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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