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“This Is Us” – A Discussion With Set Decorator Beth Wooke

By: Marjorie Galas

It’s hard to believe that “This Is Us” was once a pilot searching for a future.  The trails of the Pearson family displayed at upfronts and in a YouTube promo trailer were quickly embraced by thousands.  Set decorator Beth Wooke was amongt the pilot’s early fans.  The idea of working on the show captivated her.

As luck would have it, Wooke’s longtime leadman Mark Rodriquez had worked on the pilot with production designer Dan Bishop (an Emmy nominee for his work on “Mad Men”, where Rodriquez had originally met Bishop.)  When the the show was picked up for series, Rodriquez reached out to Bishop who informed him neither he nor set decorator Dianna Freas were returning.  Gary Frutkoff was secured to replace Bishop.  Wooke’s buyer Jill Carvalho, who had worked with Frutkoff on “Grumpier Old Men” reached out to the series pitched Wooke. At this point, Wooke’s lobbying for the job began.

“I reached out to Gary,” said Wooke.  “I was lucky.”

Once hired, Wooke was happy to be reunited with Rodriquez and Carvalho, two crucial members of her team.  Working with trusted colleagues added to the overall sense of a homecoming Wooke experienced on the set.  Her roots, like the characters in “This in Us,” were established in Pittsburgh.  Her research phase began with her own history: Wooke mined images from family scrap books and photo albums.  While “This is Us” travels back and forth in time, she started with the 80s and the origins of the Pearson siblings.   In addition to looking through period publications, such as 80s Architectural Digest magazine editions, Wooke also set up a Facebook page where she encouraged friends and associates to upload their family and Pittsburgh pics.  Before searching for and purchasing any material, Wooke met with Frutkoff to discuss color palettes and the production’s look.  They reviewed what was established in the pilot and tried to match structural elements, such as windows.  Outside of basic layouts, they had plenty of latitude to create their own aesthetic for the series

“We had no specific rule to follow: pilots never fully match the series,” said Wooke.  “We tried to match (certain elements) but we were not pressured.”

The house where the siblings grew up would be a grounding feature in the series.  Noting the frequent time shifts explored in the series, Frutkoff and Wooke discussed the evolution of each room’s interior.  Wooke focused on finding furnishings and house-hold elements that represented Jack and Rebecca’s (Mandy Moore) economic standing.  Her goal was to create an aesthetic that embodied the young couple just starting out with a family, particularly with Jack’s construction job salary.  Once Jack (Milo Ventimiglia) is promoted in the early 90s and remodels the house, Wooke introduced an “Ethan Allen” aesthetic that Rebecca’s visual sense would be attracted to – classic American- made furniture and matching sets that fit their salary increase while raising three children.

“We see in the 80s they are so overwhelmed with the triplets.  Nothing they own is so over-matched.  They have an 82 couch with other furniture from 85,” said Wooke.  “The piano remains the same.  We were able to find a matching piano at Hollywood Piano Company because you always want an extra.  The piano has to have legs to get it to 2017. ”

Wooke particularly focused on building the personalities and the character within all the interiors depicted in “This is Us.”  Everything was explored, down to the nooks and crannies of the bathrooms and layers of objects in the kitchens.  Noting the community pride towards the Pittsburgh Steelers Super Bowl win in the 80s, she incorporated the team’s black and gold colors into the set.  As different time periods were featured, Wooke determined what objects would carry through the years in Jack and Rebecca’s house, such as an owl napkin holder.

“They kept it just because they liked it,” said Wooke.  “This also helps the actors remember. These items have memory to them.”

Because the audience gets to observe the Pearson siblings from the beginning of their lives to adulthood, Wooke was able to introduce aspects of their adult personalities into their childhood bedrooms.   Sport paraphernalia and comics helped highlight the competition between Randall (Sterling K. Brown) and Kevin (Justin Hartley).   Wooke introduced super villains and sports images into Kevin’s room, as well as elements of “The Princess Bride” – the movie that inspired Kevin to become an actor – into his bedroom.  His room always had the feeling of an “open box” with books and toys unkempt.  This was a big contrast to Randall whose tendency to be a control freak are exhibited in his childhood room: his bed is always made, his toys are lined up in rows and his book shelf is always neat.  Wooke enjoyed conceiving Kate’s cute, feminine bedroom.  After the writers suggest Kate (Chrissy Metz) would be a big “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” fan, Wooke  was able to the use the poster, and it was written into the script.

Some means of illustrating personality within the set are so subtle, they’d take an extremely critical eye to discover.  To further illustrate Kevin’s competitive nature, she had his name spelled out on the refrigerator with alphabetic letters. These detailed elements transcend any color palette, but are necessary to highlight each characters’ nature.

During the pre-production process for each episode, Wooke works with the production and art department team to create an outline of each shots needs.  She has a photographic journal for each set, as well as a folder for each character.   These detailed files help Wooke and her team maintain continuity – a crucial factor as the set can flip between several time periods in one episode.  As the actors have grown within the skin of their characters, they sometimes share ideas for set decoration that is first reviewed by the episode’s director, then discussed with Wooke.

While there are no sets that were particularly more challenging than others, there were a few finds Wooke took particular glee in securing.  Growing up, she recalled Pittsburgh Magazine was always on her family’s coffee table.  She reached out to the publisher to clear the use of one issue.  They not only cleared the use of the issue, they sent a box of ten years-worth of issues she could use.  Another major coupe was the Pearson’s kitchen table.

“I had an idea for the kitchen table.  I was able to match it exactly to my aunts, finding chairs from 1983,” said Wooke.

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