Monday, September 5, 2011

The Insane Production Design of AMC's 'Mad Men'

I recently finished watching a number of different shows and was in need of something new to sink my teeth (and my rapidly decreasing free time) into. Knowing that I am both into advertising and the 1950s, a friend of mine suggested that I watch Mad Men. I had not previously intended on getting into the series, mostly because of all the hype the show had received over the years. I didn't want to be disappointed if it turned out to be just another run of the mill drama. I was pleasantly surprised to find that I was wrong.

Mad Men is a highly stylized and highly entertaining show, created by executive producer Matthew Weiner for AMC. The show's website sums it up well:
"The series revolves around the conflicted world of Don Draper (Jon Hamm), the biggest ad man (and ladies man) in the business, and his colleagues at the Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce Advertising Agency. As Don makes the plays in the boardroom and the bedroom, he struggles to stay a step ahead of the rapidly changing times and the young executives nipping at his heels. The series also depicts authentically the roles of men and women in this era while exploring the true human nature beneath the guise of 1960s traditional family values."
While the writing is outstanding and the acting spot on, the most impressive aspect of Mad Men is the production design. From the wallpaper to the liquor bottles, everything is hand picked to transport the viewers into the world of New York and LA in the late 1950s/early 1960s. The creative team, guided by Matthew Weiner's vision, responsible for crafting the look of the show is headed by Production Designer Dan Bishop and Art Director Chris Brown. Along with a large team of professionals ranging from graphic designers to historical researchers, the duo makes sure that the show is as authentic as possible. Dan Bishop says in an article,
"...we want to try never to be inaccurate. The question is, did it exist in 1962? Then the next question is, was it in common use in 1962? And then, was it in common use in New York City? Sometimes we will say, "You know what? Probably most people didn't have this in their home in 1960, but this character is modern and up-to-date and maybe they had it shipped in from the West Coast."
An example of this meticulous attention to detail can be seen in the Drapers' kitchen:

Part of the allure of this show is that you are given a glimpse of life in transition between two very different decades: the demure '50s to the wild '60s. The sets and props are designed to change with the times. You can see how the outside world affects the characters' own worlds through both the costume design and the set design. For example, the Drapers' living room gets a makeover in the third season to keep up with the trends of the time. Their original living room is filled with '50s pastels and light floral accents:

When it is redone, the room has a more modern feel with the bold prints and primary colors of the '60s:

Since the show's beginning in 2008, Mad Men has been given awards left and right. The show has won the Excellence in Production Design Award from the Art Directors Guild consecutively for the past four years as well as many Emmy's for "Outstanding Art Direction for a Single-Camera Series." These prestigious awards and the excellent quality of the show itself will keep it running for many more seasons, which give me many more years of nerding out about antique rotary phones and floral wallpaper.


Here's a short video piece that talks more about the design choices with Dan Bishop and set dresser Amy Wells:

To read more, try these links:
'Mad Men': Production designer Dan Bishop -
'Mad Men' series designer Dan Bishop discusses how he gets the sets so right -
'Mad Men' Has Its Moment -

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