The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel’s Set Designer Shares the Secrets to Creating That Magical World
Since Amazon’s comedy hit “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” dropped at the end of last year, all anyone can talk about is the enviable costumes and the quick-witted writing. And now that the show scooped up two major Golden Globes on Sunday—best actress in a comedy series or musical and best TV series, comedy—the 8-episode first season, which is already renewed for a second, is sure to get plenty of new fans.
As a self-professed Amy Sherman-Palladino—the show’s creator and co-director—mega fan, I won’t deny that the theatrical photography and ASP-signature lightning speed dialogue of protagonist Rachel Brosnahan, who plays zippy young housewife-turned-comedian Miriam “Midge” Maisel, instantly sucked me in. But to be honest, I just can’t stop crushing on the show’s marvelous (sorry, had to do it) mid-century interiors.
Set in a 1950s-era Manhattan, the candy colored world dictated by Sherman-Palladino for “Maisel” is beautiful, layered and truly a feast for the eyes. One look at Midge’s Regency-meets-midcentury bedecked Upper West Side pre-war apartment was all it took to make my heart race in decor lust. Dorothy Draper Espana chests, Chinoiserie mural folding screens, a perfectly retro kitchen I’d take even in 2018… these are the stars of the series in my eyes.
I reached out to Bill Groom, the production design artist behind the brush that painted this glorious landscape, to chat about the show’s captivating visuals.
Apartment Therapy: You’ve created a technicolor world that seems to be a rich ’50s tapestry. Where did you turn to for appropriate references for the homes, the streets of NYC, even the original Gaslight Café?
Bill Groom: All of the usual suspects really: books about and from the period, product brochures and catalogs from back then, period magazines. I also tapped the Library of Congress, samples of period wallpaper, fabrics, all that kind of stuff.
AT: Somehow you managed to put together something that feels authentic, not clichéd or themed.
BG: It’s easy to fall into an overly thematic trap, especially with a decade like the 1950s. I was very careful to try to make New York as layered then as it is now. I mean, the apartment that the Maisels live in is based on a building on the Upper West Side that was built in 1909, I believe, so people in the 1950s were living in that building with those early 20th-century details…they’re still living in it today. Everything wasn’t this mid-century modern thing that you see sometimes on TV and movies, so I tried to keep the various layers that New York had at the time. You see it when you look at the photographs from that period. And then, of course, we had the different neighborhoods that have their own personalities: the Upper West Side, the Midtown world, then downtown. People who don’t know the city don’t know how many different New Yorks there are. It’s just a collection of communities, and each of these communities have their own characters.
“Good design is great no matter the period.” — Bill Groom
AT: I have to say that, even though the aesthetic of the show is transportive, it still feels very…relevant. Maybe that’s because interior design has a love affair with vintage design right now, but I could step right into Midge’s apartment and feel at home.
BG: I believe that the audience needs to feel at home, and want to be in a space that you’re asking them to be in for an hour. Plus, good design is great no matter the period. I think you can create a world that’s very comfortable in a modern setting and just set it in the period in question.
AT: Surely there were things you had to keep in mind to keep the spaces consistent with the era right?
BG: Well, it’s like a venn diagram. There’s all the stuff that only existed, in this case, in the 1950s that doesn’t exist anymore, then there’s all the stuff we have now that didn’t exist then, then in the middle is all this stuff that we have now that they also had then, so that was the place I felt the audience could feel comfortable. You just have those one or two items, usually technology, that really locks a space into the time. One thing that changes pretty much every 10 years, though, is the kitchen. The living room might feel the same roughly today as it did in the ’50s, but kitchens are always changing.
AT: I’m glad you brought up the kitchen, because Midge’s mint and candy apple red kitchen is so dreamy and maybe one of my favorite sets in the show.
BG: I copied it from a Doris Day movie, actually. I did that a lot for Maisel. I’d watch movies from the period and just see how those interiors were being expressed to a contemporary audience back then, because it’s different from how the ’50s are portrayed today.
AT: I have to ask…being set in the ’50s, are you getting “Mad Men” comparisons?
BG: A little bit. Fortunately not in any unflattering ways yet! “Mad Men” had a very particular look and point to make, and in our show, we’re trying to create something that’s a little less thematic and a little more representative of what life was like in the city.
AT: Was it realistic for a college professor like Midge’s father to have such a sprawling, fancy apartment back then?
BG: Yes, these were family apartments for middle or upper-middle class families at the time. I’m kind of critical of movies and TV who put middle class people (in terms of income) in these huge, rambling apartments. That’s a mistake Hollywood makes, but the truth is, this was a time when that could have happened, and we went with that.
AT: Can we talk about some of the amazing furnishings in some of the characters’ homes? I spotted a Dorothy Draper Espana chest that was to die for. Can you share any of the shopping sources?
BG: Yeah, Dorothy Draper is kind of always there in that period. We had two decorators: Heather Loeffler for the pilot and Ellen Christiansen, who I worked with on previous projects, she did the seven episodes that followed. They sourced most of the pieces from antiques dealers, of course.
AT: Did you have a specific look in mind to begin with for Midge’s apartment?
BG: It so happened as it does a lot of the times that you’ll find a certain piece that’ll inspire a whole solution for a room. A show like this, or even “Boardwalk Empire” which I worked on, for instance, have 1,000 people on the payroll. This is why, you know, you can’t necessarily pull off the things in your house as easily as the stuff that you see on the screen. You’re trying to figure out why you can’t make that happen and you’re not thinking of the 1,000 people involved, all that detail that comes to life at the hands of far more people than you yourself have access to. One of the best examples I use is putting rug on rug. That doesn’t work very well in a real house. The corners tend to kick up and whatnot. But when you do it in a movie or on a TV show, you have a set dresser going in and straightening and flattening it out every take. No one is tripping over the corners constantly…there’s always take two if they do.
AT: Is working on a show for Amazon different than cable?
BG: Amazon is new in the development of media, and they’re very open to ideas and solutions and new ways of doing things which makes what I do fun. This streaming world has exploded and has turned this into the second golden age of television, which I think is giving the creative people behind the scenes a lot of freedom, which in many ways makes the work more interesting.
“The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” is currently available to stream on Amazon’s Prime Video service.