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The Emmy Award-winning set designer shares his creative process and best DIY style tips for the holidays.
Growing up on the Jersey Shore, James Pearse Connelly had no idea he would eventually become an Emmy Award-winning production designer—although given his artistic background, it isn't actually such a stretch. “My dad was an architect and my mom was an art teacher in public school,” says Connelly. “But at first I rebelled against all of that.”
In college, however, Connelly discovered he was most at home in the creative industry after all. “When I found my social group [while studying at Rutgers], it was with the theater backstage world. That’s where I really felt most comfortable. Set design is like architecture except it’s more artistic, moves faster and is more rewarding. I fell in love immediately with the medium.
Today, Connelly is an Emmy Award-winning set designer who has worked on several reality TV shows. We caught up with Connelly to chat about his latest set design projects, including Martha & Snoop’s Potluck Dinner Party and Top Chef Season 14, and his favorite style tips for the holidays.
What was the process like working on Martha & Snoop's Potluck Dinner Party and where did you get your inspiration for the set?
I came into the process a little late in the game and had to really kick into into 5th gear fast. I put pencil to paper immediately after the show called and it took about two days to turn out a cohesive design. I used inspiration tear sheets (often pulling things in the middle of the night), built a model in 3D and used fly-through animation. The set is really a character in the show. Martha and Snoop have their own residential dream kitchens, but they needed to fit together in one cohesive home.
For Martha, the feeling is not traditional Martha, it’s Martha Stewart mid-century modern. It has a very farm-to-table, fresh look, with open-shelving, mid-century modern furnishings, copper and white porcelain kitchen utensils.
Snoop’s kitchen is inspired by his favorite car, a 1964 Chevy Impala. I wanted to add some whimsical elements such as automotive chrome molding. There’s black glass pool tile, black carrara marble, purple vinyl cabinetry and open-shelving that shows off lots of different herbs and gold appliances.
What was the most challenging aspect of designing the set?
It was fun to develop each look, but the challenge was how do I make sure that these two separate kitchens feel cohesive? I wanted to make sure they have a soft line between them. To pull that together we used a gable roof with crown molding. The flooring is two tones of ash wood; they’re different tones of gray but it feels unified since it’s the same chevron parquet.
There’s also a big oak tree in the background, which brings the two kitchens together—it’s sort of the peaceful olive branch between the two.
The audience dines with them at the end of the show, so we had to think, “What does that look like? What furniture should we use?" We jumped off of Martha’s mid-century modern style with the white tulip table. There are chrome platinum wire chairs, so the finishes felt like Snoop but the silhouette, history and shape of the table feels like Martha.
You’ve also worked on Top Chef. What can you tell me about designing the set for Season 14?
For Top Chef, the challenge is designing an industrial commercial kitchen that supports the look of the city being celebrated each season. This season is all about Charleston, South Carolina. I visited several times and drove around the town, went to historical spots, local restaurants, and I was really fascinated with the architectural history of cooking in Charleston. Cookhouses were kept under the back of the house, often in sheds downstairs. I wanted to channel that downstairs, storage vibe. The Top Chef set has nuances of downstairs storerooms, with antique loading doors and exposed brick. The color palette also reflects Charleston historical architurecture—lots of sand-blasted brick and Charleston green with glossy white trim.
What tips do you have for getting your home holiday party-ready?
I live for this! In L.A. we celebrate Thanksgiving and Christmas right now since we’re pre-taping holiday shows. Forget the tree! I’m obsessed with garlands. Garlands for days! They should go around everything—windows, doors, decorate it like it’s a tree. Put two strands together and it feels thick and lush.
Everyone loves white lights, they’re classy. But red lights are the new white lights. Paired with the green garlands—nothing says holidays more than that.
Wrapping paper is also fantastic. I use it for table runners all the time. You can choose from a billion pattern selections and if you spill something on it, it’s not a big deal, you can just throw it out.
Any DIY tips to elevate the experience?
The greatest lesson I learned is from Martha—just keep it simple. A branch from your garden is an easy, simple centerpiece. I also love to buy random crap from flea markets. Pick up a Buddha, a book, anything and spray paint it all one color. That gives it a unified look and it’s so simple.