For its 11th season, American Horror Story moved on from past locations—asylums, Area 51, even the White House—for a new site that brings a whole new kind of terror: New York. Home to over 8 million souls (including quite a few Chairishers, as a matter of fact), the city and its environs lend their unmistakable essence to the story told over AHS: NYC‘s ten episodes. It’s New York at a very particular time: the early 80’s, when the days of disco waned, the art scene was ablaze with creativity and excess, and a terrible plague was just on the horizon.
Recreating this very specific world was no easy feat, but the show’s pitch-perfect sets are a massive part of the series’ storytelling. Working to craft the scene was Christopher Kelley, assistant set decorator for the current season, who sourced far and wide—and often on Chairish, of course—to develop everything from downtown police stations to party palaces in the Pines. We spoke with Kelley about his process in working on the sets, his inspirations in pursuing his career, and the role that James Bond played in all of it. See what he had to say.
What inspired you to pursue set decorating?
I have always been in love with classic, chic design inspired by the 1950s and 60s—the films, the culture, the music—I love it all. I would make my own “home movies” growing up and would be more focused on the way it looked—the mise-en-scene—rather than the story or acting. Researching the history of classic Hollywood films and creating from that inspiration seemed like the logical next step.
Was there a particular film that resonated with you?
My dad showed me Goldfinger when I was maybe about four years old, and ever since then, I’ve been in absolute love with classic Hollywood design—particularly films designed by Ken Adam, one of my personal heroes. My dad was really my gateway into classic film and helped shape my interests growing up.
What kickstarted your interest in the field?
I started interning for set decorators in college and began booking jobs as a decorator post-graduation. Thankfully, I’ve been working ever since.
What is your artistic process like?
I listen to a lot of music when doing a set, an album or song on repeat, to help me stay 100% focused. I also love drawing inspiration from pop-culture (whether it’s film, television, advertisements, etc.)… A piece of furniture can really be a synecdoche for a greater artistic movement, an Easter egg for a previous season, or hinting at events to come.
Once you read the scripts for this season of American Horror Story, what got you excited from a set design and decoration standpoint?
I was a fan of the show since it started, so getting to come and work on a season was a dream come true. I’ve looked up to Ryan Murphy since Nip/Tuck—and to get to even be in the same zip code as him is astonishing. He demands authenticity in his set decoration, and it really galvanized us to work at our collective A-games.
What is your design mantra on-set?
“…other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you enjoy the play…?” I say this a lot on set. Things will always go sideways, and it’s how you respond and react to these curveballs that define you. We have to be flexible and be ready for any challenge. Have multiple options ready and anticipate anything!
Each character’s apartment is uniquely decorated which requires attention to detail, research, and inspiration. Is Chairish a go-to source for your projects that require certain pieces?
One hundred percent. I remember we did a set early on in the season where I saw similarities between an American Horror Story character and that of Carl Stromberg from The Spy Who Loved Me. On Chairish, I was able to find a set of pantonova chrome bookcases—just like those in the 1977 film—just for a fun Easter egg. Chairish is really such a wonderful resource for those hard-to-find items.
The look and feel of each episode in American Horror Story helps the plot really come to life. How has Chairish been helpful in finding specific pieces that tell this story?
Chairish is fantastic because you can set the zipcode and pickup radius, allowing you to have vintage designer furniture and smalls in a same-day turnaround. I genuinely don’t believe our sets would have the same umph without your team at Chairish.
What are some of your favorite pieces from Chairish that appeared in American Horror Story?
Definitely the pantonova bookcases I mentioned. Also a fabulous set of Bassett “Mayan” Brutalist pieces—nightstands and a sideboard. Really gave the scene that old Hollywood feel.
Tell us a little bit about the working and collaboration relationship between the production designer and set decorator.
The designer really manages the entire team: art department, set dec, scenic, construction… And we carry out their particular vision. Matthew Flood Ferguson, our designer, is very hands-on and wonderful, and really is able to communicate the vision for each set.
How soon before production begins do the set decorator and their team begin working? What are your initial tasks?
We usually start a couple weeks in as the sets and locations are being established. On average about 10-eight weeks out versus the art department starting at about 12 weeks out or so…
How is designing for TV or the movies different from designing at home?
Designing for your home requires the element of functionality. A sofa has to be comfortable, it can’t just look beautiful. There’s a narrative element with decor in film that is essential. A chair can tell an entire character arc, where they came from, where they’re going, etc. For example, in American Horror Story, I purchased vintage gas masks and glass headforms from Chairish, dating to the 1950s, as well as candlesticks from the 60s and leather goods from the 70s. In one frame, we are able to communicate the birth of the modern queer leather movement, starting with reappropriating and eroticizing war artifacts through trauma roleplay in San Francisco in the 1950s to 1960s candlesticks and the explosion of kink and pain play to the transition from biker to leather erotica in the 1970s.
When designing for the home, this palimpsest of layered meaning isn’t necessarily important.
What is your approach to design in your own home?
Every room should be different, yet cohesively tie the entire house together. I like everything to vibrate on the same frequency, so to speak.
What is your favorite decor piece in your home and why?
I recently purchased a 1960s life sized Italian porcelain Dalmatian sculpture. Having a dog in the city is incredibly difficult, but Pongo doesn’t require much.
What is your favorite decorating cheap thrill?
I collect Homer Laughlin gold wheat dishes, and any time I see them out and about, I make sure I snag a piece or two.
What is your favorite paint color?
Burnt orange or fire engine red. Something bold.
What is a favorite design destination you think every decor lover should visit at least once?
Coastal Maine. Bar Harbor, Boothbay, Camden… The Met just did a stunning retrospective of Wilson Homer and featured his Maine landscape paintings. The harsh natural landscapes are stunning.
Who are your favorite design influences and icons?
Ken Adam! Pedro Almodovar! Julie Taymor is an icon. Blake Edwards (director of The Pink Panther and Breakfast at Tiffany’s), Rothko, Hopper, Tom of Finland, and anything atomic. I’m in love with punchy, bold, camp, and classic aesthetics.
What do you find most compelling about Chairish?
Literally Chairish is my first stop. I’ve developed such incredible friendships with vendors over the years, and I’m profoundly grateful for the service.
Besides the films you’ve worked on, what movie have you seen the most in your life?
Definitely Goldfinger or any other vintage Bond film.
Where do you like to go for inspiration?
Any number of New York’s fabulous art museums… particularly the modernist wing at the Met.
All images courtesy of FX