Interview: ‘One Day at a Time’ Production Designer Bernard Vyzga

Some of the most memorable sets in TV history come from sitcoms. Whether you’re in “Cheers,” at Jerry Seinfeld’s apartment in New York, or hanging out with “Friends” in a coffee shop, the sets of sitcoms are as iconic as the characters. Over the years, sitcoms have relied on strong production designers. Bernard Vyzga is one of the production designers who adds a considerable amount of realism to his shows. Vyzga has had an impressive career lasting more than 25 years. Bringing authenticity to Norman Lear’s revival of “One Day at a Time” on Netflix is just his latest awards-worthy work.

Vyzga has been nominated for 4 Emmys for his work. Since 2000, he’s been nominated for “Bette,” “Stacked” and “Rules of Engagement.” He won an Art Directors Guild award for “Bette” in Multi-Camera Production Design. However, while these shows are excellent, some of his best-known work comes from other classic sitcoms. His other shows, “Mad About You,” and “The Nanny,” continue to gain audiences today. With “One Day at a Time,” Vyzga was given the opportunity to reteam with the legendary Lear. I sat down with Vyzga last week and we discussed his history with Lear, designing for a reboot, as well as adding authenticity to the world of sitcoms.

AF: At what point did you get involved with the “One Day at a Time” crew?

BV: From the get-go with Patricia Palmer calling me and saying “Norman’s going to do a reboot of ‘One Day at a Time’ and we want you to design it.” And I was like, cool, that’s great! I think I started about six months before we even started filming. Just have some meetings and start doing some research.

AF: Now I’ve heard rumors that it was the same set. Was that true or did you have to completely redesign it?

BV: Oh no. It has elements of the same set but it’s definitely not the architecture of that. The whole point from the beginning with Norman was that it wasn’t an homage to the original. It was literally a reboot, a reinvention of it. One of the things they wanted to do was keep the basic ground plan of the apartment, the basic layout. Of course, I couldn’t find the old drawings anywhere, so I just had to watch old videos. So I did I version of that where there’s the living room, the kitchen to the right, the entryway to the left, the hallway, and the alcove. And I worked on that to take the show from Indianapolis to Echo Park in Los Angeles, California.

Indianapolis, the architecture was a little more mid-western. When I designed this, I’d researched some Hollywood apartments and some older buildings that were built in the 1930s. I tried to incorporate research from that into this, so the architecture is more of an old L.A., Spanish, 4 or 5 story apartment building with fire escapes and plaster texture. Even the old phone niche that apartments in the ’30s had where you put the phone. And that had become a space of Lydia’s (Rita Moreno) for her statue of the Patron Saint of Cuba (Our Lady of Charity of El Cobre). We found a little statue of her and her place is what used to be the phone niche.

AF: Yeah, I figured it probably wasn’t the same set. The other one was shot in the 1970s, so I figured they wouldn’t just keep it around.

BV: Yeah, I’m sure the walls are long gone to the dump.

AF: Now you’ve already mentioned Norman, were you a big fan of Norman Lear’s prior to working on “One Day at a Time?”

BV: Oh yeah! From the time I was in high school through “All in the Family.” Because “All in the Family” was pretty groundbreaking. The premiere season was my senior year in high school, and it was a pretty big hit. His writing is very socially conscious and tackling very controversial topics and issues. I mean I was a fan of Norman Lear for a long time.

When I got to LA and was working, I got to work with his key designer, Don Roberts, who had designed the original “One Day at a Time,” and I was his assistant for many years. My very first job, very first network show was a show called “Powers That Be,” that Norman Lear was an executive producer on. Don Roberts was retiring, so I got a chance to move up, and Norman Lear took a chance on a young designer to design his show for NBC. Now it’s kinda come full circle because that was 25 years ago, and to come back and work with Norman is a really terrific thing.

AF: That’s amazing. How beholden to the original show did you feel you had to be?

BV: Other than the creators asking me to keep the direction of the floorplan the same, not really. We had discussions about the alcove that was kind of upstage and not really used in the original version. Because we wanted to show this was a family of the working class, a single mom, trying to raise a family on a budget, and with her mom living with her. We had a discussion about the kids really needed their own bedrooms, so we needed at least 3 bedrooms. After much discussion, well, let’s make the alcove into Grandma’s making a sacrifice, and turned that space into a bedroom for her.

AF: I was going to say, my wife is Cuban, and that was one of the things that immediately jumped out at me as incredibly authentic, especially the curtain. Where did you guys kinda come up with that idea?

BV: Well we came up with the idea of having the curtain across there, and then Norman had this idea that he wanted the curtain to make noise when it opened. And then of course when the actors came to the set, Rita Moreno turned that into a theatrical piece for herself so that her entrances and exits to the room are pretty dramatic. That’s the fun of having actors and actresses come into a set because I was really pleased when the set was all dressed and the cast had read the script and come to the set the first time. Our cast just walked around and felt at home, which is the nicest compliment.

