Midcentury Modern And Luxe Chic Define HBO’s “Hacks” Set

Jean Smart as Deborah Vance in “Hacks” season 1 episode 1. Photograph by Jake Giles Netter/HBO Max.

Jean Smart as Deborah Vance in “Hacks” season 1 episode 1. Photograph by Jake Giles Netter/HBO Max.

When you really want to diss someone, criticize their decorating choices.

That was the plot device used to create the tension between young comedy writer Ava (Hannah Einbinder) and legendary veteran comic Deborah Vance (Jean Smart) in the hilarious recently renewed series, Hacks, now playing on HBO Max.

Down and out Ava flies to Las Vegas for a gig to apply for a job she doesn’t want at the massively-sized home of Deborah Vance. Upon leaving after Vance shows little interest, telling her to get her dirty boots “off my silk rug,” Ava fires back that the house looks like “a Cheesecake Factory” and questions what is with the “50 tassels on the couch.”

Of course, that was comedy gold for production designer Jonathan Carlos and set decorator Ellen Reede Dorros, who most recently worked together on the award-winning HBO’s Westworld series.

“We really leaned into the pillows for tassels,” says Reede Dorros, “We had boxes of trim and tassel samples and searched long and hard to get them. There was incredible detail that was intentional. They were monogrammed pillows in gold with a DV logo. It wasn’t garish, so [they] could stand out but not too much.”

They also put tassels on curtains as well as “the umbrellas by the pool” and in her daughter’s room.

Photograph by Jake Giles Netter/HBO Max.

Photograph by Jake Giles Netter/HBO Max.

Carlos realized that “seeing it from a young 25 years old’s eye, with tassels on things,” would create “generational misinterpretations.” And that push-pull also took place between them on what both considered funny and relevant.

An easy tactic for Carlos and Reede Dorros would have been to put tassels and elaborate trim on everything from couches to ottomans; making it look more like a tacky ode to Liberace and Elvis vs. a sanctuary for a complicated brilliant woman who had bravely risen through the ranks and was still trying to stay employed and relevant. But instead, Carlos created luxe glamour that was spacious and tasteful. Because everything about Deborah Vance inherently is about quality and planning.

However, to root the series in its Las Vegas location, elaborate art nouveau gold trims can be seen on hallway mirrors as well as the choice of color for Vance’s kitchen stools and even sconces and an antique gold clock.

Photo courtesy of HBO Max.

Photo courtesy of HBO Max.

Another pivotal design scene is when Ava must acquire a special 1950’s pepper shaker from a reluctant seller. Proving that Ava has a little Deborah in her, the young failing comedy writer desperately threatens to destroy a priceless vase unless he sells the rare Jean Royère porcelain prize.

Watching Deborah gently put the antique Royère pepper shaker into her tall beautifully lit kitchen cabinet is a scene where you feel her loneliness as well as how possessions are hard-earned and valued.

The team searched eBay and other sites to get a range of salt and pepper shakers.

Photo courtesy of HBO Max.

Photo courtesy of HBO Max.

One of the hardest pieces to find was the vanity table in Vance’s casino dressing room.

“We wanted one vanity table but it was on backorder,” recalls Reede Dorros. “Another was price prohibitive. So we found a lesser expensive one and created custom edges.”

“The casino is her public face and we got to make that room a little bolder,” adds Carlos. “There must have been 17 paints on the walls with crust underneath so it looked like applied make-up.” And the circular mirror was just pitch perfect with the globe lights.

Luckily, since they were designing on a budget and also during COVID, they found a great selection for this room by Devon and Devon as part of the Zelda collection.

Photograph by Jake Giles Netter/HBO Max.

Photograph by Jake Giles Netter/HBO Max.

Speaking of public vs. private, the contrasts the team found between the home sitting room – where she originally meets Ava – and her office next to it speaks volumes about Deborah Vance’s character. The hard-edged couches aren’t inviting or cushiony like the coral one in the caramel wood-paneled office that also has contemporary art as well as a vintage mid-modern coffee table designed by Kho Liang Le.

One can see Carlos’ previous incarnation on the set of Mad Men, in his love of midcentury modern pieces and custom-made smoked glass on tables including the office desk.

Carlos has said that he was influenced by the interiors by architect William Hablinski, who is known for taking large historical architectural elements and combining them with modern lifestyles and L.A.-based Atelier AM, whose interior books are on Vance’s living room coffee table. Another influence was the United States French Embassy in New York for its use of ornate heavy furnishings and velvet curtains. That detail makes the room and its resident seem powerful but Carlos and Reede Dorros found softer colors in beiges, taupes and ivory to show Vance’s feminine side as well.

Photograph by Anne Marie Fox/HBO Max.

Photograph by Anne Marie Fox/HBO Max.

The flower choices also helped soften and reveal Vance’s tough character. Ines of Flowermaid did all the flowers. For her casino office, Vance has a vase of pale pillowy pink and raspberry peonies on her vanity which shows how delicate and vulnerable she has become.

During a major dining room scene for her daughter’s birthday party, Ines mixed bold reds and dark pinks that showcased Vance’s stylish black dress so beautifully. Although the flowers were always present and tasteful, Ines did use many pointy-shaped flowers like plumosa ferns to show both softness as well as a tightly-wound proud character.

Collectively it all worked and created a set that made a visit with these characters both memorable and enjoyable.

As Deborah Vance once states, “good is just the baseline. Great means you are lucky and work harder.”


Jill Brooke is a former CNN correspondent, Post columnist and editor-in-chief of Avenue and Travel Savvy magazine. She is an author and the editorial director of FlowerPowerDaily.com, and a contributing digital editor of aspire design and home magazine.

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