From behind the scenes of super stylish sets, “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” and “The Wolf of Wall Street”, Emmy award winning set decorator Ellen Christensen opens up about vintage shopping, her favorite places to get inspired and how to create a timeless look for any room.
Growing up in Fairfield County, Christiansen’s love of history and art was deepen through frequent trips to stroll through the many museums in New York City. She found herself particularly intrigued by the period rooms at the Met Museum and Museum of the City of NY. “The furnishings told stories about people’s lives in other eras.” This early interest in design persisted throughout her years of study. “While at Tufts University I got involved with the theater department, initially as an extracurricular interest. I really enjoyed collaborating on set and costume designs for shows, so I switched my major. After a few years as a print stylist in NYC I took a 12 course program at the New York School of Interior Design which gave me practical skills useful for working as a decorator.”
As a set designer, Christiansen must not only take into account what a space looks to tell the audience about a character, but it must also be an authentic representation of the era. To achieve a look that accurately depicts a specific place and time, she turns to research first.
Shy Baldwin’s Townhouse photo by Jan Jericho
“I have a collection of decorating books and home décor magazines from various eras. I sometimes find them at church sales and in thrift stores. Looking at news and general interest magazines from a period tells you what people were thinking about, which can influence the mood of a time. The ads for appliances, beauty products, food, etc are excellent research. Postcards are also good reference when doing a restaurant, hotel, city street, or park.
When we filmed in the Catskills [for The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel] the resort location had postcards from their various years in operation, which we studied when figuring out our refresh of the place for filming.”
Once the look is decided on, the actual pieces must be sourced to create the set. This is where Christiansen’s being a self-described “firm practitioner of serendipitous decorating” becomes especially useful. For season one of “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel”, a defunct department store discovered in Waterbury, CT turned out to be a treasure trove of counters and other fixtures that were used to create an authentic look for the “B. Altman” department store in the show.
In season three, “a tip from another decorator led us to a contractor who was renovating a 1950’s house in Cos Cob. We purchased the entire kitchen– cabinets, appliances, lighting– to use in Moishe and Shirley’s House.”
Moishe and Shirley’s Living Room
As Christiansen’s work does such an excellent job showing us, beautiful pieces can be found from every era of design, which is why incorporating vintage into the home can create such a strong impact. We asked the designer for tips on integrating vintage into homes today.
“I look for good design, and solid construction. You want to be able to use the piece comfortably. New upholstery makes furniture feel fresh and current, or new glass if it is a table or shelf unit. I prefer to leave wood as it is, the patina gives a piece personality.
Bill Groom , the production designer on MMM, likes to say that not everything on a set should be from the same year. It’s the same for a home. Vintage pieces of different eras work with classic designs, it’s all in the mix. Good to include some contemporary décor and/or art in space so it does not feel dated.”
When shopping for antique or vintage pieces, its clear that it is always a good idea to always keep an eye out. While creating the set for the 2011 production of “Mildred Pierce,” “[The look was] very subdued and serious. The story took place in California but we filmed entirely in New York. Researching and hunting down the California style was key. I found a perfect Spanish style settee, that was the sofa in Mildred’s living room, in a barn in upstate New York. So you never know!”
We asked Ellen to curate Midge’s room using TLV pieces. Click here to shop the collection.
Three Questions with Ellen Christiansen
TLV: What are you currently reading or watching?
EC: Taschen’s “60’s Decorative Art”- as research for MMM Season 4 and
“Desert Queen” by Janet Wallach, another story about a strong woman who made her own way.
TLV: Where is the first place you would like to travel when it is possible again?
EC: Colorado, to visit my niece who just moved there, and to go hiking or snowshoeing depending on the weather.
TLV: Ideal summer afternoon?
EC: Hiking with my husband near our house in upstate NY, then a dip in a local lake.
Text by Liana Hayles Newton / Set Photos by Jan Jericho