If you ever feel homesick, Netflix’s Golden Globe and Emmy-nominated original series Grace and Frankie may be one of the quickest shortcuts to feeling right at home. Featuring an excellent ensemble of actors with strong chemistry, the series’ portrayal of a warm, lived-in world is supported by the work of production designer Devorah Herbert, who incorporates articles from real life—and her own life—to give the series a certain texture and authenticity.
In production on Season 4 of the series, Herbert found that one of the greatest challenges of Season 3 came in relation to character developments, as Robert and Sol moved into a new home, which had to be designed entirely from scratch. Speaking with Deadline, Herbert details the work that goes into designing a major set piece at the start of a new season, and the process of curating art for use in television.
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Looking back from your current standpoint, what was it that initially drew you to Grace and Frankie?
What drew me to the project initially was how amazing the script is, and how amazing the characters are. The characters are so real, and so well drawn, and actually, remind me a lot of my own life. It’s a story about odd couples—Grace and Robert are this sort of uptight, waspy couple, and Frankie and Sol are this sort of neurotic, but more organic and earthy, eccentric Jewish couple.
My mother is an eccentric Jewish artist, and my dad is a WASP, so I related to it on a personal level right away, and the other thing—I had never worked on a comedy before working on Grace and Frankie, so that was really exciting.
What were the biggest challenges for you, with major new character developments this season?
I think the single biggest thing, as a production designer, is that we built Robert and Sol’s new house. We had two main, permanent sets for the first two seasons, and now finally by Season 3, Robert and Sol have gotten married.
In Seasons 1 and 2, they were living in what used to be Robert and Grace’s house, which was designed to emphasize the coldness—the chill at the heart of their marriage—and now we’ve got these two men who are free to really be themselves for the first time, so they buy a new house.
We got to build the house, which is emblematic of their relationship, of their freedom, of coming out of the closet, and it was meant to be—and I think it is—a real sanctuary for them, and lives completely opposite to the other permanent sets.
Building the house was the biggest thing, and then I would say another couple of big things that happened were that Grace gets a new love interest, and there’s a big sex scene, and we built her bedroom, so that was the other big set that we built for Season 3.
What does the process entail when you’re looking to design an entirely new set piece of this scale as you head into a new season?
The starting point for me is always the characters, and in this case, we have two characters who are very different from one another, but they’re doing their lives for the first time. We have Robert, who is more of a traditionalist, and Sol, who is more earthy, organic, and more eccentric.
We decided that the house should marry two different architectural styles at the same time. Interestingly, sometimes we’ll start with a house by finding a location, and then design a house to fit an actual location. In this case, we didn’t have a location when we started building the house, so we designed the house first, and found the location second.
What we decided was that we would use the bones of a traditional Spanish Colonial, which is very emblematic of Southern California; also, traditional, like Robert is. Then, we decided that the house would’ve been remodeled completely, almost like a metaphor for how they remodeled their own lives.
What I did first was I imagined the house as it originally was, in its original state, and then brought in contemporary elements, and tried to merge them harmoniously, kind of like these two guys merging their lives together.
The other thing we wanted to do is, we wanted to make sure it was really warm, and we wanted to show both of their personalities, but show them blended in a way that when you look at the set, it all feels harmonious.
How do you go about curating art for a television series? When we see Frankie’s gallery this season, for example, where does the art on display come from?
I feel like sourcing art is incredibly important, especially when you’re designing people’s homes, and especially when you’re dealing with a character like Frankie, who is herself an artist. You want the art to be incredibly specific, and not go to a prop house and rent art, for example.
For Frankie’s art, in Season 1, we had three different artists who we incorporated their work into Frankie’s studio, one of whom actually was my mother, who used to do semi-pornographic art in the ‘70s. There’s a print of hers hanging in Frankie’s studio, with women with their legs spread. That was really fun, bringing my personal life into the set.
What actually emerged was there’s a woman named Nancy Rosen, who’s an incredible artist from Chicago, and as the seasons progress, her particular style—which has really rich colors, and a lot of pattern, and is really expressive—wound up becoming the voice of Frankie, as an artist.
I remember when we commissioned her to do a family portrait of Frankie and Sol and Bud and Coyote, and everybody fell in love with it. From that moment on, Nancy Rosen has been the voice of Frankie as an artist, to the extent that when we designed her studio, I asked her to send not only her actual original work, which is what’s in the studio but also her paint brushes, and her used palettes and her pastels. Her real art supplies are in that studio, making it feel real.
