'Mad Men' and 'Sex and the City' production designers grew up in Hollin Hills

By Jennifer Sergent
Thursday, July 22, 2010; GZ04

In hindsight, it seems obvious that the mid-century modern Hollin Hills neighborhood would inspire two local boys to become production designers for AMC's "Mad Men" and HBO's "Sex and the City."

Dan Bishop ("Mad Men") and Jeremy Conway ("Sex and the City," the TV series and movies) grew up together in the area, part of the Alexandria section of Fairfax County. Hollin Hills is home to the largest concentration of mid-century modern homes in the region, with 450 houses designed by architect Charles Goodman between the 1940s and 1970s.

The two have fond memories of playing sports on the grounds of Mount Vernon Unitarian Church in the late '60s and early '70s, and they both went on to Virginia Commonwealth University to study theatrical design.

As production designers, Bishop, 54, and Conway, 55, lead set decorators who work with teams of carpenters, painters and craftsmen to turn their visions into reality. For the early-'60s-era "Mad Men," Bishop decided how the Sterling Cooper advertising office should look, for example, and the kind of house Don and Betty Draper would live in. Conway conceived the country inn for the wedding scene that opens "Sex and the City 2," in addition to calling the shots on the decor for Carrie and Big's New York apartment.

We spoke to the pair in advance of the "Mad Men" season 4 premiere on July 25. Here are edited excerpts:

As children, were you aware of Hollin Hills' distinctive architecture? What is your house like now?

Bishop: The architecture there did influence my sensibilities about modern homes. I live in one now, with glass walls surrounded by trees in South Pasadena [Calif.]. Truthfully, I would rather live in a Hollin Hills house.

Conway: You knew it was different from other developments -- there were a lot of glass boxes. Now, I go between two places: an apartment in [Manhattan's] Union Square that is very modern, like a James Bond set. I also have an old-fashioned 1914 seaside cottage on Fire Island [N.Y.]. I have the best of both worlds.

How did you guys know each other?

Bishop: I knew his younger brother, Joe. My first memory of Jeremy is playing sandlot football with him at the church.

Conway: It was just this whole Hollin Hills gang. There were a lot of us who knew each other and hung out together.

How did you get interested in set design?

Bishop: I liked to build things when I was young. My dad was an engineer, so there were drawing tools around. There was a period of time when my parents were thinking of buying a vacation house. I recall drawing floor plans and building models of it when I was 10 or 12.

Conway: I was in the drama group at the [former Groveton] high school. Allan Stevens [now president of the Puppet Co. in Glen Echo] would sometimes help with our plays. And at the Unitarian church, he would organize these outdoor summer theater performances of Shakespeare, and the same gang of kids would help him. I was really taken by how beautifully and quickly he could paint scenery. That was something I wanted to pursue.

How did you end up doing theatrical design at VCU?

Bishop (who started there when Conway was a senior): I needed a ride to Richmond, so I caught a ride with Jeremy in his MG Midget. He said he was studying set design. . . . He's the first guy who told me what a set designer was, and I pursued it after that. He actually had a very direct connection to what I ended up doing.

Conway: VCU had one of the only undergraduate programs for it at the time, where you had the opportunity to execute your own designs. I could get a lot of hands-on, practical experience.

Can you share some design advice?

Bishop: I look at design for the drama: Is it dark? Is it light? Is [the furniture] heavy? Is it slight? . . . Where is the light coming from? What colors are going to be adjacent to each other? I don't subscribe to the idea that things need to match. You should work the blue sofa and the orange wall. But first, get all your stuff [fabrics, colors] together in sample form; then you'll make fewer mistakes.

Conway: Go through magazines and design blogs and put together pictures that you really enjoy. They don't have to be similar, but as you collect more and more you will discover a visual style starting to emerge. Once you discover that pattern, you can get down to business, finding one piece at a time.

Sergent is a writer and author of the blog DC by Design.

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