Mad World – The production design of Mad Men.

Posted on September 8, 2010


To celebrate the UK premier of Mad Men’s 4th season tonight, I thought I’d take a look at the simply incredible production design of the series.

Seldom has a television series looked as stunning as Mad Men. For those that have been living under a rock for the last three years, Mad Men focuses on the life of Don Draper, the creative director of the fictional advertising agency Sterling Cooper on Madison Avenue in the early 1960s and looks at the changing social mores of 1960s America.

However, whilst Mad Men has been praised for its gripping story lines and also for it’s historical authenticity, it is its visual style and flair that has captured the imagination of many of its loyal viewers.

Released at the peak of America’s renewed passion for all things Mid-Century, Mad Men’s production design literally oozes style. The sets are full of beautiful Mid-Century furnishings and the attention to detail is astounding.

Dan Bishop, the show’s production designer (who was also responsible for the exquisite production design on Tom Ford’s A Single Man), has gone to great lengths to accurately evoke the era. Working in conjunction with set dresser Amy Wells, who sources much of the shows furniture and paraphernalia, he has created a believable world that feels not only stylish but authentic.

To achieve this, Bishop decided to move away from many of the cliched ideas of what an office or home in the 1960s might look like. Rather than simply fill the space with iconic pieces from the era, he chose instead to avoid them, deciding on more obscure items. Also, he recognised, quite rightly, that environments aren’t populated purely by items of a distinct era, rather that they evolve over time.

“[We achieved the look] 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.”

“…look around your own house, does everything exist from 2007 or do you actually have stuff lying around from the ’80s? And that’s the way it should be. People didn’t adopt the modern ideas any faster than they do now.”

Apart from making the sets and the dressed locations seem authentic to the period, Bishop also recognised that they needed to be a part of the stroy and not to supercede it. After all, if you are too engaged in the environment, you are not following the story. So, in order to let the story speak for itself and the sets to support the story, Bishop has employed muted colour palates and lighting.

“I don’t believe the audience can, nor do I believe they should, separate out what they’re looking at from what is happening. I think it is essentially the actors who take precedent in terms of what you’re actually looking at — so it’s how they move within the space and they are staged within the space, and then of course how they’re lit and how they’re photographed can make a huge difference.”

Another element that contributes to the authenticity, as well as being another near perfect design element within the show, is the costumes. Costume designer Janie Bryant has developed outfits for the principle cast that not only are redolent of the period, but help to realise the characters themselves.

Of course, the world of Mad Men isn’t purely the stages, locations and the clothes they wear. The characters have to populate this world. They have to be believable and their attitudes have to reflect the time just as Bishop’s sets do. This is, of course, down to the initial concept of Matthew Wiener and the writers of the show, as well as the fabulous and talented cast.

Mad Men season 4 airs tonight in the UK on BBC 4 at 10pm.


PS – Read George’s Journal for another look at Mad Men

Thanks to AMC  for quotes.