The story of the seven women on ABC-TV’s The Astronaut Wives Club is fascinating, but you know what we’re ogling: Their midcentury homes. Seven modest 1950s homes… seven glamorous 1960s homes – each, meticulously decorated to reflect the well documented lives of these “astrowives” as they rocketed to Mercury Seven Project fame.
A bundle of readers emailed us, all excited. So we contacted ABC for photos, and then I jumped on the phone with Production Designer Mark White. How did he create such gorgeous and authentic-looking interiors? Where did they get all the stuff? And what tips does he have for those of us trying to get this look? Happy surprises: He knows our blog. And, he’s a mega fan of knotty pine. We like him, for sure!
Based on the book, The Astronaut Wives Club: A True Story (*affiliate link) by Lily Koppel, , the 10-part television series begins in 1959, when the seven women are living with their families in Virginia. Mark White describes their homes there as “basically non-descript” military housing. Then, around 1963, after their husbands are chosen to be the first Americans to orbit the earth, everyone relocates to Houston with NASA. There, each family uses money from their exclusive deal with Life magazine to build and furnish a dream house. The series follows the story through 1970.
Each family had its own tastes. So among these 14 homes – the modest ones in Virginia and then, the more flashy ones in Houston — we get to see a smorgasbord of what late 1950s and early 1960s American homes could look like.
There are other treats throughout the series as well. The color-splashed motel in Cocoa Beach, where the astrowives would gather to watch Cape Canaveral launches, is a kind of perfect.
“As production designer,” White explained, “I design pretty much everything you see on screen, except for the actors and their wardrobes – full design from start to finish for every place they live, every location that’s scripted, everything they use.”
The job has its literal aspect – filling the stages that set the scene, but production design also plays a key role in helping to illuminate the story. “The next level is using it to create mood or feelings or elements to add to the story beyond just their home,” White explained.
“For me, the key to this story was these seven women and who they are through the script, which is a version of who they are through their real lives and Life magazine. Their homes became essentially my actresses telling the story.”
“Their lives were well documented beyond belief”
With The Astronaut Wives Club, White had an immense amount of historical material to help with his designs. Americans were fascinated with the space program during the early days of the space race. At every lift off, we were glued to our TV sets. The nation was so interested in the wives of the Mercury Seven team that Life followed their lives for 15 years.
“They became the nation’s first reality stars,” White said. “Their lives are documented beyond belief.”
The seven women comprising the Astronaut Wives Club:
- Rene Carpenter [played by Yvonne Strahovski]
- Trudy Cooper [Odette Annable]
- Annie Glenn [Azure Parsons]
- Betty Grissom [JoAnna Garcia Swisher]
- Louise Shepard [Dominique McElligott]
- Jo Schirra [Zoe Boyle]
- Marge Slayton [Erin Cummings]
To create his designs, White poured over the LIFE stories. “There were historical photos over virtually every story point,” White said. “The research was endless, and it was great to have almost handed to you.”
That said, White added that he also had to be adaptable, first, to frame the scenes as written into the scene, and, to complement the looks of the actors chosen for the roles.
Seven modest military homes in Virginia
“The story starts with them as military wives. Salaries are not high and they don’t live in high-income position homes. So we simplify how they were living, starting with early 1950s version homes and décor and in some cases, the 1940s.”
It was a challenge to recreate the 1950s-era Virginia homes in a way that was also good as a backdrop for the TV scenes. “The homes were so simple, everything had a purpose. There was not an extra lot of fluff.”
In order to deal with the limited decoration and artwork, he created ‘set flows’ – for example, dropping in a soffit — to help frame up the shots. “You don’t want them sitting against a bare wall.”
The knotty pine kitchen built for Marge Slayton is White’s favorite among this first batch of houses.
“Marge Slayton [as interpreted by Erin Cummings] has a gun moll vibe. She reminded me of my mother’s sister and my mother – she’s a two-fold character to me. My mother had a knotty pine dining room, and my aunt had a knotty pine kitchen.
