Scouting locations that would become the setting for ABC's "Desperate Housewives," production designer Thomas A. Walsh at first turned to "those Spielberg-like communities" — Stevenson Ranch and Simi Valley — but they were all "a little too real or a little too beige."
In his quest to replicate an idyllic "Eisenhower-era perfectness," Walsh suggested buying all the houses on a block in a new development. "I said it would be the only time the studio would make money on their investment in scenery," he says, laughing.
In the end, Colonial Street, a section of the Universal Studios lot that Walsh describes as a "Whitman's Sampler of Americana, with houses from prim and proper Victorian to post-WW II optimism," became Wisteria Lane. This picturesque TV cul-de-sac puts a cheerful facade on its neighborhood scandals.
The houses on the street have been used in such films as the 1950 James Stewart comedy "Harvey" and the 1997 "Leave It to Beaver" and for TV series including "Murder She Wrote" and "The Munsters." The structures were relocated to Colonial Street in the 1980s to become a suburban enclave with a distinctly retro feel. With paint and silk flowers to augment the existing plantings, Walsh transformed the block last used to film a TV commercial into a "Dick and Jane storybook neighborhood." Wisteria Lane is not a street of dreams à la the McMansions of TV's "Knots Landing" in the '80s. Instead of stirring up aspirations to suburban opulence, Wisteria Lane transmits a dialed-down version of home design. It's "that comfortable, solid, nothing-can-be-so-wrong-in-this-type-of-neighborhood world," Walsh says.
The "white of Wisteria Lane" that Walsh uses is a Whisper Violet by Benjamin Moore, applied to the exterior trim of all of the houses. The manicured grounds and tempered décor — heavy on whitewashed wood, butcher block counters and roll arm seating — serve as tableaux that describe the landscape of today's middle-class design sensibility.
The interiors could easily be a room setting pulled from a furniture outlet or mail-order catalog. Though their incomes and tastes vary, the residents of Fairview (the mythical home of Wisteria Lane) might all bump into one another at Pottery Barn or an Armstrong Garden Center.
"We often feel like we're trying to make a commercial for the suburbs," Walsh says.
It is a commercial, many have noted, that could have been directed by Tim Burton or David Lynch, two masters at revealing the termites gnawing through the veneer of suburban civility. Bizarre plot twists often involve mundane household objects — a Pyrex measuring cup, a baby blanket. In the Nov. 28 episode, which topped the Nielsens, meddlesome Mrs. Huber was bludgeoned with a blender. The way the tastefully appointed homes of Wisteria Lane are used keep the show rooted in an identifiable reality. Actual rooms were built inside houses normally used only for exterior shots, which allows characters to watch each other through their windows. "This adds to the intimacy and intrigue of 'Desperate Housewives,' " Walsh says.
Many critics have observed that the accessible look of the show also functions as a satirical comment that is particularly potent in the wake of Martha Stewart's conviction. Behind the white picket fences and freshly painted doorways, the women of Wisteria Lane are just as adept at penning blackmail notes as they are at putting up blackberry preserves. They are fluent in the language of HGTV but sometimes do dastardly deeds as if they'd never heard of "CSI."
"I have always had a fascination with the illusion of the perfect housewife," says Shannon Shapiro, a Los Angeles interior designer and a fan of "Desperate Housewives." "It completely rips that [illusion] to shreds, and it also functions as a critique of do-it-yourself consumerism that Martha Stewart kicked off, where everyone is expected to be their own designer." The interiors accentuate "the fragility of the suburbs where cul-de-sacs were designed to confuse burglars and keep us safe," Shapiro says — yet the characters live with fear. "The fear of finding and keeping a man, the fear of not being as perfect as Sally next door. So the squeaky-clean thing is a wonderful distraction. You don't have to think about your problems. You can put a fresh coat of paint on or throw a slipcover over them."
Though Walsh created Wisteria Lane to project a unified vision of suburbia, he approached the individual interiors as a decorator would, studying the script to determine the taste and budget of the housewives. Floor plans, paint chips and images from midcentury advertising and current home décor catalogs were used as inspiration.
Set decorator Erica Rogalla is on "a constant scavenger" hunt to find the appropriate furniture and accessories. Often she faces the same frustration that many homeowners do: turnaround time. "I can't wait six weeks for something," Rogalla says, "so there's lots of trips to Target, Kmart, IKEA, Plummers and Linens 'n' Things. Whatever you can take off the shelf, we take off the shelf." Mixed with furniture found at Universal and other prop houses, the results of Rogalla's decorating define a variety of contemporary genres as deftly as they represent each character. The style of Susan Mayer (Teri Hatcher), the recently divorced children's book illustrator who is rediscovering her femininity while raising a teen, suggests Laurel Canyon: Beadboard wainscoting and sunny pastel walls complement her artistic spirit and shabby-chic ideal.
