This Designer Sets the Scene for Movies and TV
Toward the end of the first season of Halt and Catch Fire, the AMC series about the ’80s personal computer boom, hardware engineer Gordon gets his first look at his colleague Joe’s apartment. For months Gordon has worked closely with Joe, a mesmerizing young entrepreneur who talks inspiringly about inventing the future but who shares nothing about his life—except stories that often turn out to be fabricated.
Gordon looks dismayed as he takes in the sleek apartment, which has no photographs or mementos, only angular black-leather armchairs, a glass-block accent wall, and huge windows looking out on the city. Like others at their company, Gordon wonders if Joe is just a thousand-dollar suit with no humanity inside.
“I know nothing about this guy,” Gordon says, “other than he likes glass.”
A setting can speak volumes about a character’s personality, or lack thereof, as Christopher L. Brown, A91, knows. Over the last two decades, Brown has become a sought-after production designer (creating the overall look of a show) and art director (managing the execution of that vision, from locations to furnishings to props). He has served in those roles on more than 20 series and TV movies, including Halt and Catch Fire, Mad Men, Insecure, The Romanoffs, and The Comey Rule. His film credits include Straight Outta Compton, Twilight, Bombshell, and Nocturnal Animals.
In Halt, Brown’s design set up a stark contrast between the fast-talking, blue-blooded Joe and Gordon, a scruffy, down-to-earth father of two whose modest house features wood paneling and macrame plant holders.
“One of them gets glass block in his apartment, and the other one gets an avocado refrigerator,” Brown said. “I hope that helps to tell the audience immediately who these people are or how they see themselves.”
Even unconsciously, viewers will sense if the details ring true. In Mad Men, they might catch a glimpse of phone cord with the particular braiding common to the era. “It’s not anything that needed to be there,” Brown said, “but if you’re of a certain age, you would think, ‘Right. That’s what that is supposed to be.’”
Period accuracy is only part of the job. What takes more time is making something look lived in. It’s the difference between a doorframe with fresh, glossy paint—fine for a commercial—and a more realistic doorframe that looks like it hasn’t been cleaned in five years.
Brown recalls walking through a Mad Men set of a Lower East Side tenement apartment. Dan Bishop, the production designer, didn’t like how nicely it was constructed; he started pushing the perfectly squared walls and window frames so it would seem as if they had shifted with age. “The window looks like it will get stuck partway if you try to open it,” Brown said. “That’s fun.”
When Brown receives a script, he starts to think about “the vibe or the flavor when you come into a space. Is it welcoming? Is it friendly? Is it aggressive?” Aggressive sums up the look he created in Straight Outta Compton for Death Row Records—all glossy reds and blacks and sharp angles. “That’s not really how that place looks,” Brown said of the real-life recording studio. The film version is “not a caricature, but a pushed extreme to set a tone for what it’s like to be in that room. There’s a general sense of intimidation. [Death Row Records co-founder] Suge Knight is a guy who is all about intimidation. It’s part of the power play of the music industry at that time in that place.”
At Tufts, Brown majored in history and drama, spending time both onstage and behind the scenes. After graduation, he worked as a set designer and painter in Western Massachusetts, followed by four years in Washington, D.C., as a set painter at the Shakespeare Theatre (now the Folger Theatre). There, he got to work with notable visiting set designers, including the acclaimed Ming Cho Lee. It was Lee who told him he was a good painter, but to become a good designer, he should go to grad school. At the end of one hard day working in a cold warehouse, his back and feet aching, Brown was ready to agree. “All I could think was, in 10 years, I gotta be the guy telling people what to paint.”
After earning a master’s in design for theater and opera from the University of Washington, Seattle, Brown moved to Los Angeles and was hired as a production assistant on his first TV show, a short-lived series called Hyperion Bay. He was let go when the struggling series had to scrape together funds to add a sexy love interest to the cast. In short, Carmen Electra cost him his job.
The real turning point in his career was serving as art director on Mad Men, for which he received four Emmy nominations and four Arts Directors Guild awards. “I don't expect to ever again be a part of a show that’s in the cultural zeitgeist to the degree that Mad Men was. When that show started, nobody really knew if this show about 1960s advertising was going to have any legs. To be in the middle of the cultural fireball as it blew up was a great thing.”
Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner later tapped him as a designer for The Romanoffs, a series with a different story, cast, and—most pertinent for Brown—city for each episode. Brown jetted to Toronto, Los Angeles, Miami, Romania, and Germany, scouting for locations as varied as a luxury cruise ship and a Russian orphanage. Creating what was supposed to be a port city in Siberia, he and his team made tons of faux snowdrifts, which were fine until actual flakes started falling. “Then it was, ‘Okay, we need to make sure that our fake stuff matches the real stuff,’” he said. Suddenly he was scrambling to reconcile shades of white.
The Romanoffs and Mad Men have sets so evocative that they have the potential to steal a scene. Yet in a way, Brown said, he doesn’t want audiences to notice his artistry: “You want it to feel like it’s just a natural extension of the characters on the screen.”
The Mad Pad
Inside Don Draper’s Mad Men Apartment
- The high-rise view was a composite photo printed in forced perspective to allow it to curve 90 degrees around the edge of the balcony and still look accurate when viewed from both the bedroom and living room.
- The set decorator found this 1964 metal patio dinette set on eBay and had it painted a specific shade of white to look good on camera.
- The sectional and ottoman were custom made to fit the conversation pit, the centerpiece of the design. “We wanted the shape of the room to dictate the furnishings,” Christopher L. Brown said.
- This trio of Erik Buch’s iconic Danish Model 61 bar stools was purchased on Craigslist. A mid-century classic, they were a must for the apartment, conceived as the opposite of the shabby rental Don lives in during season four.
- When the fifth season opened with a party, the shooting schedule, driven by cast availability, dictated that the messy “after party” scenes had to be filmed first. That meant the white carpet in and around the conversation pit had to be changed out three times over four days.
Julie Flaherty can be reached at email@example.com