Allow me to paint you a picture of my experience binge-watching Netflix's Dead to Me. There's a dark scene that has me stressed out about Judy and Jen's webs of deceit. I'm so scared my heroines will be found out and even more concerned about the emotional trauma they're putting themselves through to keep their many secrets. Then, just when I think I will burst with worry, I catch a glimpse of a sleek white bedspread or a pristine marble kitchen island and think, damn, I'd really like to live in Jen and Judy's world.
The aspirational aesthetic of every set in Dead to Me is very much intentional, according to the show's set decorator Brandi Kalish. The luxe decor and bright color palette serve as an important juxtaposition to some of the more bleak storylines, and they cut through the tension of the show just as effectively as the characters' hilarious one-liners.
Kalish has been working in the design sector of the entertainment industry for 20 years and has even been nominated for an Emmy for her work on Silicon Valley. She also co-owns Studio Arts, a contemporary art gallery specializing in art, furniture, and decor rentals for the Motion Picture Industry. Kalish spoke to Refinery29 about how she along with season 2's production designer L.J. Houdyshell and the all-female art department achieved the enviable look of the show, whose second season is streaming now.
Refinery29: Can you tell us about the approach you took with the decor of Jen's house?
Brandi Kalish: Jen's character is a real estate agent, she lives in Laguna Hills, and she is very uptight and kind of a neurotic character, so she's exposed to really high-end decor. When I first got the script, season 1's production designer, Richard Toyon, and I went down to Laguna Beach and went to open houses and spent a lot of time down in that area soaking in what people's houses look like. We even went on Zillow and Redfin and did a lot of research on beach houses.
Jen's character is, like I said, kind of neurotic so everything's perfect in her house, and it's super bright. We were really inspired by the ocean and sand colors and water colors. The main painting in the house is from Sheila Olsen and that is a focal point, almost like the ocean. The exterior of the house is in Sherman Oaks, but we built the interior on a sound stage.
Did the sets change at all between seasons 1 and 2?
A set is like a character. And, as a family lives in a house and they go through all their trials and tribulations, different layers of the characters will speak in the house. So we thought about what Jen is going through and what items would be Judy's and Jen's sons and things like that and add those layers inside the house. But we also have to keep the continuity of the house — like I said, it's similar to a character. So basically it has to look the same, but it has to evolve over time.
Were there any interior design trends that you decided to incorporate into the sets?
In Jen's house, as I mentioned, we went through a bunch of reference photos, looked on Zillow, and went down to Laguna Beach and also thought about financially what Jen would have, what age she is, her being a mom, and all that stuff. We landed on using really bright lights and the contrast of different lighting. I used Lamps Plus chandeliers and some of their shapes are very modern Gothic. For instance, the one above the dining room table, my thought process with that was like, okay, the show's called Dead to Me. It's very modern and bright and Laguna Beach, but there's a darker thing going on here in the stories. So that was my thought process on some of those lights, like the one above the breakfast nook and the one above the dining room table.
Do you have a favorite aspect of Jen's home?
I loved the entire set but we really took a lot of care in putting the art into it. That was really important. For instance, the blue painting. Again, that was something that was evoking the ocean, and it's contemporary but still sort of sinister. It makes you think, what is that? Is that the ocean? Is that the sky? You sort of can't take your eyes off of it.
Also just the kitchen in general. They spend a lot of time in the kitchen and everything is just perfect. It's just so, but in an eerie way. A lot of fans reach out to me and say, "Hey, I haven't been inspired in forever to redo my kitchen, and as soon as I saw Dead to Me, I thought this is exactly the way I want my kitchen to look." Like literally hundreds of people... So it's been really cool. I've never had a response like that.
Since Jen is a real estate agent, how did you go about decorating the different homes she shows throughout the series?
We were really mindful that they had to be aspirational and had to be something that a real estate agent would be selling in Laguna Beach. There are a lot of different styles down there, but mostly it's a very clean, modern aesthetic with the beachy colors. Like I mentioned, the sand and beiges and the bright lights, a lot of white marble. Then the blues, every beautiful color of the ocean on pillows or paintings or different fabrics, but also a lot of white space.
What approach did you take in decorating the retirement home where Judy works?
Our thought process was that this is a place that someone in Laguna Beach would be able to afford and would want to send their parents. So we did a lot of research on high-end retirement homes and all the different things that they offer. In those kinds of places, they provide arts and crafts and a computer area and they have a certain kind of chandelier in the ceiling. Again, they're aspirational. We went down to Laguna and looked at a lot of different places and we also built that set on a soundstage. That was definitely one of the most fun sets because the color palette was very sunset-y, beachy looking, and Judy got to teach her painting classes there.
What was the biggest challenge you faced decorating the sets?
It's a challenge but it's also one of the parts of my job that's really fun and that's just staying true to the script, what Liz Feldman was trying to say with the characters and each location is such a character as well. We really wanted to stay true to the aspirational-ness of the show and keep the look of Laguna Beach at all costs. If you go down to Laguna Beach, it's pretty aspirational. Everything is just so, and with her being a real estate agent, she has to portray a certain look to her clients and everybody so everything has to be perfect. Everything has to be clean as if her house would be sold too. Like I said, it's one of the things that makes it fun. Every location and script and show is a different challenge.