Ifind the backstories of the talented people with some of the most glamorous gigs in Hollywood, like celebrity makeup artists and distinguished jewelry designers, who work with and for the biggest A-list stars. Often times, these brilliant people are even more interesting than the celebrities they work under. They are chasing the dream just as aggressively as the famous faces we watch in movie theaters and on television screens. Brandi Kalish is one of those talented people. She is a set decorator who has worked on some incredibly popular TV shows; Dead to Me on Netflix and Silicon Valley on HBO. Every tiny detail, every prop and every set you see on those shows were designed by Kalish and her team.
Here’s her fascinating story of how she got there and what she does in a typical day on the soundstages and sets of the major studios.
ICONIC LIFE: How did you get your foot in the door where you are now one of the most sought out stage set designers in Hollywood?
Brandi Kalish: Believe it or not, in my last year of art school I was picked out of a crowd at a Korn concert. The band invited me backstage and I became dear friends with the band and the crew of the Family Values tour. A few months later, in NYC, Korn was set to perform at the Apollo Theatre, their manager Peter Katsis and the band turned to me and said: “Hey Brandi, you are in art school, here is a credit card with a $150,000 limit, can you make our stage look like a gothic cathedral?”
They left two phone books in the limo out back and told me to look under ‘P’ for ‘Prop house’. I went to eight prop houses, rented three gothic chandeliers and 20 Persian rugs plus a bunch of church kneelers—it was a hugely successful show. After that I was connected with Michael Whetstone at Whetstone Design, which is a creative firm that designed stages for major world tours. He then became my mentor, I had moved to LA at that point, and for the next several years I was working on multiple major world tours including Britney Spears, Backstreet Boys, etc.
I went to eight prop houses, rented three gothic chandeliers and 20 Persian rugs plus a bunch of church kneelers—it was a hugely successful show.
Those tours turned into set decorating for music videos, and from there it was commercials, TV shows, and the rest is history.
ICONIC LIFE: We see the finished product on TV, but I can only imagine how much work and time goes into it. For a show like Dead to Me or Silicon Valley, where do you begin? Do you meet with producers and directors and try to bring their vision to life or is a lot left up to you?
Brandi Kalish: When it comes to set decorating a TV show, it all starts with the details in the script and the characters. There are creative meetings with the show creator, production designer and directors to discuss potential looks, but ultimately, the details are usually left to a set decorator.
When I first start planning out a new set, I treat it as if it’s a character. I’ll go to various vendors and prop houses and find one thing that gets the ball rolling. From there, the ideas start to flow. Ultimately, a set decorator is sculpting a three dimensional environment.
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It’s a very detail-oriented and deliberative process. Every layer on a set—no matter how small—is just as important as the bones of the set itself.
ICONIC LIFE: The level of detail I find to be fascinating. Does everything we see on screen, even the cluttered desks of the characters working on Silicon Valley come from you and your team?
Brandi Kalish: Yes. On Silicon Valley my team and I sat at each individual desk and thought deeply about the details of that specific character.
For instance, we considered what that character drinks; is it green tea? Is it Red Bull? What kind of pen do they use and whether they were coders or if they worked in creative at Pied Piper. It’s a very detail-oriented and deliberative process. Every layer on a set—no matter how small—is just as important as the bones of the set itself.
ICONIC LIFE: Do you have to be really creative to stretch a budget? Is that part of the challenge?
Brandi Kalish: The budget absolutely has to be considered when choosing all the stage decorations for the set. I have an amazing team that helps me track every penny.
ICONIC LIFE: What is it like when you watch one of your shows on TV at home? Is it rewarding and relaxing? Or are you making sure you don’t see anything that is out of place?
Brandi Kalish: It is totally rewarding! But I do keep my eye out for certain things.
I know how hard my crew and I worked to create what’s on the screen, so it is amazing to see the finished product and share it with the viewers and fans.
ICONIC LIFE: Do you have much interaction with actors? For instance, on Dead to Me, do you spend any time with Christina Applegate trying to get into her mind as that character so you can bring it to the decor?
Brandi Kalish: I do have a lot of interactions with the cast. Christina and Linda Cardellini are so talented! When I open a new set, my crew and I are always there to make sure they feel comfortable with the environment we’ve created. It is so rewarding to see them walk into one of the sets and immediately be in a space that supports their character.
ICONIC LIFE: When you get a reputation for being good in your industry, does word travel fast and lead to other opportunities?
Brandi Kalish: Word travels very fast in Hollywood! My crew prides itself on being the best, but most importantly, having a positive attitude on set and being kind to everyone. When working on a project, we immerse ourselves in the creative process, learning everything we can about the story and the characters.
We called in our artist friends from Burning Man and rented elaborate tents, created custom art sculptures, built large rock stages, got a hundred plus Shiftpods, and a massive double Ferris wheel.
ICONIC LIFE: I think of the final episode of Silicon Valley and the level of detail that went into that whole final season with the use of holograms and all that was going on with the characters. How much time do you spend working on a season of a television series?
Brandi Kalish: A typical season is four to six months, but the time to do a given set varies tremendously. At the end of Silicon Valley, we did the episode “RussFest”, which included a set based on a 40,000 person music festival, and we had a week to pull it off. It was crazy fun! We called in our artist friends from Burning Man and rented elaborate tents, created custom art sculptures, built large rock stages, got a hundred plus Shiftpods, and a massive double Ferris wheel. The final season of Silicon Valley is a project I’ll never forget, I am endlessly at awe of what we all created together!
ICONIC LIFE: Can you see yourself working in movies and TV as long as you can, or could you get burned out from the pressure?
Brandi Kalish: I don’t see myself ever getting burned out because every day is so much fun, creative and I get to work with my art army of friends. I’m grateful to say I’ve landed my dream job.
ICONIC LIFE: Have you kept any stage set decorations? Have any of them found their way into your own house?
Brandi Kalish: A lot of the set dressing I choose comes from prop houses, which means we have to return it at the end of filming so other set decorators can build their future dream sets.
That said, I’ve seen so much amazing custom art that this year I opened a contemporary art rental gallery. It’s all hand-picked pieces from artists I’ve met over my twenty year career.
It’s called Studio Arts and I’m very excited to give my industry another source of amazing art and decor.
ICONIC LIFE: Do you have a dream gig for a set you would like to decorate?
Brandi Kalish: As far as a future project, I would love to decorate the Devil in the White City that Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio are producing. The story is so fascinating and dark.
Set was period set decorated like a steam punk train station that called for trained flying owls, wolves and coyotes and zombie horses. Literally every day is surprising and that is what I love most about being a set decorator.
ICONIC LIFE: You have to feel like you are part of the ‘magic’ of Hollywood, making these sets come to life. What do you think would surprise people about the behind the scenes?
Brandi Kalish: Working in Hollywood is super magical. There are too many examples to count, but I love the camaraderie that is on a set. Everyone works together for one goal and when it’s done you have all created something really incredible. Crazy things do happen all the time so every day is a new exciting adventure. A few years ago, I was filming down in Long Beach, the set was period set decorated like a steam punk train station that called for trained flying owls, wolves and coyotes and zombie horses. Literally every day is surprising and that is what I love most about being a set decorator.
Tom Zenner is a regular guest columnist for ICONIC LIFE as he interviews fascinating people from his glamorous, celebrity-filled world from his vantage point living in Los Angeles. We’ll profile those style makers and trendsetters right here.