Leadman Tim Rath, Jean Simone SDSA, and Morgan Bateman
If there is ever to be a reality show based on the day in the life of a set decorator, Jean Simone and her career as a former celebrity fashion stylist turned commercial set decorator would be a ratings hit. Representing nearly every product you think about buying, a commercial set decorator not only has to be creative, smart, and talented, but one has to be able to pull it off, as Simone says, “with blazing speed!”
What type of education and background did you receive before going into the field of set decoration?
I was born in Washington, DC, into a military family. That meant we moved every two and and half years, lived all over the US, Lima, Peru and Europe. My mother recalls that I decorated each and every new bedroom with determination, favoring the color green from about age 7. To this day, my husband says, “Oh, no! It’s green—we’re going to own it!”
I graduated early (Not that I’m so smart—I just couldn't wait to finish with academia!) from Penn State University with a degree in journalism and a minor in art history. I headed straight for the Big Apple and landed a job with Young and Rubicam, 285 Madison Avenue. If you’ve watched MAD MEN, that was my life! In the Styling Department of one of the hottest advertising agencies in the world...and yes, we DID have 3 martini lunches! I was the first woman to wear a pants suit to work. It was fabulously stylish—khaki with military epaulets and buttons—and quite scandalous. A year or so later, I arrived on location for a Jello commercial in Henrietta, Texas, causing quite a stir wearing the first mini skirt (complete with boots) those darling Texans had ever seen. For some reason, several of the townspeople offered their homes for my future wedding, which I still do not understand. The Art Department at Y&R was pretty sensational. At least 6 art directors ended up moving to California and having incredible careers directing. It was a great place for a young woman to develop confidence.
In Los Angeles, I found lots of commercial work as a fashion stylist—often putting the sets together and propping as well. I dressed scads of “celebrities”—from Natalie Wood to Magic Johnson, Kate Jackson to Gene Kelly. Looking back, the producers who hired me back then, got a lot for their money—stylist, set decorator and propman! By the way, commercials and motherhood are a great fit. Because commercials usually come together and shoot very quickly, there is plenty of time to be at home with family.
I can’t remember when it became clear to me that my heart was happier in Warner Brother’s basement than the racks of Neiman Marcus. I stopped styling and concentrated fully on decorating. I’ve created Istanbul, dressed a Russian submarine and war room (play commercial below), created a Frankenstein lab for a duck (play commercial below), turned a Universal Studios backlot street into Milan, dressed a Parisienne hotel…not to mention all the beautiful living rooms, dens, offices and kitchens, cob-webbed-filled basements and attics. There’s really nothing we commercial decorators can’t pull off.... and with blazing speed.
(Play video above to see Jean Simone' work in action on AFLAC and Net Zero)
I “retired” in October. I’m even pickier than I used to be about what jobs to take. It’s still fun to work, however—especially on a job that’s beautiful, interesting, or with a production designer you love a lot. It’s also wonderful to step back from the frantic pace of commercials and sleep in!
Which sources would you say are the best tools for research and preparation?
Today the internet is phenomenal for finding inspiration. The photographic sites can help find images and get your brain going, and print-outs are great to bring to your first meeting. I love the Brand Library in Glendale, too. Magazine tear sheets are a way to “get the conversation started”, a great tool to get your “direction”—there are a LOT of couches out there! For me, “A picture is worth a thousand words”—especially in the beginning.
Name one of your favorite projects and why?
It’s tricky to pick favorites. The smallest project can be fun because the director was wonderful, the client offered you a job (It happened!), or it was just a great experience. The Inventor’s Lab for the Idea Exchange stands out because of the scope of the project. The director (Leslie Dektor) wanted to see 80 years of “stuff” collected, invented, never thrown away—and all in a garage-type lab space. We shot in the abandoned electrical building off the l34 freeway. It was very exciting and fun to find all the inventor’s treasures—those fabulous oddities that never rent! We printed out and aged appropriate articles for the bulletin board. It was incredibly complete and wonderful and very satisfying to watch Leslie take the clients around oohing-and-ahhing over all the details. And then…the agency “creative” asked me to remove a marvelous lampshade (One of the few vestiges “put in there” by the inventor’s wife!!) and the worn oriental carpet covered in metal filings and sawdust. I wanted to scream, “NO! You idiot!” ...That’s one of the hard parts of doing commercials...so many, many people have a voice...some talented, some not so talented.
What has been your biggest challenge as a set decorator?
There are always challenges. For a commercial set decorator, meeting new designers and new directors is both exciting and nerve-racking. During the second meeting of an entrepreneurial class years ago, everyone went around the table and “evaluated” each person there. I learned that, from “appearance only”, I was deemed creative and good at what I did. Boy, what a gift. It became okay to speak up, ask questions and offer suggestions...without hesitation.
A commercial set decorator answers to a lot of “chiefs”. There’s the production designer, the director, all the agency creatives and the client, the guy paying the bill. No other field has to pass muster with so many people...and it can be a real pain in the neck. We put so many “variations” on hold, because we really don’t know who will have the ultimate power and what will be the final “look”. It’s an art to learn to second-guess and cover yourself...and a real pain for prop houses!
