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The Art Men Behind 'Mad Men'

The Art Men Behind 'Mad Men'Two Tufts graduates are part of the award-winning team that crafts the sleek visual appeal of the hit television show "Mad Men."

Medford/Somerville, Mass. [03.01.10] On the acclaimed AMC television show "Mad Men," when Don Draper presents an ad campaign to a client in the swank offices of Sterling Cooper or Pete Campbell eats dinner with his wife Trudy in their well-appointed Manhattan apartment, there is a distinct visual style to their surroundings. Behind the scenes, there is an award-winning production design staff-including two Tufts graduates-carefully crafting every last visual detail, from lampshades to logos.

The Art Directors Guild recently honored the team for the third-straight year for their work on the season three episode "Souvenir."

Art director Chris Brown (A'91), who majored in history and drama while at Tufts, has served as art director for all but two episodes in the series' three seasons, while Geoff Mendel (A'80), who majored in English, came on as a graphic designer for the third season. We spoke with them about what goes into creating the visual look of "Mad Men."

Could you describe your roles?

Chris: It is my job to oversee the timely design and execution of our scenery. I work collaboratively with the production designer to provide visually satisfying, yet fiscally responsible solutions to the design challenges of any given episode, and with the producers to make sure time and resources are allowed to meet the writer's, director's, and designer's creative expectations. It is daily exercise in creative problem solving.

Geoff: My focus as graphic designer is much more specific: anything with writing on it, which includes signs, vehicles, prop paperwork, posters and charts, and occasionally costumes and post-production effects. It's my responsibility to make sure that every sign, taxicab and cereal box looks entirely appropriate to the period and location, which in the case of Mad Men's third season was New York City in 1963. Graphic designers are also responsible for Photoshopping actors into period photos (think Forrest Gump) and coming up with logos and advertising materials for the production itself.

What in your Tufts experience influenced this career direction?

Chris: While the research skills honed by the history department are used everyday, I completely, totally, and without hesitation blame/credit Neal Hirsig [senior lecturer in drama and dance] for my current career. He was the first person to get me to think about the confluence of art and design.During what used to be "Drama 17," I remember him asking the class if we thought a wall clock was "art." It seemed a strange question, but led to a far ranging discussion about the shape of the physical environment, the objects in it, and who decided what they would look like. He got me interested in exploring how environment can inform story as much as action.

Geoff: I did do a lot of graphics at Tufts, including parodies of the daily Tufts Today newsletter and dining hall menus that we surreptitiously distributed on campus. I was an English major, but graphic design has always been a major interest of mine, perhaps because my parents were writers/editors at Life magazine back in the 1960s and were always bringing home copies of the magazine.

What are the challenges/opportunities in working on a show like "Mad Men"?

Chris: Because each season of Mad Men is set in a particular year (1960, 1962, 1963) and produced in a different city (LA vs. NYC), it is always a challenge to be true to the period; we can't just go to a location and shoot. Even if the architecture is "old" and feels like New York, most public spaces have been layered with the trappings of the last 40 years, everything from signage to cash registers to television sets to ADA compliance requirements need to be altered, removed or obscured to create the illusion of the past. If we are building on stage, there is a requirement to find primary visual research of similar places to inform the new ones we are creating.

Geoff: The producers are very particular about getting the period details right. If I come up with a poster or brand logo, I better have some period references to show. Mad Men takes place in an advertising agency, with lots of ads and concept layouts floating around, so there are a lot of graphics that need to look like they belong in the early 1960s.

What were some of the highlights of working on this specific episode?

Chris: In "Souvenir," more than 50 percent of the screen time is spent in places that are new to the series. The highlight of the episode is a weekend getaway to Rome for Don Draper and his wife. Also, Pete Campbell visits [department store] Bonwit Teller, as well as some of the less glamorous parts of his apartment building. Both stories required us to use a combination of modified locations, and some specifically constructed sets. We found a stand in for a grand hotel lobby and plaza (where we created an exterior cafe) and built a sleek modern hotel room for Don and Betty. For Pete, we constructed service hallways, an elevator lobby and car, and a small neighboring apartment, and dressed a beautiful wood paneled room on location to represent the department store.

Geoff: "Souvenir" involved a visit by Don and Betty to Rome, so my tasks included recreating the graphics on a Rome police car circa 1963 and adapting the Cinzano logo so it could be stencil-painted onto cafe umbrellas (these looked great in the final episode). I also did a lot of period paperwork, including Pan Am airline tickets and luggage tags.

What does an accomplishment like this mean for you?

Chris: It is an honor to have your work recognized by your peers as being the best in its class. The opportunity to do good design work, on a show that is well written, well acted, well photographed, well produced is rare in Hollywood, and I enjoy being able to contribute.

Geoff: On Mad Men, I'm only one cog in a very well-run art department. Still, it was fun up to be up on stage accepting the award as part of the art department, and then whisked backstage for a photo op on the green room. That's probably as close as I'll ever come to winning on Oscar or an Emmy.

Interview by Georgiana Cohen, Office of Web Communications

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