Martha & Snoop’s Potluck Dinner Party


Vh1 and Brandon Williams

The client wanted a kitchen that was open, honest, and raw. It also needed to be on the cutting edge of kitchen design, accommodate multiple frenetic chefs at the same time, and appeal to all of the million-plus visitors who were expected to drop by on a regular basis. For James Pearse Connelly, the kitchen’s designer, all of that was pretty much business as usual. His client, Magical Elves, was the production company responsible for Bravo’s powerhouse culinary competition, Top Chef, and Connelly MGSA’02 had already created two sets for the series. Since 2005, Connelly has been production designer or art director, or both, on dozens of reality series and television spectacles, including The Voice, The Biggest Loser, America’s Next Top Model, the Daytime Emmy Awards, and MTV Video Music Awards (for which he won an Emmy in 2009). He is also responsible for the sets on VH1’s Martha & Snoop’s Potluck Dinner Party, which stars Martha Stewart and Snoop Dogg.

Whether he’s setting the scene for a reality show, an awards show (he’s done a dozen of them), or a feature film (he was art director on The Kids Are All Right, the Golden Globe-winning motion picture starring Annette Bening and Julianne Moore), Connelly sees the essence of his job as translating emotions into physical space. When designing The Voice’s blind auditions doorway—the double doors through which contestants on the show move from backstage to center stage—he wanted to convey a sense, he says, “of life-changing opportunity.” On a short video created for YouTube, Connelly described the thought process behind the design: “While sketching out the door, I told myself, ‘This door needs to be heavy, architectural, and industrial. It’s kind of like the door to Oz, and we’re about to see the Wizard.’” He painted the oversized entryway a deeply saturated red and installed a large aluminum V for the handle.

To create that “open, honest, and raw” kitchen for a recent season of Top Chef, Connelly designed an expansive space with open shelving to expose tools and pantry items, kept all the wood unfinished, and installed a transparent “herb hall” with multilevel planters. Like all of his designs, this one began as a discussion with the show’s producers that led, Connelly says, to “inspiration on architecture, design, colors, and overall feeling.” The next step was research: “We looked at related imagery that conveyed that feeling and considered how the show should choreograph, both in the environment and through the lens.” Connelly then created sketches and a 3-D model, after which he and his colleagues decided on textures, finishes, and lighting.

It’s a process not dissimilar to that of “Introduction to Design,” a course that Connelly took as a first-year student at Mason Gross School of the Arts. On the first day of class, he learned that he’d be reading and analyzing plays, then creating sets in shoebox-type dioramas. Connelly had become a drama major not because he had an ambition to act or direct but because he wanted to be among creative people and have some fun. After listening to the class description, he thought, “Well, that’s perfect; that’s exactly what I want to do.”

In his senior year, he came up with a plan: to move to New York and draft sets for Broadway productions. But when he graduated in 2002, the city was still reeling from the events of 9/11 and jobs on Broadway were scarce. He was offered a position at the San Diego Repertory Theater, where he labored for little money and not much fun, and after nine months decided it was time to move to Los Angeles. Reality TV was coming into its own, and it wasn’t long before Connelly found work doing production design for shows like America’s Next Top Model and Someone’s Gotta Go. And that was fine with him. “I never had an end goal,” he says. “I still don’t—I have ‘Gosh, someday I really want a pool’ kind of goals.” But he warmed to the idea of bringing art to what he readily calls “crappy TV,” a genre he happens to love. 

As it turned out, from the vantage point of production and set design, reality TV wasn’t all that different from Broadway theater. “Scenery and architecture,” says Connelly, “are scenery and architecture, no matter what the medium.” And the medium at which he’s made his name allows him not just to style a stage, but to set a style. “You get to be at the forefront of taste-making,” he says. When he designed the gym for Sweat, Inc., a Spike TV series starring fitness guru Jillian Michaels, he was thinking about what gyms would look like 10 or 12 years into the future and how he could personally influence that look.

As for his own future, Connelly’s outlook appears to be “Who knows?” While he doesn’t have overarching goals, he does have a few items on his bucket list. “I’d love to design a hotel,” he says, “and I really want to design the Oscars and the Olympics.” — Leslie Garisto Pfaff