When you’re adding gorgeous interior shots from movies and TV shows to your Pinterest board, you might not think about how quickly the set designers, set dressers and prop masters have to pull together a fully realized vision of the character’s home – or how affordably they might have to do it. But making a set look sumptuous, lived-in and enviable is just another day on the job for a production’s art department. Catherine Miller, the prop master behind (most recently) Uncut Gems and Russian Doll, created two totally believable, visually stimulating versions of N.Y.C., and she did it all from scratch – that means procuring or purchasing existing props or commissioning the perfect props called for by the script if they don’t already exist.
Since we find ourselves paralyzed in the aisles of Home Goods, let alone on the Internet, when trying to decorate our homes, we asked her some of our most pressing questions about adding “props” in our own lives. She sent back her best advice (which we illustrated with a little help from the fabulously chaotic interiors of Russian Doll).
What is the single cheapest décor change anyone can manage?
When it comes to décor, small simple details can refresh any look- and it doesn’t have to cost much. There are wonderful artist-made accessories like a colorful throw pillow on a couch or a photo of geometric patterns framed on a wall that can be affordable but add renewed life to any room.
What’s the single easiest décor addition, for someone who doesn’t have necessarily a great “eye”?
Vintage! Go for a great vintage piece, whether it is for your home or attire, to add immediate depth to any look. For us in the industry we love to source vintage items that have stood the test of time and carry the spirit of the years with them. And actors are immediately drawn to a great vintage piece that has built-in character. Nothing feels more “right” than a perfectly broken in leather briefcase or a vintage Omega [watch] from the 1960s. For Uncut Gems we sourced many “hero bag” options that were fancy and new, but we also found on Etsy a beautiful vintage Louis Vuitton Montsouris backpack. When the directors Josh and Benny Safdie saw it they immediately said “Yes!”
What are the best ways to cut through the clutter on a giant site like Etsy? What searches do you particularly like?
Be specific. One trick I’ve learned through my years of sourcing props from sites like Etsy is be as specific as you can in describing the item you want. For example: 1920s blue glass vintage ball jars with lids. Once you can narrow down the parameters of what you are looking for, let Etsy do the leg work for you. There is always a great selection and you can hone in on the items you are drawn to most. I also love checking in with specific shops on Etsy, especially artists that I have purchased from before. I periodically go back to their pages and see all the new items they have up.
What’s your favorite affordable find on any of your sets?
Hands down the Nesting Doll for Russian Doll [below] was one of my favorite Etsy finds. We searched high and low for the perfect nesting doll to be the namesake of the series and represent the many time loops Nadia was experiencing. We found a brilliant artist on Etsy that made nesting dolls and we contacted her. We requested from her a customized design for the Doll. She was very excited to work with us and the result was perfect. The doll was featured in the series when Nadia opened each layer till she found the core piece.
What’s a design mistake you see many people making that you just wish you could fix?
Falling into the trap of buying super trendy items that won’t stand the test of time. Trends come and go but classic pieces that express who you are will always be in style. Add updated expression with accents items but keep the big stuff “you.”
What show do you get the most feedback on?
Russian Doll has been a huge hit and the feedback has been wonderful. The show had a hip Lower East Side Vibe created by Production Designer Michael Bricker. Led by his design we seamlessly meshed old and new, cheap and expensive to represent a truly authentic world.
What’s your single takeaway tip from that set?
Be authentic. Trends will come and go but who you are will never change. Your style can be updated but always stay true to yourself. You can express yourself with simple small details that don’t have to break the bank; find artists whose work you are drawn to and who align with your personal sense of style and keep them on your radar.
How can people reconcile the trend to purge everything with the desire to make a space feel personal?
Always remember who you are. If the crooked clay pot that you made in Pottery 101 reminds you of where you started from and how far you’ve come, then it is important to you and no prescribed doctrine of purging should convince you otherwise. But conversely, if you have a junk drawer that you haven’t looked in for years then probably best to edit things you don’t have a connection to. Freeing up space allows room for continued self-expression.