How The Morning Show Production Designer Transformed a High School Event Space Into a Luxurious Italian Villa

When “The Morning Show” resumed production on Season 2 after shutting down in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, the story pivoted to chronicle the first few months of COVID’s burgeoning spread. The result is a season that expands to a more global scale — but one production designer Nelson Coates had to approach with a limited set of options.

“There were a lot of areas that were off the table,” Coates says of locations hesitant to allow the return of film shoots. “We were going to have to figure out how to do this without a lot of the resources we thought we wanted.”

That meant adapting locations in Los Angeles to suit everything from a frenzied train station in Wuhan, China to the quaint cobblestones of Lake Como, Italy.

In fact, Italy is where we find disgraced former “Morning Show” host Mitch Kessler (Steve Carell) as he hides out in a friend’s cozy cliffside villa. COVID constraints left Coates in need of a way to create this centuries old villa somewhere in LA. He struck gold in the form of a 1920s structure designed by architect Wallace Neff and situated near Pasadena, which has been repurposed into an event space for a local Catholic high school.

“As any high school would be, it’s stripped down, it was stark white, no plantings or anything around it,” Coates explains. “It didn’t look like anything that would be high end, but it had great bones.”

Coates and his team transformed the space by adding fountains, landscaping, faux stone finishes and even building custom furniture to fill the structure.

“It’s hard to find high-end furniture that’s available to you that fits the space and some of these spaces were very narrow,” Coates says. He describes emulating Biedermeier and Ruhlmann pieces to mimic the luxurious décor of the wealthy: “We’re working within a budget to try to show something that’s much more expansive and expensive.”

Coates, however, kept in mind that high-end furniture alone would not necessarily render the villa an authentic representation. “It has to feel believable, and has to have the real textures and the real verisimilitude that Italy has,” Coates says of the transformation. “Even the outlets are different and the switches are different.”

He describes wanting to capture a specific European eclecticism, the “shabby elegance” of a generational living space. Coates achieved that through details such as the purposeful inclusion of items from different eras to reflect the villa’s age. “Even though there’s a flat-screen TV in the living room,” he notes, “there’s a tube TV in the back room where they hang out and where [Mitch] and Alex later have several conversations.”

We see these layers extend in the villa’s art as well. Items of note include paintings from Lake Como dated back to the 1700s and oval paintings from the 1600s once housed in a king’s hunting lodge in Central Italy.

“We wanted to feel that this was an ancestral home that had been added to over and over again so the art helps tell that story,” Coates says.

Situating the villa itself within Lake Como was its own balancing act. Coates and his team mapped the geography of the city to include other primary settings — Paola’s (Valeria Golino) apartment, the shopping plaza and the local university —  so that “it all would make real logical sense” as a functioning location.

“I did photo comps of what the view would be and what Steve would see” from the balcony at the villa, he says. “We did drone shots of our house with our landscaping and then we put it into its position on a peninsula on the lake.”

Creating that spatial relationship in tandem with the meticulous decorative detail of the villa was key to bringing Lake Como to life within the limits of Los Angeles.

“I’m super proud of what my team and what this this whole season was able to pull off,” Coates says. “I think people will really feel we’ve traveled around the world. And yet, it was all in LA.”

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