August 15th, 2005 by Karen Burg

Main Photo
photo: Ken Haber

Set Decorator: Tara Stephenson SDSA Set Decorator: Bill Gregory SDSA Production Designer: Garvin Eddy FOX   Remember shag carpet, 8-tracks, avocado green appliances and earth tones? SET DECOR talks with Set Decorator Tara Stephenson SDSA about re-creating the seventies.
Set Decor: THAT 70s SHOW was originally set in 1976. Over the eight years it has been running, has it remained the same ‘time’? Has set decoration of permanent sets remained the same?

Tara Stephenson: Now we’re in 1979 and it will remain there for the rest of the show. The kids have graduated high school. Time has lapsed, but it usually takes about two to three seasons for the year to change. For the most part, the permanent sets have remained the same. Change is not really accepted by the audience.

SD: When you’re doing a period like the 70s, obviously much of the decoration has to look ‘new’ to the time. Yet, some things have to seem as if they have been in use for a while as well?

TS: Yes, even though we’re in the 70s, people don’t always buy new furniture or replace what they have every year, so we have elements from the 1950s & 60s. The Formans are not wealthy people, not likely to redecorate often. Besides, they are comfortable in their home. They like it the way it is.

SD: Tell us about your color palette and restrictions you might have because of it.

TS: A lot of earth tones—the infamous Harvest Gold and Avocado Green. But we don’t really limit it to those. We brought in colors from the 60s, and the palette of the 70s changes through the decade. We just now used pale aqua in the new Pinciotti Rec Room, and the Hair Salon is hot pink and orange. We don’t use much red or black because those were predominant in the 80s.

SD: On a ‘period’ show, what things do you have to contend with, which other sitcoms may not?

TS: Items not being readily accessible. Writers might putsomething specific in a script that is key, but not necessarily available! For instance, we had a vintage Aerosmith poster hanging in the new Grooves record store set, but it was not THE poster the writers referred to! And tracking down vintage items that still look new is a biggie. Also, no product placement. That’s all about selling current stuff. Most product placement companies don’t keep archives. However, we were able to work with Kodak, Kellogg’s and Betty Crocker. They sent us color xeroxes of their old packages. We then copied them and placed them onto appropriate sized boxes. But, then we had to ‘Greek’ them out, because the companies weren’t sponsors of the show! Finally, getting clearance on vintage items takes longer. Tracking down the original artist or owner is often difficult. It is not unusual to find that they are no longer alive, and then we have to find and work with whomever is handling their estate.

SD: Tell us about your research. How do you determine what’s appropriate for the time?

TS: That was my childhood, so I have strong memories of the 70s, and many family photos. I’ve also developed a pretty extensive library of books and articles on and from the 70s, and we reference television shows from that era.

SD: What resources do you use?

TS: Thrift shops and flea markets are great resources. Not only do they have vintage, but also the ‘stuff’ of the right class—this is supposed to be middle-class Wisconsin in the 1970s. At first I would buy things whenever I discovered them, just so I would have a good stash of 70s items. When they
wrapped the film ALMOST FAMOUS, I bought so much of their set dressing that we filled two stake-bed trucks! Of course we’ve used all of it, but now I only get something if it is extremely character-driven.

SD: Do you have time to have items manufactured?

TS: Rarely. We have such a quick turnaround; usually we have to have things within a week or less. I do have draperies made and occasionally have furniture re-upholstered in the fabric of the day.

SD: Has there been a nightmare set or situation?

TS: Plenty! Retail shops are a nightmare. Try doing a grocery store set in the 70s or a pharmacy.

SD: Do you ever go on location?

TS: Our locations have all been on the lot! We’ve been off the stage maybe a dozen times in the last seven years. They prefer to have everything onstage in front of the audience, to get the live reaction. The actors completely play to the audience. It has evolved to where we do very few pre-shoots now.

SD: The sofa is almost always a central part of every sitcom’s visual definition. Usually it’s in the living room. But the focal sofa in your show seems to be in the basement hangout. Please tell us about this.

TS: Yes, we actually have TWO ‘sitcom sofas’! The classic sofa in the Forman living room serves as the setting for parental interaction, the neighbor’s visits and some family scenes. The basement sofa is almost exclusively for the kids. It’s their hangout and is really the typical sitcom center of activity. Someone is always sitting on it, draped over it, or leaning against it. Usually several ‘someones’ at once.

SD: What is the set decorator history of the show?

TS: I really want to pay homage to Bill Gregory SDSA. He created the original sets. They are all based on his vision. It has been great to take that as a template and then create my own, always with the original vision in mind.

SD: What about the sets now that the time frame has moved on?

TS: I do get more freedom with the new sets, but the Formans like their house and the audience is used to being in their kitchen, their living room and basement. So Bill’s original vision is not going to be tampered with. New situations in the storyline give me plenty of opportunity to stretch with my own vision.

SD: What is your history with Production Designer Garvin Eddy?

TS: He worked for my father 31 years ago, and often thereafter.
[Tara Stephenson’s father, Edward Stephenson, is a production design legend. The list of his shows include: MAUDE, THE JEFFERSONS, THE COSBY SHOW, BLOSSOM, GOLDEN GIRLS] I’ve known Garvin my whole life. I started working for him ten years ago, when I was set designing for GRACE UNDER FIRE. He asked me to be the set decorator for this ‘fun new sitcom,’ 3RD ROCK FROM THE SUN! We’ve worked together many times since.

SD: Since you mentioned it, what has been the most fun?

TS: Well, working on sitcoms is fabulous—consistent hours, great people, happy scripts—but the best part, other than the crew, has also been the biggest challenge: the 70s!

SD: What has helped you grow as a set decorator?

TS: Experience, like the research gelling. I mean, the look of the 70s and the 60s is imbedded in my mind, probably in my psyche! And learning not to take it seriously—whatever it is at the time. If there’s a problem, we’ll find a way to solve it. If there isn’t a problem, enjoy!

SD: When the show wraps, what will you most look forward to?

TS: {Laughing} Doing a contemporary show! Sometimes I miss doing ‘today.’ That’s why I love set decorating pilots, though I feel the need to put a token 70s object in every show! Thankfully, that works since mid-century and 70s design are so ‘in’ at the moment.

SD: What will you miss the most?

TS: First, the camaraderie. I really, really love the crew - my crew and the whole crew. I know it sounds trite, but we really have become a family. Second, it’s got to be that double-edged sword of the challenge of the 70s. Love it. Hate it. Love it. And of course, the experience that it’s brought to my life.

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photo: Ken Haber

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photo: Ken Haber

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photo: Ken Haber

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photo: Ken Haber

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photo: Ken Haber

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photo: Ken Haber

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photo: Ken Haber