Across more than a decade, 17 teen boys and young men were murdered by convicted killer Jeffrey Dahmer. A horrific story. Netflix wisely chose Production Designer Matthew Flood Ferguson SDSA and Set Decorator Melissa Licht SDSA Associate to bring their skills, talents and teams to help this story be told, adding veracity and visual acuity to the seemingly everyday settings.
Our previous discussion with this dynamic team was re: the miniseries HOLLYWOOD, with sets that were sumptuous, elegant and radiant. This project is very much a different look and atmosphere, with a more suburban, blue-collar feel, set in the time period of the ‘80s and ‘90s. And here, they are forthcoming in a candid and detailed Q&A [via email] with SDSA Executive Director Gene Cane for SETDECOR.
SETDECOR: We cannot avoid discussion on the true crime subject matter of the program. How did you approach this sensitivity? What was the first treatment of the script in relation to the Production Design and Set Decoration for you both?
Set Decorator Melissa Licht SDSA, Associate: First, speaking to the sensitivity of the subject matter, the two most impactful sets for me were the Sinthasomphone House and the Hughes House. Buyers Elise Hannaford and Caryn Marcus were integral in the dressing of these sets and the three of us became really invested in these families. I still think of them often even a year after we wrapped. The homes that they lived in witnessed such grief and it was so important to our entire team that we showed them authentically. We worked with a Laotian expert for the Sinthasomphone residence and his expertise was invaluable, especially in the creation of the shrine for Konerack. I hope the care and attention to detail we took with these sets comes across on screen, it was our very small way of showing respect to these families.
We started with Episode 1, where Jeff is finally caught, so from the beginning we were working on re-creating crime scene photos. Buyer Elise Hannaford and I worked to match every single object that was visible in these photos to show exactly what Tracy Edwards saw as he was brought into that apartment. Each object in the space felt important as they quickly clue you into the horror...the scattered mats on the floor covering up blood stains, the rolled up carpet off to the side, the camera in the upper left corner, the bottles of bleach, the boxes of rubber gloves, the can of air freshener, the blue vat... all of these things were really there.
Jeffrey Dahmer’s apartment: Surprisingly neat for his usual messiness. The bottles of bleach and cleansers, rolled up carpets and strewn beer cans allude to Jeff’s crimes. The walls are stained from Jeff’s heavy smoking. Re-created meticulously from the real space, even the artwork was matched from the original, though the fan, as seen throughout the many sets, may have been added to continue the imagery. Courtesy of Netflix © 2022.
Getting this part of the project completed in the beginning really helped me to be able to tackle the rest of the show. By the time we started shooting we had all spent months looking at these crime scene photos and I was so grateful to move on to other sets. Going forward, we were left to imagine the spaces Jeff inhabited and that somehow was a little easier than constantly referencing photos of the real thing.
Production Designer Matthew Flood Ferguson: With every show I start, I do a lot of research so we can go into it knowing our subject matter and the worlds that we need to create. DAHMER was no exception. Because of the subject matter, the environments created would be dark and depressing.
In addition to online research, I like going to bookstores and searching for images that give me inspiration or trigger an emotion with me. I came across a photographer named Chauncey Hare, and I found his images inspiring and oddly bleak. I bought most of his books and started to pull from them to build a foundation for the tone of our show.
We knew we would be building Jeff’s apartment, the hallway, and Glenda’s apartment on stage, so we used the crime scene photos to re-create our sets. Melissa and her team did an incredible job finding all the little details and the unique random pieces so that we were able to deliver a set pretty true to what his apartment was.
SETDECOR: We have a rather quiet color palette: beiges and earth tones with some of the harvest golds, avocado greens and burnt oranges left over from the previous 20 years or so. Tell us about arriving at the color scheme.
Grandmother Catherine Dahmer’s kitchen is a time stamp of an earlier time. Darker woods and older appliances give an almost forbidding scene, with furniture hosting cubby holes filled with “stuff”. The exception being the bulky new and fancy early microwave. Vinyl covered kitchen chairs in a sickly green are unsettling. Courtesy of Netflix © 2022
Matthew: I had a meeting with Ryan about a month before we started prep to discuss the approach of how the story would be told, the tone and the color palette, which sets would be built on stage and which would be locations. We discussed using neutral colors: browns, beiges and, in particular, a very dingy yellow. That was probably the most important color in our show. I worked closely with Barry Jones, my Lead Scenic Painter, in coming up with a variety of colors to pull from. And in the end there were three Benjamin Moore colors that gave us that dingy yellow we needed. We used them throughout the entire show. This was done intentionally to keep us in this visual world of our story.
