today i am thrilled and honored to be sharing an interview with melinda launspach, the set decorator for one of my favorite new shows, hbo’s no. 1 ladies detective agency. i’ve mentioned my love of the show’s design before, so it was such a treat to get to chat with one of the people responsible for the look and feel of the program. melinda took the time to give incredibly thoughtful and detailed answers to my questions about design in botswana, working with local artists, and how one goes about telling a story visually, using paint, furniture and decor. what i most love hearing about is the way the show worked with hand-painted signage and supported local industry by using artwork from local artists working at a nonprofit cultural village. there are so many incredible details and stories in her interview, i hope you’ll enjoy it as much as i did. even if you’re not a fan of the show (yet), it’s fascinating to hear how creative people can work with objects and color to create the perfect mood and feel for a story. a big thank you to melinda for taking the time to answer my questions, and thank you to bear at hbo for making this interview possible.
CLICK HERE for melinda’s full interview (and pictures from the set of the show) after the jump!
Design*Sponge: Thank you so much for speaking with us, Melinda! Could you please introduce yourself and tell us a little bit about what you do?
Melinda Launspach: I was the Set Decorator of No 1 Ladies Detective Agency, the pilot feature shot on Location in Botswana in 2007, as well as the series done in 2008. I grew up in a small town east of Johannesburg, South Africa. I got my B- Tech degree at Tswane University of Technology in Pretoria, North of Johannesburg, South-Africa in 2000 during which time a did a lot of work in the Theatre. I have been working in the film industry since then, mostly under Designer, Johnny Breedt, also the Production Designer of HBO’s ‘No 1 Ladies Detective Agency’.
My purpose on a film entails the décor of a set, starting from interior Carpets, to tiles, fittings, lights, curtains, furniture, smalls and ornaments or exterior e.g. Fittings on building exteriors, street signage, streetlights, fencing, street vendors etc. basically everything visual that goes into a set to make it into what it needs to be. This entails a pre-production period during which everything gets prepared before the shoot starts. During this time research is done and information gathered about the specifics in the film. We would visit locations, see what needs to be built or changed as per the Production Designer, who draws designs of what he envisions sets to be. Construction Dept. would start building sets or making changes to existing structures. Planning gets done in terms of what needs to be changed & added to existing structures and or new ones to make them functional and to turn them into what they are meant to be. Ideas, textures, and the feel of sets get discussed between the Production Designer, Director and myself, after which, I would start sourcing and buying the set dressing items. I then decorate the sets.
D*S: Your work on HBO’s “No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency” is absolutely beautiful. Could you tell us how you got involved with the project?
ML: I have been working with Production Designer Johnny Breedt for the past nine years and have decorated most of the films he’s done in that time so I got involved with this project through him.
D*S: When you first started working on the show, how did you begin deciding how you would create this incredible world in a visual sense? Did you do a lot of research, or did you have an idea from the start of how you wanted it to look?
ML: I think it important to say that the look of a beautiful film and set is never one man’s vision, but rather the marriage of a whole lot of ideas from the Designer, Director, DOP, myself as well as from many people involved with a project. It’s the result of many, and lengthy discussions and an analysis of everything that makes up a story and its characters. The final look of a set is something that grows over time as the aspects of a character starts taking form in discussions about whom and what they are about and represent.
My purpose entails interpretation and putting together all these ideas and aspects in a manner that communicates to the audience what needs to be said about a character’s circumstance, to make it their own, a representation of a personality and history, who a character is and what they are about, as well as the feel of a space. These are represented in the things that make up the space around a person. In the case of this project, we were extremely fortunate to get to shoot on Location in Botswana, as well as doing all the prep before the shoot there.
There is definitely an essence own to each African culture and its people. We all got to live and share a little in the life here; this was a huge advantage in capturing the essence and beauty of Botswana. Of course research is done, from books etc. but mostly at the beginning of a project to lay a basis for what we are planning. Living amongst and working with local people gave that extra bit of closeness and reality to what we were doing, learning about what is important to the people here. All of the sourcing and buying was done in Botswana, which means that everything used in the sets are authentic.
Capturing a feeling is something that grows and changes as you get to spend more time in a place amongst people, interacting and getting to know them who makes a place into what it is. I am fortunate to get to spend a lot of time amongst the people of any place whilst working there, as I am constantly buying from local business and industry and so get to communicate to all kinds of people. There is no better reference than in the streets of a town or in a local home.
D*S: Did you spend a lot of time researching design, art and colors in Botswana?
ML: Research starts the day I receive a script- It’s vital to gather as much information and visuals as possible to enable me to show what I think a set should be, so it can be communicated to and discussed, as to ensure we can capture everything all the creative parties find important to include. More often than not, secondhand goods from the area play a vital role in the authenticity of a set, as individual items get a life of their own with practical use.
