Why Mad Men is top of the props

As Mad Men returns, Guy Adams meets the "property master" whose obsession with period detail, right down to the shape of the ice cubes, makes the show the most stylish on television

Drinks in the office, smoking indoors, long lunches, hats, and institutionalised sexism. Historical detail are part and parcel of Mad Men's gin-soaked charm, and the show's faithful rendering of the 1960s has won a devoted following among design enthusiasts, influencing everything from catwalk fashions to an official range of Barbie dolls.

But only a tiny handful of the millions of devoted viewers who'll watch the forthcoming fourth season of the blockbuster TV drama will ever notice its ice cubes.

Ellen Freund is one of those people. As the show's "property master" she is responsible for making sure that the world Don Draper and his cronies inhabit looks completely identical to that of the era in which the show is set. This season, therefore, she ensures that absolutely every prop, from the whisky glasses to the telephones, was being widely used in 1965. And it is a measure of the seriousness with which she takes this task that she even found time, in her travails, to ensure that the show's ice is right.

"We did some research, and discovered that because they didn't have ice machines in the 1960s, the ice that people used then looked very different from ice today," she says, matter-of-factly. "It varied, depending on whether they were drinking in the home, at the office, or in a bar. So when a scene takes place in, say, a hotel, I make sure they use cubes that are exactly one-inch-square, which I source from a specialist in Los Angeles. If a scene takes place at someone's home, I get an assistant to make ice from vintage metal trays which we have sourced. Those cubes are more rectangular."

If this sounds obsessive, that's probably because it is. But the makers of Mad Men are completely unapologetic about their nerdish commitment to accuracy. It is a measure of their success in recreating the clothes, homes, and consumer products of the era that the show's creator, Matthew Weiner, likes to think that channel-hoppers who have never watched the show, but unwittingly chance upon an episode on television late at night, might jump to the conclusion that they are looking at a 50-year-old repeat.

"Every little detail is very important to Matt, and he surrounds himself with people who enjoy that kind of torture," says Freund. "I am one of them. When I get a phone call from a viewer saying, say, 'that brown wax sandwich bag could not have been more perfect; it rings bells from childhood', I know I'm doing my job properly. It's a wonderful thing." On the flip side, if viewers ever notice a minor mistake in her work (and none yet have) she'll be out on her ear. "If I were to accidentally, say, give the actors a gin bottle which had a label from 1975 rather than 1965, I'd be fired."

Snort derisively if you will. Though the plaudits and awards Mad Men has won have largely celebrated the commendable ambition of its multi-layered plot, and the execution of its talented cast, the programme's real place in the history books may eventually lie in the way its visual appearance influenced a generation of films and TV shows. When people talk, for example, about Tom Ford's Oscar-nominated film A Single Man, they frequently mention its stylish design. What they usually overlook is the fact that Ford's vintage look was basically copied from that of Mad Men. Indeed, his set designer was Freund's predecessor on the show, Amy Wells.

Given its success, you may wonder why a programme as visually arresting as Mad Men didn't come along sooner. Spend some time talking to Freund about her techniques, however, and you will realise that her show is very much a product of the online era. Without the internet to help her source materials and information, she says it would be "virtually impossible" to make to a realistic budget and timetable.

She leads a team of four people, plus two graphic designers, who divide their time between the show's set in Los Angeles, and the nearby storage facility, where their six rooms are a virtual Aladdin's cave of 1960s antiques and memorabilia. Their official job is to supply props, which on a technical level describes every item an actor picks up, touches, or moves. A desk-lamp is nominally part of the set, so supplied by a set designer. But if an actor has to throw it out of the window, it becomes Freund's responsibility.

Like all television shows, Mad Men is made to an intense production schedule. Her team get scripts between three and 10 days before filming commences, and must then race to establish exactly what props they need to find, and what those props ought to look like. Their first ports of call are vintage magazines, including McCall's, Ladies' Home Journal and Good Housekeeping, which contain endless images of contemporary interiors. Freund is particularly keen on 1960s TV guides. "They had amazing food suggestions. The displays of hors d'oeuvres and simple meals you could eat in front of your television are astounding."

Once they've got a rough idea of what they're after, Freund and her team hit the internet (they are big users of both eBay and Etsy, an eBay-like website for antique dealers). They also trawl LA's antique shops, prop stores, and flea-markets searching for kit that might fit the bill. "Finding objects can be difficult because we are working in a period which isn't necessarily collectible. Making them look new is particularly difficult, especially on a budget: if I had the time and money to make everything from scratch, that would of course be easier, but instead I have to find things and restore them."

Her team spend weekends at garage sales, nabbing stuff that might come in handy in future episodes. If they chance upon rare items – stereos, TV sets, telephones and hollowed-out square refrigerators are said to be particularly tough to get hold of – they snap them up on the spot, and add them to their stocks. It's like taking part in a frantic scavenger hunt, seven days a week, for a living.

They have become experts at typing exactly the right terms into internet search engines to get hold of stuff online. "If you say you're looking for a jam jar from, say, 1963, you're never going to find it. So you have to use terms like "assorted jars" or "containers". And then add the antique line. You find yourself coming up with creative search terms that will lead you to something that someone didn't know was of value."

