- - Thursday, November 24, 2011

Set decorators use decor to flesh out characters

Our rooms speak volumes about us — and set decorators for television shows specialize in knowing what they can say.

Using colors, accessories and telling details, set decorators help flesh out a character, whether it’s a working-class stiff in a worn-in apartment or a wealthy doyenne in a slick salon.

For Los Angeles-based set decorator Lynda Burbank, “homey” means vegetable soup.

“I love the soup palette of sage green, burnt orange and warm beige — these colors are very soothing and make people feel comfortable in the set,” she said.

For the CBS sitcom “Mike & Molly,” she packs her sets with details: “Mike’s mom’s house was a delight to do. I found a fabulous blue recliner with a drink holder where she spends a lot of time. She’s surrounded by nail polish and various medications. Her house reflects that she reads a lot, mostly romance novels. She’s Irish Catholic, so there are statues that reflect that. When the set first appeared, people came up to me and said it reminded them of their Aunt Sally in Wisconsin, and I was so pleased.”

In one scene, Mike’s mother’s boyfriend, Dennis, was supposed to represent a cautionary warning to Mike about leading too solitary a life. Ms. Burbank put Dennis’ personal kit from the Vietnam War on the dining room table, as if he had been sitting and reliving his past. “Also a couple of shirts on the back of the door in plastic bags from the dry cleaners — so impersonal, so lonely,” she recalled.

The room was seen only once, but it drove home the plot point.

Set decorators have hundreds of prop houses and stores in Los Angeles or New York from which to shop.

“Very often I’ll need something tomorrow, if not sooner,” said Laura Richarz, who has decorated sets on “Married With Children,” “Everybody Hates Chris” and “True Blood.”

Ms. Richarz said she starts by trying to see the room “through the eyes of the characters that live there. What would happen on a daily basis in this set if it were a real home? Who uses it, how old are they, what’s their means of support? Do they watch TV, do handcrafts?”

Starting with the basic furniture, set decorators then add “layers” of dressing. Half-read newspapers, stacks of mail, pet leashes, half-burned candles, a knitting basket, remotes and phones, well-scrunched cushions, a full wastebasket, even a plant with leaves on the floor.

Juliann Getman, who designs sets for NBC’s “Parenthood,” said she thinks about her own home. “Not everything’s in its place. Laundry might be folded but on the sofa because I got distracted by a phone call.”

This nuanced approach makes it easier for viewers to imagine lives in progress.

Characters’ social or economic status also can be telegraphed through the quality of furniture, accessories and art. Bright, clean rooms say one thing, while a timeworn or messy space says something else.

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