SETDECOR: In the two main home interiors...those of the father, Lionel, and the grandmother, Catherine...there is much texture in the upholstery fabrics, lampshades and drapery, some almost prickly. Were these conscious choices, and did you have to upholster much?
The Dahmer family home, while not necessarily unappealing, features textures almost prickly in upholstery, drapery, lampshades as well as rough hewn stone. The low wood ceiling ads to the discomfort adding a catastrophic feel. The setting is steeped in a time past. Courtesy of Netflix © 2022.
Additional view of the Dahmer home, showing the dining area and revealing a favorite find among the period set dressing for the set. Courtesy of Netflix © 2022.
Melissa: Our upholstery and fabric choices overall were mostly tied to our color palette, but there was a conscious choice to make things feel uncomfortable. Those gaudy floral dining chairs in the Dahmer house are one example. As a compliment, Matthew called them “grotesque”. We knew they were going to be paired with a chicken carcass, and I think they worked with that scene so well. We reupholstered the gold chairs in the Dahmer living room and Regina Henderson, our draper, made the curtains from vintage fabric. At Grandma's house, we custom-made the two Early American sofa chairs in the living room. That was a note from Ryan, he wanted Jeff and Grandma to be separated as they watched TV together. Aside from making those, everything else, with the exception of the drapery, was used as found. We were really lucky to find great vintage pieces that fit in with our palette.
Anchored by matching old rose upholstered wing chairs, Grandma’s sitting room shows the same oppressive wood paneled walls with more cubby hole shelf units. Above the console television set shows duck art among other layers of items showing the viewer how Catherine lives. The floral chair in the corner by the phone is likely her gossip spot. Courtesy of Netflix © 2022.
Jeff and his grandmother Catherine eat frozen dinners nightly, with vintage TV trays. The tight lace curtains on the French doors exacerbate the tightness of the space. The colonial step table between them sports different items each time we see them dine, though Jeff will always have a soda pop with dinner. Note the fan next to Jeff, fans are a repeated motif throughout. Evan Peters as Jeffrey Dahmer, Michael Learned as Catherine Dahmer. Courtesy of Netflix © 2022.
SETDECOR: With the two same homes, there is also great use of the period wood paneling prevalent in the homes at that time and from the era before, which shows the houses as being older, lived in...the added grime and scratches on the oven and stove, on tabletops, all such great detail. Was the aging created, or did you luckily find items already in that condition?
Melissa: I’ll let Matthew speak to the locations and aging. For the Dahmer house, we found a great vintage stove and fridge at Omega Cinema Props that fit perfectly, color and size-wise. And at Grandma's house, early on, buyer Caryn Marcus found an entire kitchen suite of brown appliances that were perfectly aged. We got extremely lucky there.
Matthew: We built Catherine Dahmer‘s house on stage. From the very beginning, I knew I wanted to use wood paneling in this show. It’s a great way to give texture and echo a certain time-period. There was no question that Catherine Dahmer’s TV room would have wood paneling and wall-to-wall carpet. Overall, I wanted her house to be stuck in time and, her TV Room and kitchen to be dark and slightly depressing. The wood cabinets in the kitchen and paneling in the den helped achieve that.
Catherine’s bedroom: A mottled, almost pixilated looking wallpaper sets grandmother’s room, floral art mixes with floral love seat and quilted coverlet. Old time vinyl abounds in the green chair, part of the kitchen dining set, the ottoman, pink clothes hamper and odd individual foot massagers. All items are from various stages of Catherine’s life. Courtesy of Netflix © 2022.
After the sets for Jeff’s apartment and Catherine Dahmer’s house were built, we spent quite a bit of time aging the walls and the carpets. In particular with Jeff’s apartment, we wanted the walls to almost have a smell.
SETDECOR: In the acquisition of furnishings and accessories, with public interest in “brown” furniture and old timey tchotchkes on the wane, what were the sources for the older set dressings?