This is very hard to recreate with a new item. It did prove to be very difficult to find many secondhand things here, simply everything gets used by someone and there’s very little waste of anything practical. Even if something has the smallest bit of life, or even not, someone will find a purpose for it, even sometimes completely unrelated to the initial purpose. You will find repaired, re-used, sometimes very old pieces in every person’s space here, simply because it works for something. People use all kinds of things to decorate their homes and gardens, for example, old food tins or old car tires turned inside out and brightly painted would be used to plant plants in. Using old things and combining them with new, results in a strange combination of unrelated and unplanned colors found in the same space everywhere. This, as well as the vibrant artistic color found everywhere in Batswana culture, makes color a very evident everywhere you look, so it was really important to capture that.
D*S: How much did you stay true to the colors and design themes of the country- and how much of it was your own personal spin on the “look”?
ML: In even the simplest of houses here, people have a tendency to love making things look beautiful, decorating sometimes with whatever means they can, sometimes even just patterns done in the plaster of a building, vibrant hand painted signage on the stall of a street vendor or the craft that vendors sell. In the city, most things are available from street vendors, from beautiful craft, food, hot meals at lunchtime, barbers, cell phone repairs, car washes, all of which are registered businesses amongst huge flourishing industry, a lot is happening all the time and most times a lot that one wouldn’t expect in the same space. This is representative of the beautiful combination of Western influence and Cultural Africa all blended into a vast flourishing society, with very few beggars and very few people without a smile on their face.
As soon as you exit the city, you are faced with vast wild Africa, where you’ll find small villages herding cattle. There is a very delicate balance of all things here, but also everything you need is somewhere just around the corner. It was very hard yet important to capture this reality. I had the opportunity to bring it into play at the Kgale View Mall, by using actual products bought from all kinds of local businesses to use here. I think that personal ideas of what something should be is misleading to the audience, I find it important to stay as honest and true to reality in the décor of a film as I can and always try to put myself in the shoes of the person I am meant to represent in a space.
D*S: When creating a set’s overall design- what are the most important factors for you to consider and make sure are right?
ML: Age, gender, career, personality and circumstances make people surround themselves with certain things, it’s important to bring elements of these things into play as a space already tells a story about whom it belongs to, or represents and so already creates an atmosphere surrounding a character’s personality. I choose to step away from my own likes or dislikes and tendencies as to truthfully represent another person or situation, as I am responsible for showing a whole audience what something is about. I choose to show that which is true and real, whether it be happy or sad or nasty, whatever is real captures the essence of a space. I try to speak to as many people as I can and learn about everything as much as possible all the time and represent that truthfully. Within this reality, the audience will find the beauty, because it exists exactly that way in life.
D*S: I know many of us are in love with the blue paint color in the detective agency’s office- how did you choose that color, and why?
ML: The color of the walls in the detective agency was a choice as per many discussions amongst all of us, and was not my decision-making alone. Blue does represent calmness and security, a feeling of home, which is what Mma Ramotswe offers her clients, but the fact that it’s almost luminous brings to the picture the vibrance always evident in Botswana and the zest in her personality. Blue is also one of the colors in the Botswana flag and can be seen somewhere on every street block anywhere, as all the Batswana are extremely patriotic and respectful towards their country, and decorate a lot of things in the colors of the country’s flag.
D*S: How did you choose to distinguish the detective agency visually from other buildings?
ML: We had a lot of deliberation about how we could give the Agency building some kind of individuality, some interesting texture and a kind of distinction. A lot of ideas were flung around with reference to this, and a very good one came to light, which was to turn the building Mma Ramotswe chooses as the premises for her business into an old non operational Post Office. This is how the agency building is first seen in the pilot film. This gave us the opportunity to play around with governmental textures which always includes the use of a lot of raw wood. Wood always creates a lot of warmth in a set, yet because of the governmental purpose of such a building, the use of it is normally more functional than decorative.
We then had a lot to play around with in terms of what the initial post office dressing items could be used for in the agency by Mma Ramotswe. ‘Her use’ of these items in making her business functional shows something about her sense of initiative, and about her personality of using not necessarily practical items, but making them work practically for her purpose. In the small decorative pieces, I tried to bring in some fun, welcoming, homely items as well as things that has some sentimental value to her character, keeping it simple, practical, yet warm.
We see her adding her ‘flare’ to the building by the cheeky, fun color that the building gets painted, and the sign, how it gets changed and changed again to get it just right for her purpose. Throughout the progression of time in the story, paint on the building was aged, occasionally, and small items were added timeously to the set to ensure that it had an aspect of growth and progression and becoming more established. It became a space growing around Mma Ramotswe and Mma Makutsi and representative of their combined strengths.