Another “challenge” is our time frame. On my last job, I had a 12 x 16 carpet made in 5 colors with modern curving designs in 3 days. We pull off incredible things in very little time. It’s tricky, and fun, and easier if you’ve been doing it a long time! I think other decorating fields really don’t “get” what we make happen in a very short time. A lot of commercial decorators could do even more amazing work given more than a week!
Which SDSA business members do you use?
SDSA business members are the lifeblood of the industry. At one point or another, each has done something for each of us that warrants a thank-you: Alan Songer at Omega over-nighting beach chairs, Holiday at Nest asking, “What’s the room like?”...and sending 6 pieces of perfect artwork, Shari at Jackson Shrub checking if the ivy in all the lemon trees should be varigated or not, Ronnie at Warner Brothers just being her wonderful self, Louis at PSW ditto, Tia and Gary at Pinacoteca pulling an order together in minutes. At various points in time, we need everyone to make our jobs happen. I AM my sources. I never take them for granted or disrespect them in any way...and if you’re working with me, you do the same.
What are the current contents of your car?
In my car I have a linen box loaded with Debbie’s Book, paint deck, samples from American Screen and Window (for blinds & shades), various catalogues of office furniture, an Ikea catalogue, latest Pottery Barn and Crate and Barrel catalogues, my huge green looseleaf binder with business cards of vendors...some of which haven’t been in business for 20 years, I’m sure! And always, my huge camel leather bag with sharpies, my notebook, tape, post-its, camera batteries, reference photos, etc. There are usually almonds, water, protein bars and gum stashed, as well as a phone charger.
What advice do you have for those interested in the field of set decorating?
Commercials are a repeat business. If you do a great job for a hot, busy commercial director, you’ll work as much as he (or she) does. Knock yourself out....Think about the job....Bring something to the table....Bring in reality....Do your own little “story line”....Think outside the box....Bring in things that no one mentioned...but don’t forget ONE thing that was discussed in various forms and looks. Never look startled at a request...it may sound daunting, but you’d be surprised at what you can find with some research. Listen well and don’t be lazy.
(Play the two Chase Bank commercials to see more of Jean's Set decor!)
Find a fabulous leadman and swing. Mine are Tim Rath and Morgan Bateman. They are smart, efficient, loyal and very handsometrue gentlemen. They have saved me many times with their creativeness and skills. There is nothing like hearing, “What about...?” that brilliantly saves the day!
Take a color class. I took one at Woodbury University years ago. Besides making our own color wheels, we did a project which put colors across the top of a board and each color's opposite under it across the bottom, with six blank squares in between. We then mixed varying amounts of each color together until in the middle, with equal amounts of each opposing color, we had a row of browns—a different shade of brown from each mixing. Ever wondered why there are so many shades of beige? I can pretty much dissect any color I see, which is very handy when you're pulling items from many places and need them to work together. I think classes in general are a terrific idea.
I also suggest havinga set decorating pal. Two heads are so much better than one....and when you’re “spinning”, it’s amazing what “Have you been to....?” can do to pull your brain back in and get you back on track. Sharon Bonney (SDSA) is my “pal”. She’s not only great fun, but she’s “been there and done that” with just about everything we do. I just hope I can return all the perfect suggestions.
With yourdecorating pal, or on your own, spend "off" days finding and exploring new sources. It's easy to get comfortable (and lazy) using particular vendors that you know well. Working on commercials, we never know what our next job will entail—a Japanese cat food commercial wanting to useauthentic Art Nouveau pieces (The references were from the British Museum!) or a replica of Lloyd's of London. The more options we have discovered, the more prepared we are to move with lightening speed. It's much more fun, of course, to include a great lunch.
Photograph your sets! Commercial sets are gone in a flash...so make a point to grab some pictures. The final product on the air often doesn't show your work at all! Keep a portfolio updated--it will get you work.
Lastly, have a business card made. SDSA at the end of your name adds credibility. Vendors that hadn’t considered renting often give it serious thought when handed an impressive card.
Which three tools of your profession can you not be without?
I cannot be without my camera. When I started, we didn’t even use Polaroids. Maybe that’s why I never get “back-ups”. Today, however, everything is pre-approved. I still like to put “the way I see it” hard-copy photos into folders for designers and directors. Most of the time, it all flies and we’re off to the races. Emailing photos is very handy for some things, but I like to have real pictures. It works better for me to actually see everything and be able to finalize and add details.
I also can’t be without my green binder with all my business cards, and of course, a tape measure.
What advice would you give other members of the SDSA on how to get the most benefit from their membership?
The SDSA is a wonderful organization.The more effort one puts into getting to know members and share experiences, sources, contacts, and laughs, the more one gets out of belonging. I hope the representation of commercial set decorators continues to grow.
What is your concept of a perfect bedroom?
My ideal bedroom would have huge windows overlooking the Pacific Ocean, high amid tall trees. There would be a raised fireplace, Sfera hem-stitched white linens, caramel-colored gorgeously-grained wood furniture, and modern, very adjustable, reading lamps. Touches of cream and ice blue, my three cats and two dogs lying about...and my husband, Edgardo.