Main Photo
Heck family home, Orson, Indiana… Middle-aged, middle class and living in the middle of the country, Frankie Heck [Patricia Heaton] and her unflappable husband Mike [Neil Flynn] use wry wit and a sardonic sense of humor to get their family through each day intact... Photo by Michael Ansell/ABC ©2016 American Broadcasting Companies, Inc. All rights reserved.

THE MIDDLE

May 23rd, 2018 by Karen Burg with Julie Kaye Fanton SDSA


Set Decorator
Julie Kaye Fanton SDSA
Production Designer
Randy Ser
ABC

 
After nine full seasons, THE MIDDLE has just wrapped its final episode!
Peter Roth, head of Warner Bros. TV, which produced the show for ABC, says, “The writing, acting and craftsmanship have been superb, and the show has been vividly brought to life each week by the incomparable Patricia Heaton, Neil Flynn, Charlie McDermott, Eden Sher, Atticus Shaffer and a creative team that has poured its heart and soul into each and every episode.”
 
ABC describes the series...
Patricia Heaton stars in this warm and witty single-camera comedy about raising a family and lowering your expectations. Middle-aged, middle class and living in the middle of the country in Orson, Indiana, Frankie Heck is a harried wife and mother of three who uses her wry wit and sense of humor to get her family through each day intact.
 
Frankie works as a dental assistant, and her unflappable husband Mike [Neil Flynn), manager at the local quarry, is her sardonic partner in the daily grind that is raising their average – yes, most definitely average – family. Balancing kids and work never really gets easier—it just gets different.
Their kids:
Axl [Charlie McDermott], who finishes college and is now dating his sister’s college roommate Lexie [Daniela Bobailla];
Sue [Eden Sher], their ever-optimistic, extraordinarily ordinary daughter who fails at just about everything she tries with great gusto—we’ve followed her through middle school and high school, and into college;
Brick [Atticus Shaffer], the quirky youngest son, now in high school, who reads constantly, whispers and whoops to himself, as well as unapologetically marches to the beat of his own drummer.
 
Their hilarious struggles continued for nine seasons, as we watched the kids grow and the challenges brought with it, but through all the madness shines a loving family, and together the Hecks continued putting THE MIDDLE on the map.        ---ABC

 
To ensure audiences stepped into the midst of a working class family in the middle of America, Set Decorator Julie Kaye Fanton SDSA, Production Designer Randy Ser and their teams stepped away from the sitcom norm of well-designed and decorated houses, and, instead, focused on the “real”.
 
Looking over photos from the run of the show [See gallery above], Fanton takes us through the key Heck family home sets, and then we touch on some of the swing/additional sets that were recurring or which represent myriad others that came into play at some point in those over 200 episodes!
 
Heck Living Room...
“In a sitcom, the sofa is the center of the Universe. Our show is no exception. When looking at my set photos you might think I neglected to straighten up things before the photo was taken. The truth, though, is that we actually meticulously policed our sets to make sure that our mess and clutter were in every shot. Woe to any day player who tried to tidy up! 
 
When we first created these sets, the show runners, Eileen Heisler and DeAnn Heline, gave me really good guidance on the look of the show. I think it was hard at first for me to accept that they really did want it to look that awful! It took a while to find artwork that clicked. The “Cow” which sits above left of the sofa was a total Hail Mary that I brought in after I felt I was running out of options. NAPOLEON DYNAMITE had been on my list of Midwest research viewings and…well…it had a cow in it. And I had always loved this piece by Anita Rosenberg. It is a photograph of a lovely Jersey Heifer in a field surrounded by this crazy mosaic frame. 
 
Fortunately, the show runners loved it. I used artwork by Anita all over the house. Her "Eat Sleep Fish" is also in the living room. You'll find it hanging under sconces holding fish in boxes. 
 
Through the divider screens you can see a Hoosier cabinet. I couldn’t resist--we are in Indiana!
 