Justina Machado (Penelope) was like, “this feels so right and so correct.” That’s when you know you’ve done your job well as a designer. When you’ve read the script and you understand the character, you can create an environment for the stories and the characters that feels right and the actors feel at home.

AF: I was going to say that it felt incredibly authentic. My wife did find the show slightly before I did, like the day it came out. She was absolutely in love with it from the first scenes because it was so authentic. With that in mind, how hands on were (showrunners) Gloria Calderon Kellet and Mike Royce?

BV: Very hands on from the beginning. I’d worked with Gloria on a show called “Rules of Engagement,” but I’d never worked with Mike. I came to talk with him in the higher end process of getting hired to make sure he was comfortable with me because I’d worked with Gloria, Norman, and our line producer Patricia Palmer before.

We actually went to visit Gloria’s house because Gloria’s Cuban America, 2nd generation. Her mom came over as one of the Peter Pan kids from Cuba. And then Gloria took us to her parent’s condo. It was fun just to see the family photos and create a space for Cuban Americans. It feels American, but it had a nod to strong colors and we wanted the environment to feel real. We actually use a lot of Gloria’s family photos on the set, because we wanted to have the sense of generations of the family in Cuba, and the mom her with Lydia in America. So family is pretty strong as you probably know with Cuban families. Like even though Gloria’s parents live in a condo, they are at her house for dinner every night.

AF: Yeah, even though we moved away from Miami, they come visit us all the time. Like every couple months. Something else I loved you did was the Quinceanera. You introduced it in the first episode and it kind of builds through the season. How much pressure was there on you to pull off the party?

BV: I wouldn’t say pressure, but it was about getting the tone right. Like when we first did Elana’s (Isabelle Gomez) bedroom right in the first episode. They were still developing her character arc and her feminism. I guess at this point everyone’s seen the first season, so you know she comes out just before the Quinceanera and her father has an issue with it.

So we tried to make her bedroom a little more gender-neutral, rather than make it like a teenage girl. That way we could help lay the groundwork for later in the season with that reveal. And then later with the Quinceanera, we stayed away from it being too feminine. A lot of Quinceaneras are very pink, and creams and reds, you know very feminine colors.  So we deliberately made this choice to do a Quinceanera that was very pretty, but more aqua, gold, silver tones, so it felt a little more gender neutral.

AF: So one of my favorite episodes was “The Death of Mrs. Resnick.” How much did you work with the writers to design the car? How does that process work for you guys?

BV: Well they had a specific idea for the car, both make and model, and then that’s sort of one of the things about being the production designer. You have to figure it out, work with the effects department to have the mirror falling off. For Justina to crawl through, we had to put padding in the back for the actress to crawl through and rig the back so it would come open and she could crawl through. It’s not always just designing walls and things like that. Sometimes you’ve got to get hands-on with designing effects.

With a sitcom, we try to stay to more to traditional sitcom style. We shoot the interior on a stage. So the lot where they brought Mrs. Resnick as a trade-in were all built and lit on stage as opposed to going to the location.

AF: Right. And you just brought up more traditional sitcoms, and you’ve worked on a few of those. One that stood out was “Cristella.” How did that experience differ from the “One Day at a Time” experience?

BV: I would say it was different because we were working for ABC. Netflix has given us a little more freedom in terms of using a working class family, and even colors and textures. In general, the networks like, even if they’re doing a working class show, to be a little more aspirational. Here, we were given the freedom to make it a little more grittier and a little more authentic. I always hate to use the word real, because in a sitcom the viewer knows there’s an audience there watching. It’s a theater performance. Sometimes the audience gets caught up and says “oh well, it doesn’t look real.” Well, but it looks authentic, so I would say that few people believe that when they’re watching a sitcom they’re in a real space.

AF: One of the other sets I loved was Schneider’s (Todd Grinnell)  apartment. Just out of curiosity, do you know offhand how many records you had to bring in to fill up the walls?

BV: Oh boy, I couldn’t tell you but it was quite a few. I don’t know exactly how many, but the idea of the records on the wall felt like it fit Schneider so well. And we knew Schneider has some skill with tools and things. So his back area has some very cool tools. I think it’s established in episode one that he has this very expensive, very cool tool belt, like a tempered steel hammer he’s very proud of.

AF: So to wrap it up, how excited are you for season 2? Are you looking to add some cool sets for next season?

BV: There are some really cool sets coming up, and we’ve very excited to have a season 2! Hopefully, we’ll also get a 3, 4, and 5!

AF: Yeah me too! Congratulations on a spectacular first season! I really, really enjoyed it.

BV: Great! Especially since you have a Cuban American family.

AF: Well thank you so much for your time!

Read our review of season 1 for “One Day at a Time” here. 

Season 1 of “One Day at a Time” is now streaming on Netflix.