Production Designer Tom Walsh takes us on a trip down Wisteria Lane, where Benjamin Moore® paint colors set the scenes and identify the characters.
“The bottom line is, design is design,” says Tom Walsh, production designer for ABC-TV’s hit show “Desperate Housewives.” “The same precepts apply in any environment. A good designer is a storyteller. Every good design begins with a concept, and designers tell the story with environments, objects and color.”
Color plays an important role in the show, says Walsh. “We’re basically using color to help tell the story. We’re doing a commercial for the suburbs. It’s a very idealized version of the suburbs, like the Eisenhower years of ‘Leave It to Beaver’ and ‘Father Knows Best.’ ”
In creating an ideal suburban neighborhood, Walsh started looking in the new developments in Southern California, but he found that most of the neighborhoods were just “too beige” to accomplish the effect he wanted for the show. So, he turned to 1950′s advertising for inspiration.
“We use Universal Studios’ “Colonial Street” for our set on Wisteria Lane, and the houses are basically a Whitman’s Sampler of Americana,” explains Tom Walsh. To unify the neighborhood and create a sense of community, he uses common elements in landscaping, color and paint. All of the houses incorporate Benjamin Moore’s Whisper Violet 2070-70 for the trim and the fences. “That not only creates the sense of continuity, but it also helps with our goal in making it clean and bright and ideal
America,” says Walsh.
“We use a lot of the same color theory, juxtaposing secondary colors and making the setting very clean and bright.” explains Walsh. “Since the lives of the show’s characters are anything but ideal, there’s actually ironic humor in that.”
“Our permanent sets are different from others in that they get more screen time,” says Tom Walsh. “Over the course of a season, viewers see more of these sets, so we need to be more complete with details.” Susan Mayer’s character as an illustrator who works from her home shows up in her surroundings. Her more feminine sensibilities also are demonstrated by the use of pastels like Benjamin Moore Provence Creme 2021-60 and Crisp Straw 2157-50.
In the initial phases of the show, Tom Walsh explains, detailed character bibles were developed, which included defined color palettes, value choices and personality quirks. The Benjamin Moore palette for the character of Lynette Scavo, a former corporate heavyweight now home with four children, includes November Skies 2128-50 and Melted Ice Cream 2095-70.
Gabrielle Solis’ foyer – in Annapolis Gray – helps define her glamorous character, a former model who married for money. Gabrielle’s living room, in Soft Pumpkin 2166-40, also shows her passionate side. The warm orange tones hint at her spicy nature and even her marital infidelity, while set pieces suggest her Hispanic Catholic background.
Character Color Palettes
In the show – a dark comedy-drama created by executive producer Marc Cherry – the perfect housewife facade hides a troubled inner life for all of the characters. “Marc wanted to pay homage to the plight of domestic relationships in America,” says Walsh. When the character of Mary Alice Young, whom all of her friends think is perfectly happy, passes on, it forces all of the remaining characters to think about the deceptiveness of appearances. Narrated by the deceased character, the show follows the lives of her five friends: Susan, Bree, Gabrielle, Lynette and Edie.
To help audiences identify the different characters quickly, Walsh devised a color palette system based on Benjamin Moore & Co. colors. “For all of the characters, we started with concept cards. We looked for colors that were intriguing, and then matched them up,” explains Walsh. These color palettes are carried out in each character’s house exterior and interior. “We use a different body color for each house based on the character’s color palette,” he adds.
With 36 permanent sets and eight to 12 new sets for any given episode, color options are important. “With [Benjamin Moore] paints, I not only have a lot of options, I have a lot of really good options,” says Walsh. “It’s always fun to go through the fan deck and get ideas. I like to collect color.”
This kind of selection allows Walsh and his team to explore and play with color to communicate ideas. “We like to have fun with it, actually,” says Walsh. “Our set is Wisteria Lane, so we like to use a shade of lavender here and there to evoke that idea. The white we use is Whisper Violet [2070-70], which has just a tinge of violet in it.” The Whisper Violet trim on every house, as well as on the picket fences in the yards, helps unify the environment.
Set Demands for Paint Durability
Walsh says that another benefit to using Benjamin Moore paints is their durability. “The set is a kind of machine, and it takes a huge beating over time, so it has to be sturdy,” explains Walsh. “We need sets that can withstand the wear and tear of the crews and their equipment. It’s a little like farming. After a while, the soil can get exhausted. All of the moving and shaking we need to do to the sets, we can do because we know the paint can withstand it.”
Now in pre-production for Season 2, Walsh says he is delighted with the show’s success. “We’re all very happy with how well the show has been received.”
The commercial for the suburbs has sold us on “Desperate Housewives.”
For more information on “Desperate Housewives,” visit www.abc.go.com/ primetime/desperate/.
Set Design vs. Interior Design
Decorating a house made for television carries some of the same considerations as designing a permanent residence (color theory and cooperation!) … and then it also has its own set of circumstances (scheduling and editing!). Here’s what “Desperate Housewives” Production Designer Tom Walsh has to say on:
SCHEDULE: “Homes can take months or even a year to design and finish,” says Walsh. “We had 21 days to go from the pilot to the first show of the series. We couldn’t wait for ordering interior furnishings. We ended up renting a lot of pieces, and now we’ve been gradually replacing the rented pieces with purchased pieces.”
BUDGET. “The issue that separates us the most under the topic of budget is related to schedule and labor,” says Walsh. “in the workplace of the commercial interior designer, more often than not there is time to finalize a plan, reflect on one’s decisions, and to then seek out multiple bids for both labor and material. In the film world, there is very little time to conceive, seldom any time to reflect, and the final process of realization is measured in hours and days rather than weeks and months. These factors all affect our budget outlook.”
COOPERATION: “Its a really collaborative medium, where we have a lot of group discussion and hashing out of ideas,” explains Walsh. “It’s a process, even with color, which I think is one of the most glorious things. People have emotional responses to color, and some conversations can get heated.”
DIGITAL EDITING: “We have a digital system for color corrections, and in post-production we can end up with totally different colors,” says Walsh. “So, we grapple with maintaining creative intent. Fortunately, we don’t really have much of an issue with that on “Desperate Housewives”. Everyone is pretty much on the same page. But, because color can induce such visceral reactions in people, sometimes bias trumps over creative intent.”
VISUAL DETAIL “We actually step away a level of detail because we don’t want a lot of visual noise distracting from the characters and their stories.”
“It’s a quick show, and we’re constantly cutting back and forth between stories,” says Tom Walsh. With that, the show uses color to aid viewers with character identification; each character has a unique palette, all based on Benjamin Moore colors.
For more information on Tom Walsh and his previous work in the entertainment industry, search for “Tom Walsh” on www.imdb.com.
Christiana Guppy is a freelance writer who lives in the Washington, D.C. metro area. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.