The two-time Emmy-winning HBO series “Silicon Valley” follows a group of programmer friends working together to start a company, Pied Piper.
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In the final two seasons of the series, Brandi Kalish was hired as the show’s decorator and tasked with bringing character to the Pied Piper employees’ workspace.
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“We had to sit at each desk and create a personality — like, this person is super into toys or LEGO, this person is super organized, or this desk only has a water bottle on it,” said Kalish.
To get inspiration from decorating the hundreds of employee offices she and her team had to spruce up for the show, Kalish traveled to San Francisco and visited several tech offices. While touring these workspaces, she took reference photos to share with her team.
A set designer takes a script and creates a list of items—for example, furniture, lighting, and artwork—for each set or environment that will be filmed. The set designer will also receive instructions and a budget from the projects showrunner, director, and sometimes cinematographer.
The Times interviewed Kalish and three other set designers – Andrew Baseman (“Crazy Rich Asians” and “Severance”), Rae Deslich (“Promising Young Woman” and the “Supermarket Sweep” reboot) and Rosemary Brandenburg (“Spider- Man: No Way Home” and “CastAway”) – to learn what it takes to become a set decorator and how to enter the industry.
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Growing up in the Midwest, Kalish said she was “constantly coming up with ideas on how to redo my bedroom.”
She went through a Southwestern phase, which involved desert colors and having her dad sandblast cacti on her windows — then an all-black phase that included black window treatments and a black bedspread. Her love for textiles, furniture and art inspired her to go to art school for design.
10:03 AM, August 17, 2022 An earlier version of the article stated that Brandi Kalish was dating a member of the band Korn. She dated a member of the band’s touring crew. He also stated that the band’s production designer needed a set designer; he was the band’s manager.
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In 1999, she was dating a member of Korn’s touring crew, and the band’s manager needed a decorator to help transform the scene to look like a Gothic church.
Kalish looked in the phone book under “p” for prop house and drove there with Korn’s credit card. She rented ornate candelabra, rugs, chandeliers and church kneelers.
All the Times pros agreed that a passion for art and the world around you is a must.
When they were teenagers, Deslich loved going to the renaissance fair but didn’t have much money to buy costumes. They realized that chain mail could be made with wire and a lot of patience.
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“There’s a correlation between someone who looks at something and thinks, ‘I think I can see how it’s done’ and someone who looks at a room and sees how a room is just a combination of all of its elements,” Deslich said.
It’s about understanding that the world is mobile, they said. You can pick up this piece of furniture and rearrange it or remove it completely from a space if you don’t like it.
Set designers also need to be organized, because whether you’re working on a movie or TV series, you’ll be juggling multiple sets. Baseman has physical files of each of his sets. The files contain item lists, reference photos, and other documentation.
Decorating sets for “Crazy Rich Asians” took Baseman to Malaysia to learn about Peranakan culture. It was also an opportunity for him to work with a whole new local team of buyers and assistants, instead of his go-to accessory houses and stores.
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“I really leaned on them, and they found some amazing pieces and showed me the lay of the land,” he said.
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Baseman’s parents were antique dealers, so he grew up with an appreciation for found objects and history. While at Carnegie Mellon University, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in set and costume design, he began arranging and creating sets for theater, which opened up opportunities on Broadway.
Many of the professionals The Times spoke to went to school – Kalish went to art school and Deslich went to film school, thinking they wanted to be a director, screenwriter or producer – this which was helpful, but they say there are many different paths, and it’s very important to fill in any gaps you might have.
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Brandenburg majored in theater at Kenyon College in Ohio, but said it was her real-world experience – exploring museums and historic sites in Europe as a child when traveling with her family on work trips – which influenced much of his early life. theater stage decoration.
A good resource for learning more about set decorators is the Set Decorators Society of America. The guild provides resources, educational opportunities, and networking opportunities with professionals in the field.
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All the set designers The Times spoke to said there are many ways to enter the industry, but the most common involve working as a production assistant, moving up to assistant from the set dresser (and then from the main man, who is the main dresser) or becoming a buyer. Either track can lead to becoming an assistant set designer before getting a chance to lead the team.
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Deslich worked as a production designer, but said he found his footing as a set designer. “A lot of the time I just want to decorate bigger, weirder projects,” Deslich said.
After working on tour with Korn, Kalish began as an intern for production designer Michael Whetstone (“Curb Your Enthusiasm” and “Abbot Elementary”) at Whetstone Designs. She started by decorating scenes for Britney Spears, Ice Cube and Eminem. Working with the bands led to music videos, which led to commercials, and then television and film.
Similar to Kalish, after Baseman worked on Broadway, he started getting calls to decorate commercial sets, then moved on to television and film sets.
It’s common to start as a set designer on non-union productions with micro budgets, working for little or no pay, Deslich said.
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Once you have more experience under your belt, you can start working on the requirements to join the IATSE Local 44 Affiliated Homeowners Union.
To join, Baseman said it’s ideal to have experience as a production assistant and take union-run courses specific to set designers. You must also pass a test.
He said once you make the jump to the union, you get pension and health care benefits and a union-negotiated rate of pay.
Baseman acknowledged that it takes time to get into the union, but he encourages newcomers to persevere.
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Once you gain enough experience, you can negotiate a higher salary than the rates set in the union contract, Brandenburg said.
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High-definition television has changed the way set designers design a stage because viewers can now see every detail, Baseman said.
“I’ve heard stories [about] soap operas when they were recorded in the 60s and 70s, where it was so low res that rather than having rugs on the floor, they were just painting the floor to look like to a rug,” he said.
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Brandenburg said that because digital cameras are very sensitive to light, modern productions have intensified the use of the “practical lighting” technique. Rather than using an overhead or off-camera theater light, set designers find desk lamps or pendant lights to illuminate the scene.
Set designers work with the cinematographer and gaffer to make sure they’re providing the right light source, Baseman said. Should it be a hard shade? Is incandescent or fluorescent light better?
Smartphones have also changed the way set decorators can research the field. Kalish said she used to carry art books with her, but can now easily find reference photos online. She can also send photos to a showrunner for feedback.
For many people who pursue a career in entertainment, it takes years to get to where you’re making money from your creative work. To earn money while waiting, there are always waiting tables. But more and more people are turning to platforms like TikTok, Twitch and Patreon.
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When youngsters start out on set as a production assistant, Baseman said, it’s often mistakenly thought that they’ll meet the cast and become friends.
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