Smart Solutions: Design of movie, TV homes fill in the details of the story

By Jeanine Matlow
Special to The Detroit News

Set design has long been a fascination of mine and the elaborate backdrops featured in the shows I’ve seen lately do not disappoint. While the living conditions of the characters are meant to set the tone and tell their story, the homes often take on their own persona because they are so detailed in nature.

In the award-winning South Korean film “Parasite,” the vast difference between the wealthy and poor families whose lives become intertwined is told through their personal environments as much as their dialogue. The vivid visuals go back and forth from calm to chaos and distinction to despair.

Anna Gunn plays Skyler in "Breaking Bad," which is set in Albuquerque and full of desert scenery and decor.

For the destitute Kim family, the lack of light and space and luxury in their lives becomes magnified when the spectacular custom home of the Park family comes into play. There, the soothing neutral color scheme and clutter-free surroundings provide a stark contrast to the Kim’s semi-basement apartment that feels chaotic and confined.

The appeal of the Park residence is palpable in all it has to offer in terms of size and privacy and quiet and all the perks that come with a piece of exclusive property. Inside the architectural gem, the warm interiors make a strong case for spaciousness and storage and natural light.

While streaming the movie “Marriage Story” on Netflix, I saw the quintessential Manhattan apartment of a young couple and their son reveal a great deal about the creativity of the main characters, while the Los Angeles homes shown in the powerful award-winning film speak volumes about the lure of the west coast with all that light and space.

Set decorators take these creations a step further with personal objects that define the lives of the main characters, like books and games. A stark apartment in “Marriage Story” that comes with divorce and the division of property becomes part of the storyline when the addition of art and other accents makes it feel more like home.

Also on Netflix, the addictive series “YOU” features a wide array of living spaces including the expensive rentals associated with various characters in different income brackets in New York and LA. As I finally started to stream “Breaking Bad,” I found myself mesmerized by the distinctive desert setting that casts an eerie spell over the desperation of the main characters and their lack of funds. Once again, the selection of homes and the stories they tell about their inhabitants are as fascinating to watch as the rest of the wild ride of a tale.

Though a common thread of darkness seems to pervade the titles I’ve mentioned, the home environments shown in these TV series and films play a compelling role in the art of storytelling. They also manage to show moments of lightness during the scenes that take place there. As the inevitable highs and lows of life, told through the eyes of some seriously creative talent working behind the scenes, set the stage for the narrative, there’s plenty for the viewer to absorb. In the process, these temporary backdrops can also serve as a reminder that a home tells a personal tale.

Jeanine Matlow is a Metro Detroit interior decorator turned freelance writer specializing in stories about interior design. You can reach her at