I feel like when you make a strong choice like that and everybody responds to it, what’s cool is that then, the story kind of gravitates towards the art and the design. Her art became such an essential part of Frankie’s character that by Season 3, we had an art show featuring her work, big five-foot, seven-foot pieces. That was pretty cool.
Do you find that there’s been a collaborative process between you and the actors on this series?
Absolutely. At the beginning of every season, I talk to them and say, “Hey, we’re designing the following sets; is there anything in particular that you’d like to see?” Jane has suggested certain books that she’d like to see on her bedside table, and her character likes to wear scarves, so in her bedroom, she wanted to see a special place for her scarves that she likes to wear. Things like that.
Grace and Frankie is quite frank in its depiction of sexuality. How did you go about designing the vibrator around which Grace and Frankie are building a business and the marketing materials for Vybrant?
It’s kind of a long story, but I remember at my first interview, I came in and had a great interview, and then afterwards the producer called me. This is right before Season 1, and he said, “We all really like you, but the showrunner’s not sure if you’re funny enough. Do you think you can come back in for another meeting and be funnier?” I was like, “Oh my God. I’ve never had that question before, and never worked on a comedy before. What am I going to do?” I came back in and I was like, “I don’t know if I can be funny, but I can certainly have funny design ideas.”
Drawing from my childhood, where my mom made this explicit sexual art, I came in with this idea that because Frankie is so free and loose—and she has boundary issues—that it would be really funny if she made sexual art, like vagina prints and penis pottery. That got a huge laugh, so we wound up commissioning this penis pottery, and it became a central piece of the show.
I like to think that the story evolved with that—that’s a real expression of Frankie’s sexuality, and then in Season 2, the writers kind of took that, and what started with penis pottery became yam lube in Season 2. And then in Season 3, it became Grace and Frankie together, inventing this vibrator.
We designed all the packaging and marketing for it, and it was really exciting because actually with the yam lube, Gwyneth Paltrow has this website, Goop, and somehow they got wind of it, and wound up doing a whole article on Goop about yam lube, showing the packaging.
We had two awesome graphic designers who designed the packaging, and my goal with that package was to have something that was really sophisticated and beautiful, that you want to look at, but was also clearly vaginal. We went through like ten different iterations before we came to that watercolor vagina that’s on the front of the box, that’s become iconic now, and we liked it so much that we started with it in the yam lube, and we carried that same design over into the Vybrant packaging.
Actually, our prop master, Emily Ferry, designed the vibrator itself, so it was a little team effort—an “orgy of design.” [laughs]
Later in the season, you have homophobic protesters congregating outside the theater where Robert is performing. What was it like, having to design all those posters and enter that kind of territory?
Again, that’s a really personal issue for me. My sister’s gay, and she came out in the ‘80s—it was a really tough time to come out, and I remember what that was like. I really related to these characters coming out of the closet, especially men in their seventies now coming out for the first time.
It’s an interesting balance that we need to strike because we want it to be funny—we want to laugh at the protest signs—and at the same time, we want it to be real, and feel what these guys are going through. It’s a serious, real issue today, even though it’s sad to say that coming out is still an issue in 2017. But it is.
What went into designing Coyote’s tiny house? Tiny houses have become a major trend and point of interest in reality television these days.
That’s another funny story. The bones of the tiny house actually belong to the cinematographer, [Gale Tattersall]—the cinematographer happened to have just purchased a tiny house. I think he got it in Colorado, and we got it brought all the way out to our set, and we got to live with it for weeks while we designed it.
With Coyote, he’s a really warm character. When the tiny house came to us, it was just a white box on the inside, so we went to a used lumberyard and I found some old, distressed wood, and we build the kitchen cabinetry from that. The set decorator, Christopher Carlson, found some beautiful, old Navajo blankets, and we made the cushions for the couch bed out of those, to make everything really personal.
It’s something I really like to do on the show—to make everything as personal as possible by using real materials, and things from people’s real lives. I feel like it really translates.
Going back to Robert and Sol’s house, every single thing in Robert and Sol’s house is real. It’s a real wood floor; the tiles in the kitchen were from Managua, Nicaragua, and we handcrafted the doors, and carved them, and stained them ourselves. I think that authenticity in the materials translates into authenticity in the characters.
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