The bane of Freund's life is getting hold of household stuff that was mundane, but breakable. Drinks bottles, which the film-makers naturally get through a fair number of, are particularly tough: "the shapes today are different, the tops are different, and almost all of the originals have been broken or thrown away. It can be very, very difficult to find exactly what would be right, and we are of course obsessed with what is right." Glassware often gets broken, and can be hard to replace.

When she can, Freund cultivates relationships with collectors. Lots of her drinking kit comes via the owner of a specialist store in Silver Lake, California, called Barkeeper. The writing implements used around Don Draper's office – biros, pencils, cheaper fountain pens and felt-tips – are often supplied by a retired military man from Texas called George Fox, who writes a blog about ballpoints and is apparently capable, by way of a party trick, of telling you the exact date, to within a few months, that a particular Sheaffer or Bic rolled off the production line.

Occasionally, the job involves serious detective work. When this season's plot called for Draper to create a Christmas TV advert for a brand of tinned processed ham, Freund spent days tracking one down: "The ham was a very big deal. I eventually found a woman who worked for a ham company in Poland. Nobody I had previously spoken with knew about ham that opened with the key in a can. But she did. And she tracked one down for me. All I had to do was to re-label it. Nowadays, of course hams come in plastic."

Her graphic designers, meanwhile, divide their time between producing convincing labels for these tins, and creating realistic-looking menus for restaurant scenes. Later in the series, they are even (spoiler alert!) tasked with finding boxes of the breakfast cereal for which a well-refreshed Draper comes up with the underwhelming tagline: "a cure for the common breakfast".

Without their efforts, Mad Men wouldn't work. It's a unique kind of period drama, in that it covers an era that many of its viewers lived through and remember. Since the programme tells the history of branding – which, in a funny way, is the history of modern-day America – it has to get those brands exactly right. So while Freund and her endeavours might be considered a luxury on the set of other shows, on Mad Men, her obsession is a necessity, right down to the style of those ice cubes.

Series four of 'Mad Men' starts on Wednesday at 10pm on BBC4

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Princess Olga in 'You Can't Get the Staff'
tvReview: The anachronistic aristocrats, it seemed, were just happy to have some attention
Arts and Entertainment
Laura Wood, winner of the Montegrappa Scholastic Prize for New Children’s Writing

Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search

Arts and Entertainment
Pulling the strings: Spira Mirabilis

Arts and Entertainment
Neville's Island at Duke of York's theatre
musicReview: The production has been cleverly cast with a quartet of comic performers best known for the work on television
Arts and Entertainment
Banksy's 'The Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' in Bristol

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
For a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’


Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'


Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from


Arts and Entertainment
Team Tenacity pitch their fetching solar powered, mobile phone charging, heated, flashy jacket
tvReview: No one was safe as Lord Sugar shook things up
Owen said he finds films boring but Tom Hanks managed to hold his attention in Forrest Gump
Arts and Entertainment
Bono and Apple CEO Tim Cook announced U2's surprise new album at the iPhone 6 launch
Music Album is set to enter UK top 40 at lowest chart position in 30 years
Arts and Entertainment
The Michael McIntyre Chat Show airs its first episode on Monday 10 March 2014
Arts and Entertainment


These heroes in a half shell should have been left in hibernation
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Flanagan with his novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North
books'The Narrow Road to the Deep North' sees the writer become the third Australian to win the accolade
Arts and Entertainment
New diva of drama: Kristin Scott Thomas as Electra
Arts and Entertainment
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

    A new American serial killer?

    Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
    Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

    Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

    Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
    Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

    Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

    Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
    Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

    Wildlife Photographer of the Year

    Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
    Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

    Want to change the world? Just sign here

    The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?
    Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals

    'You need me, I don’t need you'

    Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals
    How to Get Away with Murder: Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama

    How to Get Away with Murder

    Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama
    A cup of tea is every worker's right

    Hard to swallow

    Three hospitals in Leicester have banned their staff from drinking tea and coffee in public areas. Christopher Hirst explains why he thinks that a cuppa is every worker's right
    Which animals are nearly extinct?

    Which animals are nearly extinct?

    Conservationists in Kenya are in mourning after the death of a white northern rhino, which has left the species with a single male. These are the other species on the brink
    12 best children's shoes

    Perfect for leaf-kicking: 12 best children's shoes

    Find footwear perfect to keep kids' feet protected this autumn
    Anderlecht vs Arsenal: Gunners' ray of light Aaron Ramsey shines again

    Arsenal’s ray of light ready to shine again

    Aaron Ramsey’s injury record has prompted a club investigation. For now, the midfielder is just happy to be fit to face Anderlecht in the Champions League
    Comment: David Moyes' show of sensitivity thrown back in his face by former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson

    Moyes’ show of sensitivity thrown back in his face... by Ferguson

    Manchester United legend tramples on successor who resisted criticising his inheritance
    Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

    Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

    Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
    British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

    British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

    Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
    Ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities - not London, or Edinburgh, but Salisbury

    Lonely Planet’s Best in Travel 2015

    UK city beats Vienna, Paris and New York to be ranked seventh in world’s best tourist destinations - but it's not London