Melissa: We relied on the amazing prop houses we have here in LA, pulling heavily from Omega Cinema Props, Premiere, Universal, and Warner Bros. We were also lucky to have a very long prep for this project, and Caryn, Elise and I went to estate sales weekly for a couple of months. We slowly grew our vintage hoard...the garages, basements and parts of Grandma's house came almost entirely from estate sales. We also relied heavily on Etsy and Chairish for period lighting and specific items we weren't able to source locally.
SETDECOR: Lionel’s next home, after his second marriage, is much lighter, with floral fabrics and softer tones, showing the influence of the second wife Shari. Let’s talk about that evolution…
Matthew: Melissa and I discussed how there would be a visual change when Shari moves in with Lionel. That it would be a bit brighter and have some floral prints. Once again, Melissa and her team did a great job with the subtle and appropriate changes.
Lionel and Shari’s Condo; As Lionel and Shari’s life grows, a new home with Shari’s positive influence shows in the décor with softer edges and floral prints. The lighter sense of order bring some happiness to Lionel’s life. Richard Jenkins as Lionel, Molly Ringwald as Shari. Courtesy of Netflix © 2022.
Melissa: Yes, there was a huge Shari-shift, so to speak. The first time we see her influence is when Jeff home for Christmas. We updated his childhood home, with more current ‘80s furnishings showing her influence. Then, when we see the home she later shares with Lionel, it's entirely decorated by her. She's the positive influence on the family, unburdened by the painful past Jeff and his father share. We wanted her space to be a strong contrast to the somewhat depressing rooms we saw Jeff and Lionel inhabit. As a side note, I’m a huge fan of Molly Ringwald and I took so much joy in channeling her as we selected items for her space.
SETDECOR: As with many true crime series, there are the police stations, offices and hospital rooms. How do you create these spaces authentically while giving an interesting set?
Matthew: When scouting, I look for anything that piques my interest in the architecture...from the windows to the walls, or even flooring. Once I find a location that has at least one or two of those elements, we can start to build off to give the set some visual interest to what otherwise could be a bland, monotonous-looking space. Our main police station location was a big open room, but had interesting windows and a great black floor. Art Director Hellen Harwell and I ended up enclosing two sections of it by adding walls with wood wainscoting to help break up the big square space and give it a bit more interest and variety for camera angles. It also helped with the layout and orientation of the furniture.
Crime procedural series tend to have multiple police stations. Here's a montage of two of the various police stations, each made individual by different desks and surrounding dressing. Courtesy of Netflix © 2022.
Melissa: Matthew always provides us with amazing research, and the police stations were no exception. We had a lot of great reference photos of police stations from that period to make our sets feel real. An equal challenge was making them each feel different, as we knew early on there would be multiple stations. We went with the older tanker style desks for the station Ron Flowers reports Jeff in, thinking it would have been a smaller, less updated neighborhood precinct. Our main police station, where we see Chief Arreola and officers Balcerzak and Gabrish, was bigger and possibly more recently updated with the steel case furniture. Overall, this show had a wealth of office spaces. My team and I tried to keep them all interesting by giving them a subtle theme we felt fit the character and by using different color palettes. We were joking towards the end that there wasn't a period-appropriate desk in town that we had not used, and I don't think that was far from the truth.
SETDECOR: Multiple directors...How was it working with 6 different Directors? Needing to adjust to the specific eye and style of each, while maintaining the overall look of the show?
Melissa: It was pretty seamless on this project, everyone involved was of the same mind that the interior spaces were to feel gritty and real. Matthew gives incredible presentations of our sets so there are no surprises. I think that greatly adds to our success in getting sets approved.
Matthew: I would set up presentation boards for everything from the built sets on stage, the practical locations and even the picture cars, so the directors could have a sense of the visual worlds that we were creating. I would go through all the established sets and discuss color palette and tone. It was important that the look of our show was consistent. Fortunately, as Melissa said, it was pretty seamless working with the different directors.
SETDECOR: A favorite set was Glenda Cleveland’s apartment. Every piece in there was right on for the time: the twist ginger jar lamp, Papasan chair, oak parquet entertainment center, brass and glass vanity....but the best was the oak framed wall mirror with etched corners. This set the time. Was there an evolution of this set and the items to come to this incredible set?