Gabrielle Solis (Eva Longoria) is the nouveau-riche ex-model who "has been taken to the cleaners by her interior decorator," Walsh says. Her overdone living room walls are faux-finished in two shades of orange, part of a palette that coordinates with the Mediterranean and Spanish Colonial furnishings.
Like many Angelenos, she also dresses up her house with wrought-iron candlesticks and Mexican santos figures — "high-end antiques that tend toward the religioso," Rogalla says.
Bree Van De Kamp (Marcia Cross) is the perfect hostess, living in "kind of a classic Colonial American, Ethan Allen fantasy" amid traditional wall colors and upscale tailored furniture that looks more old-fashioned than old money, Walsh says.
"As a doctor's wife, she has the most stable income," Rogalla adds. "She reads all the home magazines and picks and chooses what she likes."
Lynette Scavo (Felicity Huffman) is the overwhelmed mother of four young kids, struggling to make ends meet, who is likely to shop for Teflon-reinforced upholstered furniture. "Lynette shops at the local department store and buys whatever she can get her hands on," says Rogalla. To reflect the fact that her home is as chaotic as a preschool playground, Walsh selected a palette of pinks and blues suitable for a nursery. Homes of supporting characters are equally well defined. Mike Delfino (James Denton), the resident stud, exudes masculinity in a Craftsman bungalow painted in saddle leather tones with Mission furniture and Southwestern rugs. Town tramp Edie Britt (Nicollette Sheridan) is so hot to trot that her house burned to the ground in the first episode. Before her untimely end, Mrs. Huber (Christine Estabrook) kept a collection of pachyderm figurines in her kitchen, from which she snooped on her neighbors, because elephants never forget.
"Mrs. Huber still had all the furniture she bought when she was first married," Walsh says. "Edie will be shopping for new stuff at the nearest suburban Eurotrash outlet, and Mike is a Sundance catalog, Restoration Hardware kind of guy. We're shameless. We are drawing from contemporary culture and a lot of great catalogs.
"It's not a trendsetter kind of a show unless you just want to reduce yourself back to the era of everything being comfy and familiar, like meatloaf and mashed potatoes," Walsh says. "If we were setting décor trends, I wouldn't be doing my job."
David A. Keeps is a frequent contributor to Home. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Character: Susan Mayer, klutzy work- at-home recently divorced book illustrator with teen daughter and schoolgirl crush on Mike Delfino, neighborhood mystery man.
Domestic policy: Creative disarray. Though Susan's living room is designed around her work, it has the funky charm of an artist's atelier.
Palette: To express the kooky romantic qualities of the character, the design emphasizes spring colors, such as the Benjamin Moore chips, above.
Décor: Integrating her studio into her home, Susan has functional furniture accessorized with feminine pieces such as white rattan and a wrought-iron bed.
Signature rooms: Often in the kitchen making bad mac and cheese and having heart-to-hearts with her daughter, Susan would also like to heat things up with Mike in her boudoir.
Character: Gabrielle Solis, shopaholic ex-model who is bored with her rich husband and lap-of-luxury lifestyle and is carrying on with the teenage yard boy.
Domestic policy: "Let the maid do it." The designers fashioned Gabrielle's gilded cage as a lavish showplace reflecting her high-ticket tastes.
Palette: With a nod to her brazen behavior and past profession, Gabrielle's interiors are painted in fashionable colors that could have come from her makeup bag.
Décor: Grand and dramatic, Gabrielle likes heavily carved, nailhead-studded furniture, silk bedding and portraits of herself on any available surface.
Signature rooms: Gabrielle's marble home spa, with baroque mirrors, chandelier and centerpiece tub for two, is for introspection and indiscretion.
Character: Lynette Scavo, former corporate powerhouse, now stretched thin from holding down the fort. Takes her kids' ADD meds to become Supermom.
Domestic policy: Bunker mentality. Set dressers achieved the look of a lived-in American family room with liberal sprinklings of toys, laundry and hyperactive twins.
Palette: As the Housewife with the youngest children on the block, Lynette has a color scheme designed around baby blues, powder whites and pink.
Décor: Easy-to-assemble, hard-to-destroy generic furniture, storage systems and a soft sofa to collapse on suit Lynette's chaotic environment.
Signature rooms: More equals merrier in Lynette's farmhouse-style great room, the site of toddler terrorism and the Housewives' poker games.
Character: Bree Van De Kamp, tightly wound perfectionist homemaker whose detergent-commercial lifestyle has driven a wedge in her marriage.
Domestic policy: Obsessive-compulsive. Set decorator went on a spree buying storage systems at IKEA for kitchen cupboards, but Bree's prized copper pots are displayed on a circular rack.
Palette: Colors the production designer describes as "muted and devoid of passion" but tasteful enough for a spread in Traditional Home magazine.
Décor: Bree favors refined dark wood furniture with harp-shaped legs, tailored upholstered pieces in lustrous fabrics. She is fond of window seats, decorative urns and candlestick lamps.
Signature rooms: Bree's most at home ruling the roost at the formal dining table or decorating a basket of homemade muffins at the crafts table in her pantry.