D*S: How big of a role does the color/look and feel of the set play in telling a story like this?
ML: The purpose in the look of a set is to create the atmosphere and feel a story is meant to portray. Sets are descriptive of the location where a story meant to play out, and the time period. They communicate information to the audience about situations, characters’ circumstances, personalities, what someone’s career is for example or their financial situation, their beliefs, things they like or dislike, things that are of importance for them, all the things they are about. In this story, the flamboyance, and distinct individuality of characters are so important in the humor of it that the “correctness” of sets was essential in capturing this. It was important to communicate the essence of the country as well, especially because it’s so distinctly different from anywhere else in the world. The audience really has no point of reference, apart from what they are shown, and might not fully appreciate parts of the humor unless they were shown how things happen here and what in life is important to the people here.
D*S: How did you come up with the design for the detective agency’s sign? It’s a favorite among bloggers and graphic designers everywhere now.
ML: The sign was designed by The Production Designer, Johnny Breedt. The design had reference to the color of the country’s flag, the colors of which are seen everywhere in Botswana, used to decorate houses, gardens, all kinds of things, simply everywhere This is evidently because people here are really proud of their country, and extremely patriotic.
D*S: Did you work with any local artists or craftsmen to create parts of the set design?
ML: All the signage used on the film was hand painted by a brilliant local Artist, who is responsible for doing a lot of the actual business signage in and around Gaborone. A lot of signage was used throughout the project as most of the story plays out in the city. Most businesses here go to a lot of trouble to decorate their businesses and signage plays an evident role. Most decorative items were bought from local craftsmen around Gaborone, for authenticity purposes as well as to support the local industry as much as possible. The Artwork used in the Zebra Drive set was bought from Local Artists working at a nonprofit cultural village. This village supplies studio space free of charge for anyone who needs it, sculptors, painters, potters, weavers. Also a lot of local people were employed in the various departments as to supply some practical training in the industry. This ensured that there was always local advice available on all levels.
D*S: What do you hope people will feel when they see the show’s set/set design?
ML: I hope what has been portrayed voices the innocent beauty and joy in Botswana and Africa, and the wonderfully kind nature of the people. I find that a lot of African stories are sad of nature and it’s been an amazing experience to have had the opportunity to be part of a project showing the heart of the people here. My Life in Africa has seen strength, honesty, innocence, endurance and wisdom and an enormous amount of joy in these people. It’s been amazing to have the chance to show this side of Africa to the world. I hope this is voiced as much in what you see, as it is in the storyline of this project.
D*S: What has been the most exciting thing about working on this project so far?
ML: It was an amazing experience to work in Botswana, meeting the people, travelling through an amazingly beautiful country, from the south right up to the north and learning about all the diversity that makes up this wonderful place. The people of Botswana are incredible, and absolutely joyous, so each day was a glorious one. It was also a great honor to have been able to work with Anthony Mingella on the pilot of this project, it was really close to his heart, and he did put the heart into it. I think that for all of us he lay the ground in creating something beautiful, as was his nature. He is dearly missed and was a huge inspiration to every person who got to work with him on this project. I am proud to have been a part of it. It really has been a wonderful experience.
D*S: What is your favorite part of the set design you’ve created so far?
ML: I personally enjoyed decorating the whole of the Kgale Mall including the Agency Building, the most. Possibly because it was done from scratch on an empty piece of bush land, which gave us free reigns to do anything we liked with the individual aspects making up the set. There is so much busyness on this set; all the shops are decorated with a complete individual personality, café’s, vendors and general life happening all around. It was really an opportunity to capture all the things happening on a normal day in Gaborone.
D*S: Is there anything about design and art in Botswana that you’d like people to know? (Or African design in general if you’d prefer)
ML: People generally don’t live in excess, art is either functional or has some cultural connotation. A lot of care is taken in the decorating of individual items. The decoration on items very often has some meaning, either religious or traditional belief, generally depicting a story. Different colors generally have different cultural meanings, and symbols are often used. Texture is a very important aspect. Through history a lot of practical items were handmade from natural fibers, e.g. Grass, Animal skins, Leather, Mud, Clay, Wood. African people in general are extremely artistic and brilliant at handcraft. Such items are still used in people’s homes today, but are also sold as curios. Every piece of art here has some meaning or cultural connotation to it.
D*S:: What’s coming next for you? Where else can we see your work these days?
ML: I am currently working on a small German Feature Film shooting around Gauteng’s ‘Cradle of Humankind’ Region, thereafter a possibility of a project shooting in Kenya, and soon after planning to return to Botswana for another 12 episodes of ‘No 1 ladies.’ Looking very much forward to that.
Thanks so much to Melinda for her time, and Bear Mansfield at HBO for making this interview possible!