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Meet the Set Decorator

A Conversation with Claire Kaufman ('Little Women')
January 19, 2022

Furnishings, wallpaper, drapery, paint swatches — Set Decorating (known in the industry as 'Set Dec') may sound similar to interior design, but paired with a script, it turns into time travel. 

Claire Kaufman, a skilled Set Decorator with an impressive portfolio that spans from the 2019 adaptation of the period film, Little Women, to comedy cult classic, Grown Ups, to the highly stylized, American Horror Story, sums up how she describes her passion for this important department,I love my job and it certainly doesn’t come without its stressful moments, but it is such a great payoff when you see final touches on a set, and the camera is about to roll and things have come to life... I love it and I feel grateful everyday that I have spent the last 20 years doing this.”

The Set Decorating Process

After breaking down the script, Claire begins every project by creating a wall that visually describes the arc of the project, from start to finish, explaining, “I get a sense of the palette, the colors, the textures, that need to be on the set, and how they are going to look throughout the film. Then dive into the characters and all their nuances, their likes and dislikes to create a believable world that fits their characters. Often this process involves working with the director, the production designer and even sometimes the actors who bring their own ideas to the table.”

She continues, “I love wallpaper, fabrics, and making drapery! I love putting all that stuff up to create my mood board so I can see it all working together, and maybe see it not working. Some things jump out at me, and I’ll say ‘we should do more of that and we should make this bigger.’”

Filling the board with inspiration helps Claire research her designs, as she explores the smallest details in a reference photo. It could be a table, painting, or even the wallpaper she sees in the photo, and then uses that as the starting point for the entire set, building upon the idea from there.

When all of these visual elements come together, “the payoff is watching it all come to life.”

Once the entire set is dressed, she knows her job is finished, “I have a director or actors walk in, totally immersed in the space, and they believe the space they are in, whether it’s a built set or location... and for me it is fine tuning details... things that you may not ever notice in the grand scheme of things. But for me, those small details are what makes the scene come to life."

The March House attic, Little Women (2019) / Claire Kaufman

The details that make spaces feel lived in are those, “things that you may not see, but make such a big difference.” It’s the coffee rings on the calendar desk pad in an office or the worn legs on a piece of furniture that shows the day-to-day realism of life. Set Decorators are storytellers who not only dress the space for that particular moment, but are masters of immersing an audience, by subconsciously reminding them about the history that has gone before the moment we see on screen.

While working to make a scene realistic, it’s also equally important to Claire that “I find the appropriate style for the project.” Explaining in projects like Little Woman, “I’m not making a documentary, so I do like to push the envelope.”

The Set Dec Team

Claire relies heavily on her two main team players within the department:

  1. Lead Man: Handles the scheduling and problem solving, ensuring that Claire has the right amount of people to dress sets and get decor and furniture there on time. 
  2. Buyer/Shopper: Assists Claire with sourcing and purchasing fabrics, paints, furniture, lights, wallpaper, and any of the set elements.

Beyond her immediate department, Claire also works closely with the Production Designer, Art Director, and Gaffer.

When it comes to lighting, Claire describes how crucial it is to her work, “Lighting makes or breaks me. I rely heavily on a lot of practicals to help light the set.” She gives the example, “A few years ago I was working on a sitcom, Great News, where we did a big television station, and sat for days with the Director of Photography and the Gaffer because it was a giant enclosed set. We discussed the lights and where they should go and what kind of bulbs they would be.”

With Production Designers, Claire believes it’s crucial that the two of them work in close unison together, “It’s such a collaborative relationship that I find it lucky to have. I like to bring a lot of stuff to the table for them. Their world and my world makes one world that the actors play in- it’s the  architecture, the paint, the wallpaper, flooring, all of it working together is what makes it all come to life.”

Set Dec Skills

On a typical day for Claire, dressing a set comes with meticulous attention to planning, organization, budget-making, research, and clearance:

  • Having a Plan: There are so many moving parts during production, and you can’t be everywhere. Claire prepares with a plan that includes how to delegate off specific projects. If they are having a big dress on a particular set day and she has to tech scout, she will hand off a floor plan to her crew so they can begin moving all the big elements in place.
  • Staying Organized: Knowing the who, what, when and where of outstanding filming elements that need to be addressed is key for Claire. The job is really about being organized. Things can move swiftly, with a variety of projects happening under the umbrella of the Set Dec department - from manufacturing custom drapery to sourcing rugs - so she has to stay ahead or else it can get overwhelming.
  • Staying on Budget: With so many pieces being purchased and manufactured, sticking with a budget gives Claire the freedom to make informed creative decisions. It’s a huge part of the job and managing a large budget is crucial to getting it all done and visually on point, even if she has to make adjustments to her original ideas along the way. It’s all about working within parameters.
  • Research: Every project begins with getting to know all the different furniture styles and periods and how to work with fabrics — like what makes great drapery compared to upholstery? In addition, understanding color theory and how it works helps Claire find a unique style using it, even in period projects.
  • Clearance: Every item on a set, even down the smallest of things, can be subject to clearance  by the legal department. If Claire is creating a scene in a grocery store, for example, she’ll need to spend a lot of time clearing different items like signage or even soup cans that may be shown on camera, to ensure a production isn’t sued.

Balancing all of these logistical elements in tandem with the visual elements takes finesse during long prep days leading up to production. From one-day commercials to feature films, Claire is constantly fighting the clock to bring as much realism to her projects as she can, while still finding the perfect pieces that will add to the story. 

If she’s not in her hometown of Los Angeles with easy access to prop houses, she creates her own. This level of detail on location involves a lot of shopping, but Claire enjoys the hunt, adding, “I love finding pieces I know you haven't seen in other films.” 

Paris art studio, Little Women (2019)/ Claire Kaufman

The process can be especially challenging on episodic TV shows where time is not a luxury compared to working on a film where she can manufacture custom drapery and upholster vintage finds, which she did for all the furniture on Little Women.

Regardless of the hustle, Claire ultimately finds reward at the end of the creative marathon, saying, “I love my job and I wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world. I learn something on every set that I do.” Over time, she says, “You just start to have a sense of how much dressing it is going to take to fill a space. And it feels great when you can do that without even really thinking about it.”

If you’re just as fascinated with the hardworking crew as we are at Entertainment Partners, be sure to check out the other Spotlight interviews and leave us a comment on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or LinkedIn telling us what role you'd like to see next!

Topic: Spotlight

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