Inspiration, part 2: a simple, clear statement

I covered some of our usual sources of inspiration for a set design in another post, and here I’m going to add one that I especially like but which I didn’t think of at the time. Maybe I had a senior moment.

A set for a TV station

Back around 1998 I was asked to design a set for a TV news program. This was a new venture for the station, and they wanted to be taken seriously as they inserted themselves into a market that already had several news programs. During my first meeting with them, we were basically feeling each other out as to how we worked and how to get there from here, and after a while I asked the news director, “Is there something specific you’d like to say to your viewers with the show or the set?”

She didn’t hesitate for a second.

She said, yes, we want to tell them that they’ve been inviting us into their homes for years, so now we’d like to invite them into our home to see how we do things.

That statement led right into a conversation about inviting people to our homes,  and where we entertain them (living room, dining room, kitchen, family room), and how they’re made to feel, and so forth. We decided we wanted an informal, friendly feeling for the show, so I suggested eliminating the usual style of news desk, which forms a visual barrier between the anchors and the viewers, and instead having a rounded shape reminiscent of a kitchen or dining table. Then we decided to have a few other places on the set where the reporters could stand to present a story.

A news desk usually has a window on the top, through which the anchors can see themselves on a monitor, and we had two anchors, so we needed two windows. So I thought of placing four additional (fake) windows around the table, to create the look of placemats. That way, when the camera showed a mid shot on the anchors, it looked like you were at the table with them. The rest of the newsroom was visible behind the anchors.

That set received quite a few positive comments at the time, and the station was really proud of it for years until it was time to update it. I don’t have a good photo of it under studio lights, so here’s a quick one under work lights. That spiral staircase, by the way, didn’t lead anywhere but was a source of conversation for months.


My Way: a Tribute to Frank Sinatra

The same type of conversation occurred again a few years later when I created a set for My Way, which is a musical revue featuring the work of Frank Sinatra. This time I asked the director if she had any specific mental pictures for the show (not for the set), and she said she could picture it taking place in “the type of venue Frank would sing in if he were performing today.”

That took us into a discussion of elegance: an elegant night club. The two male singers would wear tuxedos and the two female singers would wear formal gowns, and there would be a three-piece band featuring a gorgeous Yamaha grand piano. The director also wanted a bar, since it provided places to sit, stand, group, and pose, and I suggested a couple of small tables reminiscent of a night club.

As the set developed, we added Art Deco wall sconces that changed colors, a curtained background that also changed colors, a projected moon, and several other ways of changing the mood quickly. Here’s a shot, and you can see more on my My Way page:

Inspiration for a set design can come from lots of different sources, and, for me, a simple, clear statement is often a great starting point. The trick is to start off by thinking about the story and totally disregarding the scenery. There will be plenty of time for flats, doors, platforms, ramps, revolves, and all that other stuff once the idea is solid.