Melissa: Thank you so much, that set was a favorite for us as well. I grew very attached to Glenda over the course of the 10 episodes. When we first started prep, we knew she would be in her living room looking up at the vent, so that space was always a part of her story. Her character and the spaces she inhabited grew as the episodes continued. I wanted her living room to feel lived-in and homey, as a stark contrast to the horror that was happening next door. We found the sofa early on...it was a set with a loveseat, but both together didn't fit in the space. Luckily, we were able to use the loveseat in her bedroom as that set got added in a later episode. The fabric of that sofa was the jumping off point for the whole room, and the very gifted textile expert Regina sourced the most amazing corresponding fabric for the drapery.
While the Dahmer family home and Catherine’s appear set in a previous time, Glenda’s apartment is more current in style to the time setting, with the popular light oak finish, Berber throw rug and a color splash sofa. Every item was consciously curated of the time to show Glenda as a modern woman. Courtesy of Netflix © 2022.
Glenda’s Apartment: Glenda Cleveland is Jeff’s neighbor, the oak frame mirror with etched corners, expertly sourced by Set Decorator Melissa Licht, was used cinematically to show action reflected in the mirror as sounds from the vent give the viewer insight as to what is happening next door. Screen grab courtesy of Netflix © 2022.
Matthew: Melissa and I share a similar visual aesthetic and appreciation for décor, which makes the process that much more enjoyable. Like with every set, Glenda’s apartment helped give context to the story of who the character is. The oak wooden mirror was Melissa’s idea, and I loved it. Director Carl Franklin loved it too and ended up using it in the opening sequence, which helped set the eerie tone.
SETDECOR: We seem to find some ongoing themes of ducks...and electric fans?
Melissa: I shared this question with buyer Elise Hannaford and we had a good laugh, she was constantly shopping period fans, it became a niche passion of hers! So luckily, I had many, many great options to choose from and I'm glad they were noticed! The fans were a request from multiple directors, as Ryan had stated early on that he wanted to feel the heat and discomfort of the characters in these spaces. As for the ducks, with Matthews' great research, I tend to start a show language in our early shopping days. When things get crazy it helps to know what will just work. This goes for certain colors, textures, styles of furniture and decorating motifs. For HOLLYWOOD it was horses, and for MONSTER it was ducks!
SETDECOR: Architecturally, there were many features giving a cage feeling, using window muntins or the railing in the restaurant. What other features are symbolic in the architecture?
Matthew: In most cases, the scale of the sets needed to be tight and dark, which helped create the enclosed cage feeling that these characters were living in. Again for me, it was also the wood paneling as an architectural detail that subtly helped enclose the environments. I appreciate you noticing the wood railing in the Diner. It was a little detail that I added...and I loved it, so we built a bigger section that was used to close off the area behind Jeff’s head in the background to make the space smaller, more confined.
SETDECOR: Please fill us in on some of the aspects of other sets you would like to share...
Matthew: I loved the Ambassador Hotel and Catherine Dahmer's bathroom. Both sets were built on stage and in each case, there was one main driving factor for the creation. For the hotel, it was without a doubt, the fabric. Melissa, Regina and I loved it.
Ambassador Hotel: A set designed to be visually appealing but with tragic ending. Custom drapery matches the coverlet and upholstered headboard anthemion pattern. Draper Regina Henderson, working with Set Decorator Melissa Licht SDSA Associate, helped pull the coordinated look together on the set built on a sound stage. Note the ducks above the nightstands. Courtesy of Netflix © 2022.
And for the bathroom, it was the wallpaper. Once those components were found and decided on, everything else quickly and seamlessly fell into place. The process on those two sets was fast but fun...and very much a shared creative experience, which I love and honestly need. Building sets is a collaboration.
Melissa: I totally agree. I would like to acknowledge the insanely hard work my entire team put into this show. We started prep in October of 2020, fresh off the start of the pandemic. We conquered 100+ sets with a schedule full of double-up days that seemed impossible at times. Everyone kept giving it 100% every day, and I’m so grateful and proud of what we accomplished. Lead Jeff Murff, Coordinator Marisa Perez, Buyers Elise Hannaford and Caryn Marcus, Draper Regina Henderson, PA Carolina Pedoza, Set Dressers Scott Collins, Donny Elliot, David Mitchell, Kris Luna and On-Set Mark Boyle.
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