A famously cryptic and stylised title sequence of a silhouette of a man (obviously Don Draper) stepping into his dissolving office and then free-falling into the depths of a shiny glass and steel skyscraper is seared into the back of my mind. With period-appropriate American Dream advertisements, liquor and long-legged women watching on as he falls, the sequence poignantly captures the essence of the television series it opens for: Mad Men.
The brainchild of Matthew Weiner, the show is set in the 1960s in an advertising company on Madison Avenue, a glorious period of consumerist and hedonistic ideals. The series, at first glance, is intoxicatingly rich in surface-level pleasures such as the wonderfully detailed sets, clothing, props and the casting in itself. The sophisticated, commanding and invulnerable creative head, Don Draper; the beautiful, bored and emotionally stunted wife; Betty Draper, the assertive and ambitious Peggy Olson, the all-knowing office administrator Joan Holloway; just to name a few of the show’s central casting; all seem to have something in common: their unwavering effort to put on stoic facades in an attempt to mask their internal pain and unhappiness. The show’s underlying theme is quite possibly the mystery of human behaviour and an unpresumptuous tale of people being people. It constantly brings up the discussion of appearances as opposed to realities, the contradictory nature of its characters with each of them making cyclical changes to their personalities in the belief that they are moving forward, only to realise that it was a dressed-up version of their original ways.
An elaborate, slow-simmer drama that is hard-edged and compassionate; Mad Men’s appeal is deep-seated in the immaculately styled sets by production designer Dan Bishop and set decorator Claudette Didul. The show was conceived as a story of New York in a state of entropy. It would have Don Draper’s decade long story arc mirror a world disappearing, allowing for production design details to naturally decay. Weiner was particular about not creating a highly stylised period series that was a shinier and polished fantasy but instead had something real and believable. “Having so much detail and sweat stains and ashes and broken furniture and cracked glass and dirt on the walls and all that other stuff that makes it feel more like a real thing than like a movie, so that everyone’s imagination becomes employed,” Weiner said. “And when you work with people that good, you can’t even believe how much story comes up.“
Telling stories through spaces is what Dan Bishop does best and exceedingly well; his worlds are vivid and dynamic, a blur of forms, colours, textures and light. Often, the sets fed into the story writing process; Weiner says that he would tell the production designer well ahead of time what year the next season would be set in; and then Bishop would start showing him different environments, photos, places which the creator would then use to begin visualising the character and story. This incredibly symbiotic relationship does show wonders; it is uncanny how we start to see the characters as inseparable from their respective spaces: Betty in her elaborately done up traditional suburban cage: Joan in her coral walled flat playing the accordion (seethingly) for her guests and later in her office in the new SCDP premises in the Time & Life building, positioned in the middle with glass doors on either side to quietly observe. The two-level modern office that Bishop designed for the company was so well laid out with the four partners in their power corners, the large staircase with its two landings offering social pockets of interaction. The entire set was elevated by 4 feet allowing the external background to sink below the stage, giving it the perspective of being on the 37th floor. The change in office premises lent itself to the story’s progression, as each of the characters moved up their professional ladders. “It was something that helped mature the show,” Weiner said. “Dan’s design was the fountainhead for as much story as possible.”
Don’s office at Sterling Draper Cooper Pryce is an example of the 60’s modern office design: timeless and multifunctional. Set decorator Claudette Didul used Herman Miller to key in on furniture pieces and general interior trends throughout the show to ensure the modern-retro aesthetic of the period was rightfully captured. Herman Miller, office furniture, equipment and home furnishings producer, was pivotal in the office designs of the post-war white-collar workplace boom. To achieve the level of authenticity on the show that Weiner craved, Didul would meticulously study vintage magazines, advertisements and catalogues. “There are some architectural books from the late 1950s showing commercial offices, and a lot of them have Eames and Knoll furniture. It was mass-produced and very commercial furniture for the time.”
The show spans ten years, from 1960 to 1970, and Didul made sure she brought out the cultural upheaval that America was undergoing in her designs—integrating the mid-century modern style furniture with colourful and bright pieces of art, fabric and other furnishings to visually capture the change in the aesthetic taste of the late ’60s. The bright red and blue sofa sets in the reception area and the bold geometric wallpaper in Ted Chaough’s office (Season 7) are examples of the colour shift. The settings for the uber-cool modern pad on Park Avenue that Megan and Don Draper live in is something Didul and Bishop are very proud to have created. With the sunken living room, beige textured walls, warm teak wood panelling and bursts of colour in the gorgeous palette of oranges, ochres and greens and a white carpet to tie it all in; the swanky apartment was a vision of everything Don envisioned for himself: expensive, modern and cool (we all know how that ends).
Mad Men makes me want to live through the glory days of graphic and typeface design adapting to the television, the dawn of advertising as we know it and the creative leeway they enjoyed. It makes me pine for the high society glamour of the golden age: a life of three-martini lunches, constant smoking and drinking, gorgeous outfits, gorgeous furniture and the evocative promise of a good life: the promise of the American Century (a term famously coined by Henry Luce); but I hear the naivety. If anything, the show educates us on the very contrived tendency we have; it depicts the complexities and contradictions of the human personality with more accuracy and insight than any other television series to date.
Matt Zoller Seitz (March 05, 2012) What makes Mad Men Great? (online)
IndieWire Influencers (online)
Chris Alm (October 14, 2014) A Tour of the Sterling Cooper & Partners Office (online)
Interior Design (April 25, 2014) Welcome to 1969: Mad Men’s Award-Winning Set Design (online)
Meredith Mendelsohn (June 19, 2013) Mad World (online)
Alexander Ho (March 27, 2014) Through Don Draper’s Eyes: A Tour of the Time & Life Building of the 1960s (online)
Available at: https://time.com/30406/time-life-building-60s-mad-men/