AMC’s “Mad Men” is not only one of the best dramas on television, it also debuted with perfect timing, at a moment when America’s fascination with mid-century style was at a fever pitch. Three years later, as Season 4 premieres, the frenzy for furniture and fashion of the 1960s is still hot.
In celebration of tonight’s episode, let’s take a look at the show’s immaculate, award-winning production design. Starting with Don Draper’s office.
Set in the early 1960s, nearly every shot of “Mad Men” is filled with objects from an era rich with new ideas, a time when modernism was still fresh, yet more mature than its early years — on the brink of going mainstream.
Of course, not everything we see in “Mad Men” was produced in the ’60s, as Production Designer Dan Bishop explains:
We wanted to make sure it wasn’t a textbook study of mid-century modern America — as Matt specifically pointed out, look around your own house, does everything exist from 2007 or do you actually have stuff lying around from the ’80s?
Property Master Scott Buckwald elaborates:
… there are a lot of things that are holdovers, especially for the older generation. Their cars could be from the early ’50s. You have to watch out for the misinterpretations and prejudices you might have about the era. It’s also very easy to try to jam everything that was introduced in 1960 all into one episode. You have to space it out a little bit. ’Cause everything that was developed in 1960 didn’t happen in one day.
We also don’t want to create a historical anachronism by putting a 1962 typewriter or transistor radio in, so we try to watch that, unless, creatively we just decide it’s a good way to go. Otherwise, we keep ourselves locked to April of 1960.
Don Draper’s Office
Set decorator Amy Wells was responsible for the decor. Many of the pieces are originals, like the Eames Executive Chair (see it at DWR), others are reproductions. Wells was featured on NPR’s All Things Considered in anticipation of the Season Three premiere.
Wells, oddly enough, is one of the few people on the Mad Men staff old enough to remember the era the show depicts. But she doesn’t just rely on her memories when she’s decorating a kitchen or a swanky office; she’s got a vast library of vintage catalogs and decorating books.
“One of the best references — we just used it this morning for the size of a baby blanket — is the Sears catalogs and the Montgomery Ward catalog,” she says. “They’re so specific, and they have all these items. And then I have every decorating book from the late ’40s through the mid-’60s. So Better Homes & Gardens — you know, all those decorating books that came out every year — I have all of those.”
Wells also revealed in the NPR interview her budget: $25,000 per week/episode. I imagine that’s increased since last season.
Don’s office was gently remodeled between the pilot and subsequent episodes. The simple leather chairs were replaced with cane-back pieces (possibly Hvidt/Mølgaard-Nielsen), and the desk lamp went from Bauhaus to ’50s twin. Don’s all-teak Danish modern desk from the pilot was a beauty with its backside display shelf (lonely and bare) but it was replaced with something that was much more common in an American office at the time: a larger Knoll or Steelcase, with metal legs and an overhanging surface.
The drab walls of the pilot office get the biggest upgrade: rich wood paneling. Dan Bishop says in a special feature of the Season 1 DVD that the panels are real walnut (stained in the typical way), but creator Matthew Weiner thought it as too cold, so they added a red dye.
The lounge area of Don’s office is anchored by a Boxy sofa, armchair, and coffee table from Futurama, a Los Angeles shop that reproduces vintage designs. (Thanks to Javi!) The Futurama sofas are manufactured by Simplaform and are inspired by Jydsk Møbelværk and Milo Baughman. If you like this look, don’t forget Autoban’s Box and Herman Miller’s Goetz.
And oh, that steel ashtray on a pedestal … the roulette cigarette dispenser … they make even non-smokers dream about decorating their pads with smoking accessories.
What sort of desk will Don Draper grace in the new agency? Maybe we’ll find out tonight. In the meantime, the Mid-Century Modernist “Mad Men” Furniture series will continue. In the next installment we’ll step outside Don’s nest and explore the rest of Sterling Cooper’s former offices and the new digs of Season 4’s Sterling Cooper Draper Price.