Even if you are not familiar with the name Rena DeAngelo, chances are you have seen her work. As a set designer for Mad Men, The Goldfinch, The Help, The Post, and The Woman in the Window (amongst others), she plays a critical role in the storytelling process by bringing character’s worlds to life. Her attention to detail and ability to create a set that feels authentic as well as aesthetically pleasing, earned her recognition, in the form of an Emmy for Outstanding Art Direction and makes some of our favorite shows and movies that much more enjoyable to watch.
Nicole Kidman in The Goldfinch
While Rena did not start out in set design, it is no surprise that she began her career in another equally creative area. “I was working in the fashion industry having gone to school for fashion design, but I wasn’t enjoying it. My cousin was working at a prop house in NY, so I gave her some of my cards hoping that she could give it to some film people.” As luck had it, an opportunity soon presented itself. “I had no idea what to expect but a production designer called me looking for an art director. I went in to meet her thinking I could get a job in wardrobe. I knew nothing about the film business. She essentially sent me out for the day with a list of things to find like fabrics and free high-end furniture.”
The serendipitous experience was one that set her in a new direction. “ It was like a scavenger hunt and I loved it. I knew where to source inexpensive fabrics and had walked around in the D&D building asking vendors naively asking if they might be interested in loaning a film some furniture. I found one who said yes and went back to the designer with all of this and she said who are you? And asked me if I wanted to decorate the film. It paid $75 a week and was shot in the Hamptons offseason. It was really low budget and it never saw the light of day, but it was so much fun I said this is what I want to do.”
Today, Rena has a long list of shows and films that speak to her sharp attention to detail and the success of her creative process. “I start a project by reading the script and then meeting with the production designer and director to discuss the overall look we are going for. I then do a study of the characters to understand who they are and this drives how I go about decorating each of the characters sets. I also do research into the time period, the subject matter of the film, and the locale. There is quite a bit of research at the onset of each film. Then I start to collect fabrics, wallpapers and furniture much the same way designers do a house. Mood boards meetings etc.” And while some of the processes can look a lot like the work done by an interior designer, there are some major differences as well. “I am also doing the hospital set, the police station, the newsroom, and a boxing ring in an empty warehouse. Sometimes there are as many as 150 different sets in a single movie. So there is a lot to keep track of. But every movie is different so it keeps it interesting.”
The spaces she designs must function to set the stage for the story and give a realistic environment, but they also serve to help tell the story of the characters who inhabit them. “In the movie The Post, the two main characters are Katherine Graham (owner of the Washington Post) and Ben Bradley (the editor). Their lives were connected at the Washington Post but their personal lives were completely different. This was made more evident with their homes in the film.
Katherine Graham was a wealthy socialite, her home was ornate and well-appointed nothing too personal, she entertained a lot and the home was always ready for guests.
Ben Bradley, as a newspaper editor he lived in a totally different environment. His house was filled with his personality, mementos from travel books paper, and was a mess. There was evidence of his kids and the fact they had no staff to keep things tidy. Just by looking at their homes and their offices in the movie you get a better idea of their life.”
Rena’s work has spanned a wide array of styles and time periods, but she has perhaps had the most experience designing for a Mid Century look. “I have found myself in the 50s and 60s a great deal of my career. It is now a period I am very familiar with. I don’t even need to do much research anymore. I like to do contemporary films too but I find I am very comfortable in the days before computers and electronics.”
Her expertise in that era earned her an Emmy for her work on Mad Men. “I only did the pilot for Mad Men. We shot it on a very low budget during hiatus from The Sopranos, where we were all working at the time. Who knew the sensation it would be from the little pilot? I barely had enough money to make curtains. The real genius of that show started once they moved to LA. I didn’t go with, but I guess we designed the look for the show and then [set designers] Amy Wells, Claudette Didul, and Dan Bishop took it from there. At the time I won I was actually taking a break from the film industry and designing interiors, but winning an Emmy drew me back into the business.”
After getting back into the business, she went on to work on projects such as The Woman in the Window and The Goldfinch. “On The Goldfinch, I had an Upper East Side apartment, an antique dealer’s apartment, a moderate income upper west side apartment and an antique store just to name a few. This was the first time I met Patricia Espinosa, Co-Founder of The Local Vault] and soon realized TLV was the perfect source for all of them. Nicole Kidman’s apartment on the Upper East Side was to be meticulously decorated with beautiful furniture like the kind Patricia consigns. And since I have a budget and tight schedule, I can’t afford the retail prices or the 12 to 18 week lead time to get the high-quality furnishings that they offer.
I needed some more eclectic used furniture pieces for the other sets and she had those as well.
Between the website and house visits we were able to furnish almost the entire apartment. It was an amazing collaboration.
I came back to her when I started my next project, Woman in the Window. This film takes place almost entirely in one house since Amy Adams’s character is agoraphobic. She is a psychologist and this is a family home, which she is now living in alone. I was able to find quite a few key pieces in TLV inventory.
Pretty much any movie I do there is something I can use in their inventory.
I was about to start a Gossip Girl reboot before the world closed I had been on the job a week and The Local Vault was my first stop. As usual they had something for each of the apartments and have a pile of beauties waiting be to picked-up at the TLV Warehouse once things open up again and we are able to begin working again.
TLV is the perfect source for all the contemporary movies I have done in the last 3 years. Their inventory is highly curated and varied since it coming from distinct homes there is something for all the sets I am decorating.”
5 Questions with Rena DeAngelo
TLV: Is there a style of show or movie that you have never done that you would love to work on?
RA: I haven’t had the chance to do a high style 70s film yet. The 70s are such a tricky era not to make look too cliché I would like the challenge.
TLV: Are there certain films and or television shows you particularly adore for their set design?
RA: I’ve become obsessed with Babylon Berlin. I think it is the best looking show on TV. It’s the late 20s in Berlin every set is perfect all the costumes and actors are gorgeous.
TLV: What are you currently watching or reading?
RA: I have been watching a lot of old films, Babylon Berlin (which I am almost finished with) and I want more episodes of Dead to Me.
TLV: Any hobby that you have dusted off during quarantine and gotten back into?
RA: I spent 6 months in France last year decorating the upcoming Wes Anderson film, The French Dispatch. My French was not great, so I am taking lessons again trying to make my net trip there a little bit easier. I’ve also been gardening, cooking, and virtually helping my friends with their houses.
TLV: What are you most excited about doing when restrictions are lifted?
RA: I can’t wait to go to a restaurant again. I am so tired of cooking for myself and not being with friends, but I do worry about the restaurants and how they will survive.
And also I must admit shopping. I hate to admit it but I really like shopping for furniture.
Thank you Rena DeAngelo!
Rena is currently available for small design projects @ email@example.com
Text by Liana Hayles Newton