not overly decorated, almost a sterile environment, which mirrors Bill Masters’ very controlled persona. The fun part was using the wonderful mid-century color palettes and interesting style details of the period.
SET DECOR: And what about the other key character, Virginia Johnson’s place?
Siwolop: We pretty much redesigned her entire apartment. You only saw her bedroom in the pilot, so we were able to alter the look drastically. Michael wanted to wallpaper the room, and that just changed the entire look and, of course, affected how I would decorate it. I reused some of Ellen’s furniture, but painted the pieces in a period-correct way to make them pop off our new wallpaper.
SET DECOR: So, you’re keeping the essence, but making it flow better into your look…
That’s exactly what we were trying to do. We had the luxury of having more time to really finesse the show and see what worked best for the new design.
SET DECOR: Another signature set for the first season would be Masters’ office, and it leads out to so much more! Could you tell us about the contrast between his and Dr. Lillian DePaul’s office?
Siwolop: We kept his office true to the look of the pilot. The size and the orientation of furniture changed, but we used much of the furniture from the pilot. Again, we were working with tight budgets! I did bring in new artwork and redesigned his diplomas. We had learned that Masters was an airplane fanatic, so I added some vintage prints of airplanes to give his office a personal touch.
SET DECOR: And for the new season, there’s an entirely new office in a different setting. Exciting that we have a preview photo to share!
Siwolop: Yes, his new office is in a newer, state of the art hospital, so we decided to push the design style to be very current for that time period, more modern.
SET DECOR: Meanwhile, for the first season, you also made some significant changes in the adjacent areas…
Siwolop: We wanted to keep the overall integrity of the hospital but had to make many changes once Michael started designing his version of the space. He reconfigured the adjoining secretary bullpen area, adding windows in the offices so that on camera you’re getting much more depth in the set. We also designed an operating room with a viewing gallery, a cafeteria and numerous exam rooms and patient rooms.
SET DECOR: It visually informs on so many levels, particularly when we look at women’s roles as reflected then. We get the view into DePaul’s office through the bullpen…it’s so diminished compared to his.And the “bullpen” area is filled with secretaries.
Siwolop: The difference between Masters’ office and DePaul’s office is very striking. He was the leading doctor at the hospital, with a lot of clout, and thus had a beautiful, spacious office with his own secretary. Dr. DePaul, on the other hand, was the only female doctor on the staff. Her office was relegated to just a section of the bullpen. With no frills and no personal secretary, she was basically pushed into the corner. It tells you a lot about what she faced being a woman in what was considered a “man’s profession”.
SET DECOR: Then there’s the research room adjacent to Master’s office, where the study on human sexuality is conducted, with individuals and couples filmed in states of arousal and copulation. Appropriate to the storyline, it seems to become more cohesive and developed as the study goes on…
Siwolop: Yes, as Masters and Johnson started to progress in their studies, their equipment and techniques also evolved. We worked closely with Propmaster Jeffrey Johnson and our med techs to resource the correct medical equipment specific to the study and the period.
There was a great set element in the pilot that I tried to match in the observation room, which was a built-in metal storage cabinet with glass-fronted doors, for housing medical equipment, towels and sheets. Alpha [Alpha Company prop house] had the perfect cabinets to replicate this, along with some of the medical components, and we lucked out in finding a set of matching exam tables and side tables at Angelus Medical that were already painted beautifully for our era!
SET DECOR: There was also a brothel, where they attempted to do research…
Siwolop: [Laughs] That was a really fun set that we shot on location in an old, Victorian house in Pasadena. We just took the look over the top and tried to add a lot more of the Victorian touches. We did this to make the idea of attempting medical research there seem that much more ridiculous. And they shot it well. You know, we can give the shooting crew lovely sets, but it only looks as good as our camera department shoots it…and our Director of Photography, Michael Weaver, is just amazing.
SET DECOR: Agree! You, Michael Wylie and Weaver quite rightly received Emmy recognition for your outstanding work on PUSHING DAISIES. That was a delightful fantasy series,the look was so delicious and lighthearted, and expansive in use of color and pattern. MOS is a biographical drama, a totally different look, and yet we can see some parallel aspects, in the depth of color choices, the design and the richness.
Siwolop: That’s one of the things that is truly delightful about working with Michael Wylie. He always has a really thrilling, rich color palette, and he and I both love to use a lot of layers of pattern. For instance, in Virginia Johnson’s house, particularly in her bedroom and her living room, we tried to do lush, deep colors and patterned wallpaper and fabrics to make it fun and interesting, just like her character.