“Knotty pine was going to happen in Marge Slayton’s house no matter what I had to fight for. It was a big obsession, and I love that set so much. Erin Cummings was over the moon for her knotty pine home and also loved it and loved it for the character. It made sense for her and who she was and the time. That kind of thing can excite an actress on the set and aid in her performance.”
Seven snazzy all-new homes in Houston
Once the astrowives move to Houston, there is a distinct visual shift, as the space race – and their previously humble home lives — gained velocity.
“Their whole lives change — the houses… money … celebrity,” White said. “You see the colors come alive during the exciting space race. We bring all that in, to help the story along.”
“For example, I wanted everyone to have new, colorful kitchens. That was important to me – this was an example of how we wanted the Houston homes to tell the fame part of the story. We had shoppers in several states scouring for seven sets of 1962-63 stoves and refrigerators!”
Some Virginia house décor continues into the Houston houses. “Each wife brings her own personal taste and history – elements of the past – into the present,” he said. The television sets, for example, don’t change. “They were a big deal,” White reminded, “Unlike today, they didn’t go quickly out of date.” Also watch for recurring lamps.
The Houston houses are all a lot of fun! Rene Carpenter has aquamarine Geneva steel kitchen cabinets. Annie Glenn’s house features Americana. Rene Carpenter was raised in California, so her home has that vibe, with bamboo, shells and color choices.
Did I say 14 houses? There are more! We also get to see Houston homes of some of the Gemini Mission astrowives, along with many public spaces.
White points to Louise Shepard’s midcentury modern apartment as his favorite among this bunch. “It makes me crazy,” he said. “It was just was so much ‘of the time’, so ‘who she was’, and so much fun to do. The apartment was in a fairly new building – we found reference photos – and it features a sunken living room, big windows, and is elevated. It so different from the world they were coming from – it was new, chic and exciting.”
All that said, I tell White that what I love about the interiors – in the Virginia and Houston houses, both — is that they do not feel fake. They do not seem like “a dream” of what we lived like, but an often-imperfect mix of what homes really looked like — a bit of mid-century modern and lots of mid-century modest… medium-tone paints and woods… not overloaded with stuff… and not overly stylized. They look like [pretty darn tidy] “normal people” houses.
“That was 100 percent my exact point!” White said. “My approach was to make the homes as believable and real as I could. The ‘50s and ‘60s are so easily stylized to include exactly ‘the perfect design’ furniture, the ‘name’ lamp and rug. But these were real people. I didn’t want it to be Mad Men. No one did.”
Remembering what it’s like to turn the knob of a TV set
Born in 1965 and raised in Connecticut, White’s childhood memories – both visual and tactile — helped him on the job. “This show has so many things that referenced to my childhood. All the wood, and what it’s like to click the knob of a TV set –they are homey, comforting memories that just make me feel happy. “
As a professional in the visual arts he also is drawn to midcentury design. [He graduated with a fine arts degree from the College at Maryland Institute College of Art and in his early career designed toys, holiday wrapping paper and theater sets],
“I’m pretty obsessed with the time period in general. In my own home I always gravitate to midcentury and Scandinavian design textiles of the time. What I like more than anything are the textures – they are so rich and exciting. By the 1990s, everything evolved to become so flat and smooth. Bare white walls make me uncomfortable.”
Where they got all the stuff
Curious to know more about how TV production design (dream job!) works, I asked White for a rough sketch of the process – when we see the credits, who is doing what?
The Art Department works for the Production Designer to bring the plans to life. Set designers draw up the plans and specify exact details, for example, the types of windows. Once these are place, the art director leads the construction of all the sets. And meanwhile, a decorator has shoppers out looking for all the furniture and accessories required.
For Astronaut Wives Club, Set Decorator Selina Van Den Brink had shoppers scouring the country for everything needed to build out the sets. Yup, that meant pretty much: Everything to decorate 14 living rooms, 14 bedrooms, 14 kitchens. And much, much more.
