Little Fires Everywhere transports viewers back to the mid ’90s. You get to experience the music, the hair styles, and the design of the homes, apartments, and parties. I grew up in the ’90s, and there was something that resonated with me more than any television series or film I had seen set in this decade. A lot of this clicked into place when I talked to Jessica Kender who worked on the production design for the series.
In preparing for our conversation, I watched a couple of television shows and films set in the ’90s. I am a big fan of Murder, She Wrote, The Nanny, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer‘. While watching the shows, especially Murder, She Wrote (which lasted until the mid ’90s) you still get an ’80s vibe. Even in early Buffy the living room and other elements did not feel familiar.
Watching Little Fires Everywhere from the snacks to the color of walls in the Richardson’s home to the cars folks drive, I was immediately transported back to being 14, sitting in my living room eating dunkaroos and watching Power Rangers after school. The design aesthetic for this series is perfectly crafted, and truly transports you to this time and space.
Please read below more about the process of production Design for the show with Jessica Kender:
Awards Daily TV: Little Fires is ultimately a period piece. What ’90s iconography and sets inspired some of the work you did?
Jessica Kender: I graduated college in ’97, so the ’90s were very much drilled into my memory. The thing that tickled me during most of my work was the prop work. I think about the grocery store. We had to have Snackwells and Slim Fast. Those were two iconic items that people bought during this decade, and I knew they would be in the Richardson’s house. Finding items like this was both fun and challenging, but they make the design of the show authentic.
When it comes to the design of the homes it was a bit more challenging. The ’90s are not a beloved design decade. I was sent the script and book to prepare for the interview. Once I read both, I said I have to have this show. I usually take a day (12 hours) to prepare for an interview. For this show, I prepared for a week.
The ’90s does not have a clear aesthetic. What was interesting about Elena’s house was you had to find taste for this decade, and that was a challenge. The TV room was so ’90s. It looked like a living room from the ’90s. We had to have their slipcovers custom made from the time. Most of the aesthetic of the ’90s is so hard to find, and people do not realize the look until they see it on television. We had to find and get stuff shipped from Milwaukee from eBay, and it became a hunt to make sure it authentically matched the ’90s. We found that ’70s and ’80s furniture was easy to find, the ’90s stuff not so much.
AD: Why do you think this was so hard to find?
JK: Clearly it had a look. For example, there is forest green all over the walls. I also think there were transitional design elements during this stage. A lot of shows set during this time still had ’80s design elements, and then toward the end of the ’90s there was an aesthetic but at that point we were veering into the 2000s look.
AD: How did you balance the idyllic and the more contained set pieces?
JK: That was interesting. We were trying to figure out how to dress Mia and Pearl’s house. We knew it had to have beige walls. We wanted to design the look without furniture. I wanted the set to be interesting without furniture. Everything in the apartment would be from a thrift store. Our first round made it look like a set from the ’70s so we had to go back to the drawing board. I worked with my team and other designers, and our college apartment was a huge inspiration for the look.
AD: What were some of the more challenging set pieces and production elements on this show?
JK: The hardest thing to do was Izzy’s room. That is the set that everyone responds to the most. You either were that kid or knew that kid. It’s hard to get a teenager’s room correct. You either want to put things in the right place, which is not correct. Then there are clearance issues, and you have to navigate rights to posters and other images that can be hung up in someone’s room.
We hired a graphic designer for her walls. Different people put together collages on her wall. We ended up with 12 Monkeys as the movie poster. We had a sort of cone bra on her wall as an homage to Madonna. Clearance issues hurt every teenager set. If you are just doing a one-off set, you may never generate enough content to fill the walls.
One of the elements I loved about creating this room was the collaborative process. Liz the show runner came in, and a lot of other people would post stuff on the walls in the teenagers’ rooms
AD: I have talked to a couple folks who have worked on the show, and it seems collaboration was a key element. What did that do to enhance your experience?
JK: This was the first time I worked on a show where all the producers were women. I worked on Shondaland shows, and that was incredible but this took it to a whole new level. I think, because this was a show built entirely from the perspective of smart thoughtful women, it made the set and my work product special.
Reese got all my boards that we shot. Kerry walked the sets before they filmed because her apartment was always changing. The artwork over her bed was a project she had actually worked on. Kerry also wanted something interesting to look at for the design in her apartment but also did not want the apartment to look fully lived in. We tried postcards, but that did not work. They ended up using strips of photos she developed.
When I went into the interview and was talking about Pearl’s room, I found this reference of paint chips that used an ombre style and talked about that in the interview. When I read the next pass of the script, Liz wrote that into the script, and that was symbolic of how the show went. When you had an idea you always had an open audience. They were always of the belief that more specific input makes the show better. I truly believe this is how people really behave with each other, so it was nice to see this in the workplace. It’s the first time I felt I read female characters respond to things in the way they really do. When I watched that first episode in the ice cream truck and you remember what it feels like to fall in love for the first time.
AD: What are you most proud of with this project?
JK: Right now, being able to work on a show that has something to say, is poignant, talks about race, and class means a lot. I am proud of all of my designs, but for this show made by women it’s so important. Entertainment that has a point is exciting.