Designing Woman: Laura Richarz

What kind of dining set defines a 2,000-year-old vampire as a person? Laura Richarz, set decorator on television series such as True Blood and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, is the woman charged with answering such existential questions. 

 

Photo by: John P. Johnson/HBOPhoto by: John P. Johnson/HBOWhat could you buy in a shopping promenade on an alien space station? How does a 2,000-year-old vampire furnish his ultramodern mansion? How do you recreate the apartment Chris Rock grew up in on a Los Angeles soundstage?

Set decorator Laura Richarz has been meeting challenges like these in a career that has spanned the decades from the classic Three’s Company to Everybody Hates Chris and True Blood.

She’s currently working on the Disney Channel hit Jessie, and was on the set when she spoke with us about the inventive, think-on-your-feet life of a set decorator.

Get In Media: How did you first become interested in set decorating? It’s a profession most people don’t really think much about until they get involved in production.  

Laura Richarz: I was an Air Force brat and everywhere we went was different. When you’re moving from place to place and everything is new, it’s really interesting, and you kind of develop powers of observation.

Then in high school I did my first play, and there was something about the theater that I really liked. I went to the University of Idaho and studied theater, and what attracted me most was working with the props and set—adding character and telling a little back story about who the people were or giving hints as to what’s going on in the scene through what you put there.

GIM: Can you give us an example of how you do that?

LR: Well, with Everybody Hates Chris for instance, we had a family that lived in the Bed-Stuy area of Brooklyn. It was Chris Rock’s life, so we had to make it conform as much as possible to the way he remembered his mother’s house in the 1980s.

They didn’t have much money, so everything was shopped at thrift stores and places like that, and it was fun to come up with different ways they would have embellished their lives without much money to do it. We had things like a really cool little jewelry box that his father might have given his mother. It wasn’t fancy but it was special. His mother also had plastic covers on all the furniture and the look we got was really close. He actually loved the set.

You generally start with the basic furniture and then layer things in. Maybe you add the family pictures, the TV Guide and the remote, little details like keys in a change bowl near the front door, stacks of mail, the kind of coats you hang up. What types of magazines are on the coffee table? Are they hot rod magazines, are they photo magazines, are they fashion magazines—all depending on who lives in the space. Do you have a grandma in the house who does knitting or something like that? Then you’d have a bag of knitting.

If you’re doing an office—and I’ve done millions of them—it helps to take the extra time to do touches like personal pictures or objects on the desk that show what the person’s interests are. I’ll also have letterhead and business cards made up with the character’s name and position and mail with the their name and address on it. It adds a lot of reality, and the actors also really like it.

GIM: What exactly are the dividing lines between a set decorator, set designer, and production designer?

LR: In a nutshell, the production designer is the one who has the initial conversations with the producers about the concept and what they want the sets to look like—if they even know—then comes up with the design and the color palate. The set designer is actually the draftsman for all the walls that need to be built or where rental units will be put. Then we get the blueprints and the elevations of the sets, I get the color palate from the production designer, and we talk about how the set is going to look. After that, I go out and get all the furniture, all the window coverings, all the wall decoration, all the lighting—the decorative lighting, not the set lighting—and everything from area rugs and interior plants to the cereal boxes on the kitchen counter—anything that’s just lying around [as opposed to anything actors use, which are props].

If you look at your house and what’s in your living room—everything except the walls and the ceiling and the floor is what the decorator would bring in, down to the light switches and outlets and thermostats and things like that.

GIM: Wow, that’s a lot of detail. You must do a lot of lists.

LR: A lot of lists. [laughs]

GIM: How did get your start professionally?

LR: After graduation, I moved to San Francisco and worked at the American Conservatory Theater, first in the prop department and then as dresser. But I was also fascinated with movies and moved to Los Angeles to see how that would go. When I first came down here, I did some theater, then started doing commercials. Three’s Company was my first network sitcom show.

“This is not like a normal job where you can go through channels. There are no channels to go through.”
GIM: Was it difficult transitioning from theater to commercials to Three’s Company?

LR: Well, commercials are shot like a feature film. You have one camera, you do one angle at a time, and then you move on to the next shot and the next. Doing a multi-camera show, though, is like doing a little play every week, so in some ways it was much more like doing theater. You have an initial reading, they rehearse it for two or three days, then camera block it and shoot it.