The colors throughout the house are extremely bold. You may not like them but you will certainly remember them! They make the house feel at the same time warm and suffocating. Color is woven intentionally like a lovely tapestry from walls to fabrics to accessories – no POPS of color here!
 
Most of the furniture and accessories come from inexpensive sources like Living Spaces, Target, Cost Plus, Dollar Tree and Walmart. I like to shop where my character would shop. I want my sets to be authentic to the story being told.” 
 
[Editor’s note: For “swing” sets that occur on screen seldom or only once, set decorators can utilize the option of renting from prophouses, but if a set will play throughout a season or seasons, it’s more cost effective to purchase the set elements.]


 
 
Heck Breakfast Room...
“This is my favorite part of the Basic Set. [The basic set consists of the living room/dining room, entry, breakfast room, kitchen, back porch/laundry.] From there, you can see the entire living area.
 
The Heck house is a mess. It was important for us to show that Frankie’s life is out of control. The piles of laundry, stacks of bills, and old school projects jammed into the shelves speak of no time to organize. Forgotten toys, outgrown school accomplishments and holidays long past share space with an exercise bike that serves as a place to hang laundry. Even with the chaos, though, the room is a friendly place.”
 

Heck Dining room...
“The Heck’s dining table is always topped with a puzzle in progress, a pile of bills and junk mail. The carpet is stained. The striped wallpaper, from Astek Wallcovering, was partially ripped down in an episode in which Frankie unwisely decided to redecorate for visiting Marines, then she hurriedly repasted it and hung artwork, like the framed poppy print from the bathroom, to try to cover cracks.
 
Unusual items are stored here, like a small barbecue.
We are not sure why.
 
The original table was damaged in an episode. In the storyline, after the death of Aunt Edie, her dining table moved to the Heck house and the former table went to Axl’s college apartment. Things work just like real life here!”
 

Heck Master bedroom...
“This is a perfect example of my consciously making all the “wrong” choices. The Heck family lives amid chaos. Their house is total chaos. I used conflicting patterns and colors that are angry with each other to convey this. Things are unfinished and unmatched. The visuals provide a level of anxiety to every scene, which gives a good base for laughter.
 
Family is the big theme of our show. The family photos on the wall here are mostly relatives of mine. In the hallway and living room, we have actual younger photos of our actors.”
 
Sue’s bedroom...and her half of her college dorm room...
Sue is everyone’s favorite character. All Sue colors are happy ones and have been so much fun to work with, from her pre-teens into college. Although Sue now lives with Lexie at college, she spends a ton of time at home on weekends and holidays. We took a good bit down from her walls when she left for college, but because it was Sue, there was plenty left!
 
We had so much fun creating her wall of motivational posters, affirmations, handmade collages (created by Buyer Chris Champagne)...and pulling together fun items for her college dorm room.”
 

Brick’s bedroom...
“My inspiration for Brick and Axl’s bedroom was the room of my son, Nick, who was leaving for college just as we began setting up THE MIDDLE. I literally emptied years of his messy junk into a truck (with his permission and a check), and started layering. That is some handy verisimilitude!
 
The room has changed over time. Brick originally slept in an Ikea child’s bed until he tricked Axl out of his queen bed. He still uses the child’s comforter, though. Things don’t fit properly on THE MIDDLE...”
 

Basement...
“Many scenes have played in the Heck basement. We have thrown high school parties, had folks sleep on the pool table, weathered terrible plumbing leaks and located lost treasured photographs. It takes truckloads of set dressing and a talented crew to create layer upon layer of stored history.”
 

Holidays...
“I suppose that I have learned to do things badly, well.
Sometimes the photos make me cringe because the decoration is so awful! That amateurish slapdash look is exactly what I am trying to do, though!
When things look too nice, we mess them up. It has been so affirming to see comments from folks across the country over the years saying that the Heck house looks real to them.

...And that includes the geese! In Indiana, folks evidently dress their decorative geese. I can't remember how I originally discovered this fact. Since the very beginning of THE MIDDLE, we have dressed our two geese differently for each episode. We have some adorable outfits for them. We would usually buy from a couple of Midwest vendors. We have made some custom outfits, too, like the Marine dress uniforms they wore for Thanksgiving the year the Marines visited. I particularly love their Halloween costumes, raincoats and hunting camo.”
 
