'Mad Men' series designer Dan Bishop discusses how he gets the sets so right

By Elizabeth Razzi
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, June 26, 2010; E01

Dan Bishop, production designer for the "Mad Men" television series on cable network AMC, is responsible for creating the overall appearance of the sets. He offered some advice on how the Mad Men Look contest could be judged:

"Anyone can go to Design Within Reach and buy some stuff and say: 'Look! It looks like "Mad Men," ' " he said. But that's not how he achieves set designs so realistic they have Baby Boomers and Gen Xers recalling forgotten details of their childhood homes with each episode.

Instead, Bishop said: "What I would look for is that element -- is it compositionally good both in three dimensions and in the color of things? And the lighting as well. I would look for that mood."

He said he achieves realism--and avoids cliche -- "by staying away from the iconographic examples of mid-century modern furnishings. For example, we try to avoid Barcelona chairs and whatever is in every mid-century modern magazine today. We use more obscure examples, not necessarily by famous designers."

He noted that the home of central characters Don and Betty Draper has evolved, with Betty bringing in a decorator to update the living room last season, including the awkward placement of a fainting couch in front of the hearth, "which has its own erotic implication," Bishop said with a laugh. "It's essentially a Colonial Revival home -- it has those early Americana, Federal styles."

And if you've pegged many of those furnishings to the '50s instead of the '60s, which the series portrays, you're on to something. People furnish their homes over time, with pieces from earlier years hanging on in the mix. "Do you have anything from 1995 around your house?" he asked.

In keeping with the producers' gag order on details about the upcoming season -- even the exact year in which it's set -- he declined to talk about how the residential scenes, including Don and Betty Draper's home (or homes, should she go through with the divorce threatened in Season 3), might evolve this season. But he did share a few hints about how interior design changed going into the mid-'60s. "Part of it is a color thing," he said. The show is moving more toward primary colors, and away from the muted tones of the '50s. During that time, people moved more toward more curvilinear, shapes -- wilder shapes and colors.

"In one sense, I'd say it's less sophisticated, the '60s," he said. "We are moving toward that to a degree."

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