In the old days we used to shoot the show in front of an audience, completely from beginning to end—just like a little play. They’d bring out someone to warm up the audience, then they’d start the show and move from set to set. And the audience watched the show almost as it would have been cut on television. Now we do a lot more pre-shooting without an audience, and when they do come in they watch about half the show being shot live.

It’s partly because the nature of the scripts has changed. The old shows had their apartment set and maybe one or two others. But when I did the pilot for Seinfeld there were seven or eight sets, which at the time was really unusual. And you can’t put that many sets on a stage and have the audience see them all. So now we do a lot more pre-shooting, which is what we’re doing today [on Jessie]. You shoot what the audience can’t see first, and when they come in they watch about half the show being shot live.

GIM: What were some of your biggest challenges as a set decorator?

LR: On Star Trek: Deep Space Nine we had to invent a lot of things, which was really fun and very challenging because we were on different alien planets with different alien races. So we were inventing the environment every time and trying to come up with something new and different—on time and under budget.

I remember finding a plastic lunch box that had a molded area for your orange or apple, another area for your sandwich. It was compartmentalized but also dimensional. We opened them up, spray-painted them and used them as wall panels that looked like they had some kind of function on the space station—carrying gas or water or whatever.

One of the basic sets was a shopping promenade on the space station that I had to detail out with what all the different shops would be selling. I had a lot of fun going to places like the old Pic ‘n’ Save and finding things that I could turn inside-out or backwards or upside-down, then paint or cover with Mylar tape to create an item that might have a function in an alien world.

There was one thing I found in Little Tokyo that I thought was pretty hilarious—this plastic gadget that could hold bottles upside down to get the last drop out. It was very bizarre-looking so we got a bunch, painted them up and put them on the shelf. And who knew what it was—it’s alien.

Courtesy of TrueBlood-Online.comCourtesy of TrueBlood-Online.comGIM: True Blood really has some diehard fans. What was it like creating vampire environments for that show?

LR: A lot of the characters on True Blood had been living in their spaces for a long time and there were a lot of layers.

Courtesy of TrueBlood-Online.comCourtesy of TrueBlood-Online.comThere was an ultra-modern house that belonged to a 2,000-year-old vampire, and we had to do bits and pieces from all his years of living in a modern environment—only I couldn’t rent anything because in the end we were going to blow almost everything up. And you didn’t want pieces ruined with vampire goo. When vampires get killed they turn into this gelatinous red goo and it goes everywhere. So we got some reproductions—a Renaissance desk, some pre-Columbian figures, Greek pieces, antique books, things like that that – and everything else we bought at places like Ikea. They looked swank, but weren’t expensive.

Courtesy of TrueBlood-Online.comCourtesy of TrueBlood-Online.comWe also had a vampire hotel, and that was a lot of fun. In the minibar, they had bottles of synthetic blood but no food because vampires don’t eat.

GIM: Your work sounds like enormous fun. What’s the best thing about it?

LR: The best part is when you finish dressing a set you’ve been working on for a long time—a friend of mine called it birthing a set. You know what you wanted, and you’ve been grabbing pieces from a divergent amount of places, and the truck shows up with all this stuff on it that you‘ve been tagging—and some it you don’t even remember. Plus, you’ve got bags and bags of stuff from retail places. You lay it all out and the crew starts dressing the set, and you play with it. When you finish and step back and it looks like what you wanted it to look like, that’s really a good moment. And when the director or a producer comes on the set and goes, “Wow, I really love this,” that’s a great moment too.

GIM: What advice do you have for someone interested in a career as a set decorator?

LR: This is not like a normal job where you can go through channels. There are no channels to go through. Basically it’s who you know—but I don’t mean that in terms of powerful people or important people. It’s the people you meet. You get one job and someone says, “Hey, I know so-and-so is looking for someone on that job.” It’s all networking. That’s how I’ve gotten every job I’ve ever had.

The SDSA [the Set Decorators Society of America] does an event for students called “Day with a Set Decorator,” where we tour the set and talk about the profession, and they can see what we do. You can also become a student member of SDSA, and when you graduate you can become a “Friend”[-level member], which is a great way of meeting people if you’re truly serious about becoming a set decorator.

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