 
Grandpa Big Mike... 
“Grandpa Big Mike doesn’t live at the Heck house, but he is Mike’s father and lives nearby. He is a hoarder... 
 
Doing a Hoarder House is not merely a matter of getting a bunch of stuff and dragging it into a set. It needs to be done with intention and affection for the character. I try to never have contempt for any character, no matter how different their situation or worldview may be from mine. A hoarder mentality is fear-based, always trying to prepare for the unimaginable, to fill the un-fillable void. There are always multiples of items.”
 
 
Additional sets...
Over 200 episodes, basically 24 per season, Fanton, Ser and their teams have not only brought the Heck family’s environment to life, but their community as well. Every episode has additional sets ranging from the orthodontist office where Frankie works to the “nicer” homes of neighbors and friends, including the condo that Lexie’s parents let her and Sue have for the remainder of college, to the affordable grocery stores and supermarkets The Frugal Hoosier and Yesterday's Bounty...to the college hangout Gumford Bar & Grill...and multiple restaurants and bars and stores, schools events...and holidays!
 
Please see the gallery above for examples, but even with a large gallery it’s impossible to represent the number of additional sets designed, decorated, dressed week after week, episode after episode, while ensuring that the permanent sets were freshened, always evolving with each episode’s storyline.
 
Fanton notes, “I have such an amazing crew.  Because we never left the Warner Bros. Ranch backlot, we created every set from scratch. When you see a store or a restaurant or a convention or well…anything...we created it!
 
This requires a large crew of specialized set dressers—two drapers, a former greensman, several who are good at arts and crafts and some whose talents run specifically to keeping us and our stock organized. We hired anywhere between 12 and 30 set dressers on an episode. My leadman Buddy Ray Reynolds-Maichel (who took over after husband, Bud Fanton retired) does an expert job of managing the madness with grace. My buyers, Chris Champagne and Bethany Barton are especially fabulous, smart and talented, and I depended on them for so much. All the crewmembers, though, are professional, dependable, creative and fun to be around.
 
I try to give people latitude to be creative themselves, so that they enjoy their work. I know that I only have a little to offer alone, but if I can harness the efforts of my team toward my vision, then I have all of their creativity behind me as well.”
 
Of her decades-long collaboration with Production Designer Randy Ser, she says...
“Randy Ser and I started working together in 1980 when we knew almost nothing. We learned together. We are friends. We are family. We know how the other thinks – which saves a great deal of time showing photos!  We have complimentary approaches to things. He is an incredibly talented Production Designer who is able to handle difficult situations. I have so much respect for what he has been able to accomplish with the look of THE MIDDLE.”
 
And of her experience with and in THE MIDDLE, Fanton says...
“I am so fortunate to have been along for this ride. Nine years is a rare run in our world. I do not take it for granted. Warner Bros. has been a great company to work for and THE MIDDLE has been such a great family to be a part of, right in the middle of it all!”
 
In the final episode, Sue tells her family that she loves being the middle child, “The middle is the safest place to be. You've got love on both sides of you."

Frankie is overcome with emotion as the family drives Axl to his new home.
"It’s over. The five of us are never going to be together like this again. It's the end of an era. It's never going to be the same again."
Mike sagely replies, "That's the way it's supposed to be."
 
 



Photo 3
Heck family home, Halloween… One of many Halloween episodes with parents Frankie and Mike [Patricia Heaton, Neil Flynn] and the kids, oldest to youngest: Axl, Sue & Brick [Charlie McDermott, Eden Sher, Atticus Shaffer]... Set Decorator Julie Kaye Fanton SDSA smiles, “I suppose that I have learned to do things badly, well. Sometimes the photos make me cringe because the decoration is so awful!” Photo by Michael Ansell/ABC ©2016 American Broadcasting Companies, Inc. All rights reserved.