SET DECOR: Sometimes the “character” is a place and a time, as in the 1950s maternity surgical suite you mentioned earlier. The attention to detail throughout the series is rather amazing, even when subtle. The hospital cafeteria, for example, a key gathering place set in time…
Siwolop: Well, the cafeteria posed a problem, because I needed to find a number of matching vintage tables that were also in good condition! I researched some vintage tables with an inset of Formica and edged with a metal strip, which were perfect but were nowhere to be found. But I was at Advanced Liquidators one day…another great resource…and they had a credenza that had that same sort of element on top. So I took a picture, showed it to Wylie and he loved that look, but then we had to figure out, “How do we do this?” We bought some standard restaurant bases, and with a joint venture between our construction and paint departments, we built tabletops and then applied vinyl and metal strips to them. And there you go – new, 1950s era tables. They went perfectly with a batch of chairs that came from the pilot inventory.
SET DECOR: And you have so many sets with multiple chairs: meetings, conferences, dinners, parties…
Siwolop: Truckloads! My favorite large scene has been the Scully anniversary party, which was shot at the Wilshire Ebell. I thought it looked so gorgeous the way they shot it.
SET DECOR: It seemed exactly right for the time…
Siwolop: We shot the heck out of the Ebell! So many rooms fit the look of our show.
[Editor’s note: The Ebell Theatre and Club, built in 1927, is a classic setting in the museum district of LA. Anyone who has worked in Hollywood has probably shot there at least once!]
Like everyone else, I love the Ebell, but when you shoot on location, there are always challenges regarding what you can or cannot do to the location. We couldn’t drill into the main ballroom walls to hang drapery, so we made freestanding structures and tacked the curtains to them. We created a bandstand and dance section and separate areas where they could sit and dine. In our show, it’s all about lighting and flowers. And smoke. Cigarette smoke. Lots of it.
SET DECOR: So, you must use a lot of ashtrays on this show…
I have an ashtray on every single set! I even have them in the patient rooms in the hospital. We really do put them everywhere. Interestingly, the hard thing for me to find is a selection of really great vintage lighters. I’m doing a house right now in Hancock Park and, thankfully, we just found 5 great lighters. They’re going to be everywhere in the house, near an ashtray. That’s what we do on this series.
SET DECOR: It was an accepted part of life then. Are there other constant set elements that apply to the period?
Telephones! I know more about phones than I ever thought possible. I know the difference between the Series 300 and the series 500… and when you could accurately introduce the plastic dial versus the metal dial. We do a lot of research and are adamant about getting the details correct. But there came a time where I had to say, “At this point, we just need a phone on the set. I know it’s not supposed to have a plastic dial, but please put one in anyway.”
SET DECOR: Now someone is going to search through every episode to find that one plastic dial! Did you go to History for Hire for the phones or did you need to purchase them?
We definitely have many pieces from H4H, but we did need to buy several phones, especially for our permanent sets. My buyer, Eva Firshein, had a source from when she worked on the film ARGO—a gentleman who collects vintage phones and even has complete phone systems! We bought about 15 phones from him. It was lovely!
SET DECOR: That’s fabulous, to find that arcane collector that fits in when you’re trying to do period. Speaking of collectors, there’s a great collection of blue & white ware in the Scully house, which gives us a deeper insight into the character Margaret Scully [Allison Janney]. She is from the previous generation, classic and classy, the perfect provost’s wife. Her daughter is now grown and she’s feeling a bit unfulfilled.
Yes, Michael wanted her to have some kind of an obsessive collection and he came up with the idea of the blue and white porcelain objects. It’s as if she has this shopping habit she has to keep feeding, so we loaded her up with all these lovely pieces.
SET DECOR: It’s just a little built-in nook, a background piece, but the shapes, the lighting are so effective. It defines her very well.
There are two other sets that don’t directly belong to a specific character, but divulge much about her. Libby Masters [Caitland FitzGerald] is initially in a somewhat uncomfortable patient room at her husband’s hospital re: her infertility, and the last scene of the first season shows her in a bed in the ward of a hospital she wasn’t supposed to be in, holding her newborn child. No one else knows she’s there. Both times, she’s assessing her life…and the sets themselves are such a profound statement of that.
That’s a really good observation. In the storyline, she consults with one of her husband’s colleagues, and ends up having to see him in the pediatric wing. So we turned one of our patient rooms into a pediatric consultation room. That actually had a couple of design incarnations. Wylie finally came up with the concept of clowns, because there’s something both funny and sad about clowns.
And for that last scene, where she’s at the African-American hospital, we just tried to make it really kind of desolate and lonely. The pieces we brought in are obviously of an older vintage, and that was a definite conscious choice to show the difference between the well-funded maternity hospital and where she ended up.
SET DECOR: Everything has the rounded corners of another era. It all frames her and the situation so beautifully.
Which leads us into the new season that is just beginning.The first episode of the second season opens with Masters and Johnson in a hotel, and we see more of the Scully house and the extremes of his treatment. The critics immediately applauded the depth that the series has maintained in look, story and characterizations. An exciting way to start the new season!