Monday, September 10, 2012

From Hollywood with Love...and Style: Behind the Scenes with Melinda Ritz

FROM HOLLYWOOD WITH LOVE....AND STYLE: BEHIND THE SCENES WITH MELINDA RITZ -- Talk about a true Hollywood success story! Interior designer Melinda Ritz (whose offices are actually located on a movie lot) is one of those rare people in the design industry who, by sheer will and determination, worked her way up through "the system" to find herself on top -- by doing it her way. Having won three (count 'em, three!) Emmy Awards for her set designs of the international hit television show Will & Grace which ran for eight successful seasons, Ritz has long since moved into the interior design arena full time and has brought with her many clients from the entertainment industry. Recently, her work has been featured in Architectural Digest (Ellen DeGeneres & Portia de Rossi!) and Elle Decor (Will & Grace co-creator Max Mutchnick!) and there are many more projects on the boards -- but why are we not surprised when you consider that show business runs in Ritz' blood: her father was one of the famed Ritz Brothers comedy trio from the golden era of Hollywood. When you stop to think just how influential the work of Melinda Ritz is simply based on her sets for Will & Grace alone (not to mention a whole host of other TV show sets as well), one can easily see why she is always in demand for her distinctive style and lovable nature.  And she is always on the go! Which is why we at Studio of Style were happy to have caught up with Ritz for a couple of moments to ask what makes this talented lady tick!

Studio of Style: How did your first job in the entertainment industry doing wardrobe lead you to the greater world of design?

Ritz: Actually, my first job in the industry was as a personal assistant on a super-low-budget pic called Sour Grapes with Jamie Farr from M*A*S*H – and the person who was supposed to be doing the costumes was always hiding in a corner somewhere reading a novel while everyone on the set was screaming about their wardrobes. So, I was immediately hired to take her place and almost had a nervous breakdown in doing so – I remember running to the nearest Sears store looking for white shirts for the men to wear and the clerk mentioned how stressed I looked – which means if you are stressed out, then you are the perfect person to be working in show business! Luckily the shoot lasted only six weeks and that’s when I knew I could never be a wardrobe person, but I did want to be in the entertainment industry in some capacity. So I needed to find another position that better suited my talents.

Studio of Style: Later, you found yourself designing set decorations for a science fiction film -- your first real job as a set decorator. How did you bring your touch to this film? 

Ritz: After my failure working in wardrobe, I met the renowned set decorator Anne Kuljian – but I didn’t know what a “set decorator” was at the time because I thought that sets were actually everyday locations that were shot as they were found and not produced and dressed by professionals. Kuljian and I met in 1985 on the now-cult film Cherry 2000 in Las Vegas and, for almost a year, I learned everything about pulling together sets, making something out of nothing, running about Vegas searching through decrepit neighborhoods for old, run-down trailers and thrift stores looking for junk props – and it was the most humbling job I ever had. But, while sitting alone in my car in the middle of the Nevada salt flats watching the teamsters bringing the trailers that I found, I remember seeing the movie set that I envisioned in my mind starting to take form and I eventually received major praise for it – even though I still thought at the time that set dressing was a truly questionable job and that I probably would never want to do it again!

Studio of Style: Your award-winning work on Will & Grace allowed you to explore your craft as a true set decorator, which led you to another level in your career.

Ritz: Some of the earlier films I worked on – like the one I mentioned before – were either low-budget or required period-looking sets, with the exception being Basic Instinct which was the one project where the sets I created were considered ‘high end.’ I realized that I really loved the high-end look and began teaching myself how to really design and decorate so that by the time that I began working on Will & Grace, I was ready to create elegant, high-end contemporary looks for the show that I believe viewers had never seen before on network television. I think these sets became an aspirational look for the viewer and, since the show was broadcast internationally for years, the show overall revolutionized the high-end look for other television shows. With the immense success of Will & Grace, the show’s actors and producers began buying homes and many of them turned to me to help with designing the interiors which, in turn, helped me launch my design business in 1995 with clients from both the show and the NBC network. But it was a wild time for me because I was working 14 hours a day on the set of the show and wedging in my new jobs doing interior design for homes whenever I could. In other words, I barely slept for at least 10 years!

Studio of Style: What have you learned from your set design experience?

Ritz: Working on location or in a Hollywood studio teaches you how to make decisions in a snap, under the gun and in a really short time period overall. Many of my interior design clients are amazed to see how quickly I can finish a project – but that comes from all the training I’ve had in films and television. Sometimes I’ve had to furnish homes in three days…or two weeks! The vendors that I use from the shows at the studios where I worked understand this and they’re adept at building pieces for me at a moment’s notice…and there is never a delay, as there is in the ‘real world’ because being in the studio system means that you can accomplish the unimaginable in virtually no time at all.

Studio of Style: Understandably, many of your clients live a “Hollywood” lifestyle. Is that translated into the interiors you design for them?

Ritz: A ‘Hollywood’ lifestyle has nothing to do with the style of the house – it’s really about how these people move about in their homes, how they entertain and, ultimately, how secure they feel. And it’s not about glitz – that is actually for amateurs! Many people in the entertainment industry in Hollywood are a bit more conservative about their home interiors than one would think. Therefore I choose not to follow trends or use major style themes – because another thing I learned from the movie business is to create a story for the actors, or in this case, for my clients. And that train of thought often goes against what motivates other conventional designers, which is to be motivated by trends or style themes. My motivation is the style of the house and the way my clients live within it.

Studio of Style: If someone were to look at one of your interiors in search of "Melinda Ritz," what would you want them to find?

Ritz: A timeless feel.
Photography by Erik Nelder