Photo 4
Heck living room… “In a sitcom, the sofa is the center of the Universe. Our show is no exception. This is the room straightened up before the official network photo was taken. The truth, though, is that we actually meticulously policed our sets to make sure that our mess and clutter were in every shot. Woe to any day player who tried to tidy up!” Photo © American Broadcasting Companies, Inc. All rights reserved.

Photo 5
Heck house in the middle of Orson, Indiana, Proud home of the world’s largest polyurethane cow… “This photo is from the first year and has furniture, a lamp and pillows that were replaced as the series unfolded. The cow photo in the mosaic frame, which became sort of the series icon, is by the artist Anita Rosenberg, who also took this photo!”

Photo 6
Heck living room, reverse… “If you look closely, you’ll see another of Anita’s pieces... ‘Eat Sleep Fish’ is hanging under the sconces holding fish in boxes. The colors throughout the house are extremely bold. You may not like them, but you will certainly remember them! They make the house feel at the same time warm and suffocating.” Photo © American Broadcasting Companies, Inc. All rights reserved.

Photo 7
Heck breakfast room… “The Heck house is a mess. This is another cleaned-up-for-pictures version! There were always stacks of bills and piles of laundry and forgotten pieces of the kids’ artwork and other things stuck among the shelves. Even with the chaos, though, the room is a friendly place. And, yes, there’s a Hoosier cabinet...I couldn’t resist...we ARE in Indiana!” Photo © American Broadcasting Companies, Inc. All rights reserved.

Photo 8
Heck kitchen… Between juggling shifts, making sack lunches and picking up fast-food dinners eaten in front of the TV, Frankie and Mike [Patricia Heaton, Neil Flynn] raise their kids with love, humor and solid Midwestern practicality... Photo © American Broadcasting Companies, Inc. All rights reserved.

Photo 9
Heck kitchen… ...Literally raise them! Here, in the final episode, Frankie and Mike [Patricia Heaton, Neil Flynn] help their eldest, Axl [Charlie McDermott] prepare to move out of state... Note the changes from the teen in the earlier Halloween photo to young man, but the kitchen remains at the heart of things... Photo © American Broadcasting Companies, Inc. All rights reserved.

Photo 10
Heck dining room… “This photo is another step back to season one,” Fanton notes. “But whatever season, the table is always topped with a puzzle in progress, a pile of bills, junk mail and probably some laundry. Later, we see changes in art and side pieces, and this table was damaged in an episode. So, in the storyline, after the death of Aunt Edie, her dining table moved to the Heck house and the former table went to Axl’s college apartment. Things work just like real life here!”...” Photo © American Broadcasting Companies, Inc. All rights reserved.

Photo 11
Heck dining room… “Years later, the carpet is stained. The striped wallpaper (from Astek Wallcovering) was ripped down in an episode in which Frankie unwisely decided to redecorate for visiting Marines then hurriedly repasted it and hung artwork—the framed poppy print was from the bathroom—to try to cover cracks. Unusual items are stored here, like a small barbecue. We are not sure why.” Photo © American Broadcasting Companies, Inc. All rights reserved.

Photo 12
Master bedroom… “Family is the big theme of our show. The family photos on the wall are mostly relatives of mine. In the hallway and living room we have actual younger photos of our actors.” Eden Sher, Patricia Heaton, Neil Flynn. Photo © American Broadcasting Companies, Inc. All rights reserved.

Photo 13
Sue’s bedroom… “Even though at this point, Sue lives at college, she is often home on weekends and holidays. We took a good bit down from her walls when she left for college, but because it was Sue, there was plenty left!” Photo © American Broadcasting Companies, Inc. All rights reserved.

Photo 14
Brick and Axl’s room… “The room has changed over time. This is another early days photo, when Brick slept in an Ikea child’s bed...until he tricked Axl out of his queen bed. He still uses the child’s comforter, though. Things don’t fit properly on THE MIDDLE...” Atticus Shaffer. Photo © American Broadcasting Companies, Inc. All rights reserved.



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