Overall, about half of the kitchens and bathrooms were built and filmed on New Orleans production stages — where the series was shot. The other half were already in place on location. Marge Slayton’s knotty pine kitchen, for example, was built from scratch on a stage.
Some items – the astrohusbands get groovy vintage barbecues! – were found new old stock, or fixed up, or came from Los Angeles prop houses that cater to the film and television industry.
Paint colors were chosen for how they read on television and to complement actors’ skin tones. “This was a slightly different mandate than if I was deciding on paint colors for a house,” White said. “To research paint colors, I bought old paint swatch brochures on ebay. Your site also came up a number of times when I was searching .” Woot!
“Some of the homes – for example, Louise Shepard’s and Betty Grissom’s houses – are all about linoleum. We printed that because it’s so hard to get sheet goods. “
White used wallpaper in a number of the room designs. Some of the wallpaper is new and in other cases, the team designed and printed their own patterns.
Sofas, casegoods, lighting, accessories — pretty much all vintage, then reupholstered or otherwise freshened up as required.
Hey: I see upholstery and quite a few pinch pleat draperies made from Full Swing Textiles barkcloth. Boo hoo, the business is now in its last month of its inventory liquidation, I only see one barkcloth pattern remaining.
And above: White gave me one earth-shattering (well, in our retroworld) product-source tip –>>> Beauti-Vue yarny woven wood shades — and where you can still get them today!
- And, you can click here to see our 11 (yes: eleven!) follow-up stories on this fantastic company, in business since 1947, and its stash of New Old Stock products in the back o’ the warehouse.
Where does all the stuff go when the filming is complete?
Update: This question came up in comments once we published. Here’s what Mark White replied:
One of two things can happen to all the set dressing. Occasionally we have a Set Sale, where most everything is sold, usually to other films and shows.
But more often, as with this show, it gets stored and held by the studio. It’s all in a warehouse someplace waiting to be either reused on other productions or sit there until it’s rediscovered by some martian in the far future.
Mark White’s advice for Retro Renovators
I ask White what advice he would give others who want to create beautiful retro-inspired interiors like those in The Astronaut Wives Club. He is not very high-falutin’ prescriptive, not at all:
“As far as design goes, if you don’t like it, don’t put it in. Be happy visually with it as a whole. I don’t believe that ‘because this is the current thing that’s hot right now you need to have it.’”
I laugh with him about his own living room, which is jam-packed with visual interest. So many creative types, I have found, have an insanely high tolerance for visual complexity, and clearly he is one of them. He tells me that during every project he ends up collecting something new.
Right now, he’s working on a new show, Outcast, for Cinemax. It’s a horror series set in rural West Virginia. Although it seems it’s being shot in South Carolina, because that’s where he called me from for this interview.
So what’s he collecting now?
“Piling up in my office right now are nature things – acorns and pine cones. I’ve also started picking up sleeves for food products — vintage restaurant packaging, graphics on waxy paper. I got here, and I saw a restaurant selling fried pies in waxy sleeves. It looked like they were 60 or 70 years old. I wanted one without pie, but they didn’t have any. So I bought one with the least amount of grease stains, then started looking for more things like it.” He said he doesn’t shop for stuff like this in Ebay – it’s too easy. He watches for stuff in his travels.
I’ve now watched four episodes of The Astronaut Wives Club [on demand]. At first, it was hard to pay attention to the plot, what with all those sets – and we haven’t even gotten into the clothes(!) But then, I really got into the show. The script leans a bit soap-opera, but overall, it’s an enticing real-life story. It doesn’t belittle the women’s roles. It depicts positive, life-affirming friendships. It’s optimistic and energetic and colorful. I’m really enjoying it, and so is history-geek Dear Husband.
Mark White, thank you so much for sharing the story of your work on The Astronaut Wives Club – and for all the fantastic, extra, exclusive photos you sent us, too! We love the production design of The Astronaut Wives Club – and even more so, for all the love and thoughtfulness that went into it!
- Website and recent episodes (watch online) for ABC’s The Astronaut Wives Club
- Mega thanks to Mark White!