A few weeks ago, I got the chance to chat with Emmy Award-winning Production Designer, James Pearse Connelly. When he sees that title he’ll probably blush because he is just that humble of a guy. His journey to Hollywood started in northern New Jersey where he grew up having his mother as an art teacher, which sparked his creative interest, particularly in architecture, at an early age. For college, he attended Rutgers and earned a BFA in theatre set design. He graduated in 2002, right after the events of 9/11 when New York’s economy was struggling, so he packed his bags and gave the West Coast a try. He ended up getting a job in San Diego at the San Diego Repertory Theatre where he worked as buyer for The Globe prop master. While in San Diego, he attended a wedding where he had a conversation with someone who insisted that he try out Los Angeles. Since reality shows were so popular in the early 2000s, moving to the hub of them only made since, so that’s exactly what he did. He used the skills he learned in college to build his way up in the industry while working extremely hard, which is something he is a huge proponent for. He ended up running the shows “Lopez Tonight” and everyone’s old favorite, “America’s Best Dance Crew.” In 2009, his persistence and tenacity paid off and he won an Emmy for his work as Art Director for the 2008 MTV Music Video Awards. He has also received seven Emmy nominations in total, yet he still ponders what the measure of success is. However, I think it’s safe to say that he’s been pretty successful so far.
His latest ventures include production design for “Martha and Snoop’s Potluck Dinner Party” and spearheading the design team for the upcoming Netflix series “Bill Nye Saves the World”…Bill! Bill! Bill! Clearly he has met some icons through his work. One of the steps in production design for “Potluck Dinner Party” was to meet with Martha and Snoop Dogg to get a feel for what they wanted their kitchens to look and feel like. For those who haven’t watched yet, the show is a cooking, talk and game show all wrapped up into one. The set consists of two different kitchens, one for each of the personalities, and also a dining space that doubles as a stage at the end of the show for musical guests. James says that Snoop was laid back and wanted his kitchen to match his casual vibe and to feel like home. Snoop offered up that he loves his Chevy Impala, which was incorporated into the design. James describes Martha as being a pleasure to work with, a very smart and gracious woman. She had more specific guidelines for him when it came to the design of her kitchen. She requested specific wallpaper, cabinetry, counter tops and wanted the overall style to mid-century modern. James’s most memorable moment from working on the show was when the set was revealed to Martha and Snoop for the first time. All of the executives and producers of the show were present and it was a big moment. Martha arrived first and loved it; from her reaction he could tell that they had hit a home run. Then Snoop arrived and loved it just as much as Martha did. He was extremely complimentary and even called James up on stage and gave him a huge hug to thank him. If you want to see some of his other work from shows like “The Voice” and “Top Chef,” check out James’s website.
Remembering what it was like to be in college and dealing with small living spaces, James shared some of his design tips with me. Some of his go-to spots for furniture include West Elm, CB2, Ikea and Amazon. His suggestion is to start off with getting your basics, then adding conversation pieces that will really make your space feel personal and interesting. Flea markets are good places to search for those conversation pieces for more affordable prices and to gather inspiration. Something he stressed was to always get floor-to-ceiling drapes. Dressing your windows will completely change the space you’re working with, no matter its dimensions. Purchasing a nice lamp is also always a good idea since the eye is attracted to light. Also, separating the room into two different spaces, one for living and one for sleeping, will help the space feel larger. Lastly, light colors as opposed to dark ones is another way to expand the feel of a room.
For all of you design majors here at Florida State, James says that there is no prescribed way to obtain his job. His advice is to never stop working and to put yourself in the position where you want to be. Don’t shy away from the small tasks, such as a coffee run or holding a door for someone. You never know what can come from simply being in the right place at the right time. Overall, show up and work hard.