Friday Five with James Pearse Connelly


For this week’s Friday Five, we’re tapping a design genre we’ve never featured before: Production Design. Not just any production design though – television production design, and more specifically Emmy-winning James Pearse Connelly, the production designer and visionary behind JPConnelly. Maybe you’re not familiar with his name but you’re most likely very familiar with his work as he’s designed the sets for shows like The Voice, Bill Nye Saves the World, MTV Video Music Awards, Top Chef, The Biggest Loser, Martha & Snoop’s Potluck Dinner, and many more. His work has earned him eight Primetime Emmy Award nominations and one win for his ability to tell visual stories on sets with his unique aesthetic and diverse background in theater, media, and design. Now, let’s see what keeps this creative inspired.

WRDSMTH \\\ Photo by Steffi Victorioso courtesy of Los Angeles Magazine

1. Los Angeles – Melrose and Fairfax
LA is a city with many faces and I’m always finding new nooks and crannies to explore. That said, there’s a certain stretch that never fails to inspire. I moved to LA in 2002 and lived on Fairfax and Melrose until 2016. It’s while living here that Los Angeles truly became home. I’m in Beverly Hills now but I find myself returning to this area again and again to browse the store window displays, see what local artists are featured, and to partake in the stellar people watching. On the west side of the street, high-end boutiques feature stunning tableaus to display merchandise. Each window is a mini set design full of color and texture. The artistry behind these displays challenges me to constantly re-define and re-articulate what luxury looks like and how to make an impact through the careful curation of details. The east side caters to a more youthful, edgier crowd. I like to see what’s happening there to get a sense of what the kids are into these days. I like the drastic difference in colors and textures one finds between west side and east side. And the fashion that parades down this street is everything! Hipsters from all over Southern California flock to this area and they do not disappoint. Above all, I’m inspired by the constant updated curation of street art on display (some of the best in Los Angeles in my opinion). Petty Cash Taqueria used to have an authentic Retna mural. When you walk down Melrose, you’ll see the brilliant works of Wrdsmth, Alec Monopoly, and Collette Miller. These artists are the new Shepard Fairey, Retna and Risk Rock and they give LA a colorful and artful identity.

Photo source

2. Instagram
I’m sure this is the case for many creative types, but let’s be honest about how much art, design and creativity is literally at your fingertips because of a visual platform like Instagram. Following other designers is an obsession. Just to name a few of my current faves – I’m a fan girl of Brian Patrick Flynn, Bureau Betak and Tom Borgas. The ability to share current projects as well as works in progress has changed my process. Inspiration can come from so many diverse sources. I can fall down an Instagram rabbit hole and literally discover 20 new people to follow in 15 minutes. Without fail, I find wonderful, strange and original material to look at. And it’s not just pretty pictures. That’s actually the best part: Through Instastories I get to hear these amazing designers talk about their process and their inspirations (and sometimes their frustrations and challenges), all in their own words. This pushes all kinds of buttons in my brain. When I watch Brian Patrick Flynn describe his work, I’m inspired to tell a clearer story about my own work. I’m a very visual person but there’s an intimate connection between visualization and being able to describe the world you’re trying to create. If I’m having trouble articulating, it often means that I need to get clearer about what I’m trying to do. It makes my work that much stronger if I can succinctly tell my audience what it is I’m going for. It’s a great right brain/left brain stimulator for me. Please feel free to let me know how I’m doing with this 🙂 #doesjamesmakesense @jpconnelly

Photo by Bing Putney

3. Musical instruments/Music studios
I know this may sound odd, but by virtue of my chosen genre (reality, competition, variety) I end up thinking about the world that singers, dancers and musicians inhabit all the time. Sometimes it seems like I’ve designed or styled looks on every music show on television! (well, except American Idol.) If you work in variety and reality for as long as I have, you’re inevitably going to design shows that focus on groups of extremely talented coaches, singers, dancers and musicians. Whether it’s for The Voice or The Four or World of Dance, I’m constantly thinking about how to keep this world interesting and fresh. I want each show to have its own musical feel and identity. I want to inspire the audience at home and give them a glimpse of these artists’ process and environments as well as inspire the artists themselves when they’re in the spaces I design. How can you make a bunch of road cases or speakers or a recording studio look stylish and sexy? These are the kinds of things that keep me up at night. I take a lot of inspiration from musical instruments themselves. The honey veneer of an acoustic guitar is beautiful. The brass of a trumpet or sax, the gloss black lacquer and stark ivory of a baby grand piano paired with a worn black leather chesterfield along with the sparkly finish of a snare drum can bring a room to life. I also love the sculptural shapes of audio waves and the architecture of modern concert halls.

Photo courtesy of Ubisoft

4. Video Games
The video game industry is on fire right now and for good reason! The artistry is painstaking, bold, colorful, and encompassing. Since I primarily come from the world of set design, this is an exciting new frontier of creativity. With the technologies and artistry available today, environments feel totally immersive. There’s no limit to the stylistic approach a designer can take in these virtual worlds. I take a lot of inspiration from the conceptual art coming out of that industry as well as through conversing with the artists and craftspeople that work in this field. TV audiences may interact with a show for, maybe, 1 hour a week. Devotees of video games, on the other hand, will immerse themselves in that world for hours every single day. That said, I feel like our worlds have many tools in common. Just recently my partner bought a Play Station 4 and it was like I was 18 again: up till 2 am playing games and eating delivery pizza. It was great to lose myself to another “space”. Let’s be clear: I love to play but I’m a TERRIBLE player. It may be because I’m too busy studying the graphics or the way a palm tree has been shaded or the curve of a portico.The worlds are just so detailed and colorful. Some of my go-to games at the moment are: Star Wars Battlefront 2, FarCry 5 and Hearthstone.

Photo by Lucas Allen via Domino

5. Art Books
Give them all to me. ALL OF THEM. I love poring through any kind of coffee table art book when I’m researching a project. Some of the books I’ve been delving into recently cover everything from the history of honky tonk in the American south, to the world of magicians, to modern day architecture in the Middle East. I know that you can Google or Pinterest anything within an inch of its life but there’s something tactile and wonderful about holding a 20-pound art book in your lap and really looking at the photos or the fashion or the art. It’s a different level of engagement because you’re learning about the history and context of movements or trends or about a specific iconic artist or architect. I find that spending time with these “dinosaurs” of the visual age actually forces me to slow down and look at images more carefully and thoughtfully.