Ask the Designer: An Interview with Derek McLane

Even if you don’t know Derek McLane yet, you are likely to be familiar with his work. The Tony and Emmy Award winning set designer has designed the stage for the Academy Awards for the last five years. When his opulent and breathtaking designs aren’t setting the scene for one of the biggest nights in Hollywood, they are the backdrop for a laundry list of top productions on Broadway—Sound of Music, Peter Pan and Hairspray, just to name just a few. Here, we caught up with the world-renowned designer in New York to talk about his creative process, career advice and, of course, his favourite Farrow & Ball paint colour.

The Chromologist: When you see a space for the first time, what’s the first thing you do to begin the design process and get inspired?

Derek McLane: Sometimes when I start designing a show, I don’t know what space it’s going to be in, so it’s not necessarily a reaction to the space. It really starts with the story.  The very first step is reading the play, understanding the story and having conversations with the Director. Then I do a bunch of really rough sketches, practically one step above napkin sketches. I might share those with the Director or do a more finished sketch, but then I always do a full-scale model. I have a studio on West 38th Street in New York, and I have some great associate designers working there. We usually build a series of models, and that’s ultimately where we work out the design.

McLane’s set design for the 2014 Academy Awards with host, Ellen Degeneres.

The Chromologist: We love colour and the way it can bring a space to life. How does colour effect the overall design of the sets that you create?

Derek McLane: It depends a lot on the mood of the piece, but it’s not just the mood, it also has to do with the story that’s being told.  There are certain colours that are very specific, but there are also other colours that are much more neutral and open-ended. The most open-ended colour idea is white, and sometimes that’s right, depending on the story and what it needs to do. Sometimes you need a space that really lets the imagination wander, and lets different people project their own ideas onto it.

Other times you want a very, very strong colour idea. To me the strongest colours, that are most specific, are red and green. Then there are other productions that mix lots of different colours, and those tend to be more challenging. As you know, the minute you begin to mix a lot of different colours together it can be more tricky.

The Chromologist: Right, the more colours you mix, it can take the attention away from the inhabitants of the space. That’s one of the reasons your work is so great. You create these spaces that are so beautiful but don’t outshine the performer.

Derek McLane: That’s the thing. What I do is create a space where we are primarily watching the performer or the actor. Which is not to say that you don’t want the design to make a statement, you do, but you need to be able to watch the performance.  It’s one of the reasons why, if I’m doing artwork, I never put people in it. The people need to be the live actors on stage.

The Chromologist: When we talk about colour in a space, we talk a lot about how different lighting situations can completely change the perception of the colour.  Do you play with colour and lighting within your set designs?

Derek McLane: Very much so. It’s interesting that you bring that up because we don’t have daylight on stage. You can simulate daylight, but stage lighting in its natural form tends to be warm.  You definitely need to have a conversation about that because the warmth of tungsten light can completely deaden any kind of cool colours. It turns a green or a blue into mud instantly. It can even turn a red into orange.

McLane’s set design for Two Gentlemen of Verona

The Chromologist: Was there a time when you thought the colouring of a set was going to turn out one way, but the lighting completely changed the outcome?

Derek McLane: I once did a set that was all red, and it was so tricky. The first few days with lighting it just turned orange.  We ended up having to repaint it because it needed so much more blue in it, but we didn’t want it to be purple. Finding that exact pigment of red was incredibly difficult. We tried all these different paints and couldn’t find one that was saturated enough. Finally, the shop that was doing the painting was so frustrated that they said, “How did you do it in your model?” I told them I used an artist paint that comes in tiny, little tubes, so they drove around New York and bought every tube of the paint they could find to re-paint the floor!

The Chromologist:  Do you have a favourite Farrow & Ball paint colour?

Derek McLane: Yes, I love Drawing Room Blue and have it in my home. I’m also thinking about doing another room in Pitch Blue.

The Chromologist: What was your first big job or “I’ve made it” moment in your career?

Derek McLane: There have been so many in my career. As you know, you reach one plateau, which lasts for a certain amount of time, until you set your sights on new things. I was working at the Letterman show a long time ago, back when it was on NBC. And I loved him and I loved all the people there, but it wasn’t the most satisfying design job in the world. But, I didn’t really have any great theatre jobs, I was designing these little theatre jobs, but they couldn’t fully execute my designs, so I wasn’t totally being a designer in the theatre. Someone then called me and offered me a job designing The Importance of Being Earnest at Center Stage in Baltimore. It was a full production and a full shop, where they would build my design. It was a whole other level of work for me, and I had to quit the job at Letterman to do it. It was such a big deal for me at the time because it was the first time I was hired to design something where they were really going to build and fully execute my designs. That was a huge step for me. That was major, even though it doesn’t sound like anything now compared to the things I have done since, but at the time, I was like “Holy cow. I have to really think like the designer on this.”

I guess I felt the same way about my first Broadway show. By the time that happened, I had done many things where I was the designer, but I was more about crossing the threshold of designing a Broadway musical. Certainly, winning a Tony Award was a major thing too. Then, being asked to design the Oscars, I was like “I can’t believe I’m going to be designing this thing that I’ve been watching all my life”. The pure opportunity of this was so thrilling to me. Designing something like the Oscars, you know for sure must of your friends are going to end up seeing it, and that’s kind of a big deal, and adds a huge level of anxiety and pressure, which makes you feel like you really have to deliver. It was a huge moment because my work was moving from industry awareness to mainstream.

McLane’s set for the 2016 Academy Awards

The Chromologist:  Do you have advice for aspiring set designers?

Derek McLane: The hardest thing when you’re getting started, besides finding a job at all, is the little jobs that you tend to get offered at first. It’s very difficult to have an impact and to have a real design idea and execute it. You have to balance if a job is important versus if you can actually achieve something there. There may be other reasons to do the job, like for the relationships. The key to making the leap to designer is finding a way to create an idea that is visible and works in those low budget situations. That requires some really creative thinking about how to overcome those obstacles.

The Chromologist: What is on the horizon for you?

Derek McLane: Well, I’ve just been asked to do two really big musicals over the next few years that I’m really, really excited about, but I can’t tell you the names. They both are big and wonderful – knock on wood! I’m also doing a production called “Children of a Lesser God” which will be on Broadway in the Autumn.



The Chromologist

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The Chromologist is a colour whisperer. He understands and knows them better than they know themselves, translating their pleas to be used beautifully for humankind. It's unknown from whence he came. Some say the fraction of space between a prism and a spectrum, others say he toiled in the fabled colour mines of Svalbard for years untold, deep underground, speaking only to the reds and blues, cerises and aquas, bronze and golds...


The Chromologist 2017 | Farrow & Ball

The Chromologist