The Beauty of Ugly Betty
ABC's runaway hit stars Emmy-worthy sets by Mark Worthington and Richard Devine
Bob Morris -- Interior Design, 11/1/2009 12:00:00 AM
The pilot script for Ugly Betty suggested that the New York office of the fictional fashion magazine Mode should look as futuristic as an iPod. Production designer Mark Worthington got it right away. He went into the job interview on a Friday and went back again on Monday with images of extreme offices in Japan, the U.K., and the Netherlands. After the presentation, Salma Hayek and Silvio Horta, two executive producers of the U.S. version of the popular Colombian telenovela, said, "Yes! Go!"
ABC decided to pick up the TV series on the strength of a pilot shot in makeshift Manhattan locations. Suddenly, Worthington had three and a half weeks to create a glossy New York world on a lot in Los Angeles. With inspiration from a book called The Other Office: Creative Workplace Design, he hired a crew of 115, rented furniture from prop houses and vintage stores, and made a few purchases. Presto, instant chic intentionally over-the-top enough to make Betty Suarez, a style-challenged Mexican-American girl from Queens, feel very uncomfortable.
Most TV production designers, who aim to reproduce reality rather than heighten it, know they're doing a good job when their work goes unnoticed. They worry about keeping it real and making dishes look dirty in the sink. On Ugly Betty, however, most characters have little more than bottles of vodka and jars of olives in the refrigerator.
"We don't have clients afraid of going too far with our design," Worthington says. "It's rare that a producer wants anything so extreme. But it's great for a designer when the set becomes a star of the show, and the actors say it helps them play their roles better." Vanessa Williams, who perfected a ludicrous Fashionese speaking style to portray Ugly Betty's evil editor in chief, Wilhelmina Slater, would certainly agree.
Worthington filled his sets with runway-white floors, circle motifs, playful lamps, and accent colors as bright as a bowl of Skittles. His references came from the outsize imaginations of Dorothy Draper, Helmut Newton, and Marcel Wanders. The first season, Worthington says, "We just had a lot of fun."
The fun stepped up when the show moved from L.A. to New York, with its inexhaustible shopping opportunities. Worthington, who was the original production designer of Lost but whose background is in the theater, hired TV commercial and music-video designer Richard Devine to replace the original set decorator, Archie D'Amico, and turn the city inside out and upside down for the best possible sources. Essential to the operation, Flos USA and Cassina USA creative director Pui Pui Li jumped to speed up deliveries from Flos and the Poltrona Frau Group, which includes Cassina and Cappellini. "It's great to have all these sources available," Devine says. "And the fact that we are working with so many different vendors is good for business in the city."
Along with Arne Jacobsen's Egg chairs and Verner Panton's Living Tower "landscape seating" came the life-size Horse lamp by Front and the Gun lamps by Philippe Starck—the perfect accessories for a ruthless editrix. "I am willing to bet it's the first time those lamps have been on TV," Worthington says with the wry smile of a kid getting away with something. He also used a 1950's Jantzen billboard as bachelor-pad wallpaper and a pair of giant brass ibex heads as a table base.
Devine shops everywhere from local antiques stores to the online sites of 1stdibs and eBay. "This job forces you to go to places you've never been before," he says. "Sometimes you really have to check your taste at the door." Maybe so, but the effect can be just as stunning as it is amusing.
As Worthington gives a tour of his 14,000-square-foot set, which rambles forever across a single level at Silvercup Studios in Long Island City, offices pop and apartments glisten. In one brightly lit space at the back, Williams is shooting a scene in murderously high Azzedine Alaïa heels. If she looks like a million dollars, then the set looks like a billion. The episode's director, John Fortenberry, smiles as he watches the action on camera. "Most sets are challenging," he says. "On this one, there's hardly a bad angle." Heading out, Devine can't help but smile, too.
"I keep telling Mark that our next job should be a Bond movie," he says.
"You never know," Worthington answers.
In the meantime, there are 11 more Ugly Betty episodes to design.
Photography by Eric Laignel.
FROM FRONT VITRA: LANDSCAPE SEATING (ART DEPARTMENT), LOUNGE CHAIRS (ENTRY), CHAIRS (CONFERENCE ROOM), GUEST CHAIRS (EDITOR'S ASSISTANT STATION). FRITZ HANSEN: CHAIRS (ART DEPARTMENT), DESK (COEDITOR'S OFFICE). POLTRONA FRAU: SWIVEL CHAIRS (ENTRY). KNOLL: TABLE. KIDROBOT: DOLLS (ENTRY, TUNNEL). ARTEMIDE: LAMPS (RECEPTION, ASSISTANT STATIONS, ASSOCIATE, MANAGING EDITORS' OFFICES). MASLAND: CUSTOM RUNNER (TUNNEL), CUSTOM RUGS (COEDITOR'S, MANAGING EDITOR'S OFFICES, DINING ROOM). SITLAND: TASK CHAIR (COEDITOR'S OFFICE). LUMINA: TASK LAMP. FLOS: TABLE, FLOOR LAMPS (COEDITOR'S OFFICE), LAMPS (KITCHEN, EDITOR'S OFFICE). THROUGH CRATE AND BARREL: TABLE (COEDITOR'S OFFICE). CASSINA: SOFAS, LOUNGE CHAIR (COEDITOR'S OFFICE), DESKS (ASSOCIATE OFFICE). IKEA: FILE CABINETS, CREDENZA (COEDITOR'S ASSISTANT STATION). HERMAN MILLER: TASK CHAIRS (ASSISTANTS' STATIONS, ASSOCIATE OFFICE). SHAW: CARPET (CONFERENCE ROOM), CUSTOM RUGS (EDITOR'S OFFICE). KARTELL: TABLE LAMP (EDITOR'S ASSISTANT STATION), SWIVEL CHAIRS (MANAGING EDITOR'S OFFICE). ALU: SHELVING (MANAGING EDITOR'S OFFICE). THROUGH JOHN KOCH ANTIQUES: TABLE, DESK (MANAGING EDITOR'S OFFICE), CHANDELIER, SCONCES (LIVING ROOM). McGUIRE FURNITURE COMPANY: CHAIRS (LIVING ROOM). ARTERIORS: LAMPS (LIVING, DINING ROOMS). HICKORY CHAIR: SOFA, WRITING TABLE (LIVING ROOM), CONSOLES (DINING ROOM). THROUGH Z GALLERIE: DESK ACCESSORIES (EDITOR'S OFFICE). OLD HICKORY TANNERY: HOOD CHAIRS (DINING ROOM). THROUGH METRO RETRO FURNITURE: SIDE CHAIRS. THROUGH ERA VINTAGE MODERN: TABLE BASE. SLAMP THROUGH YLIGHTING: CHANDELIER. DAZIAN: CURTAIN FABRIC. CAROLYN KINDER INTERNATIONAL THROUGH LIGHTINGUNIVERSE.COM: CHANDELIER (EDITOR'S OFFICE). THROUGH FAT CHANCE LOS ANGELES: DESK. HUMANSCALE CORPORATION: TASK CHAIR.