Bafta-nominated designers Samantha Harley and Miri Katz tell DQ how they created a unique and vibrant look for the world of Netflix teen comedy-drama Sex Education.
From the moment it arrived on Netflix back in January 2019, the eye-catching world of teen drama Sex Education stood out for its design as much its endearing cast of characters or its topical and emotional storylines. Hard to place in any particular period, it blends contemporary and retro styles with a school backdrop that’s more recognisably American than British, despite being set in the latter.
It was certainly a talking point for the viewers who binge-watched that first season, with the series far removed from other British school-set dramas like long-running children’s series Grange Hill, Waterloo Road or even the corridors of comedy The Inbetweeners.
Created by lead writer Laurie Nunn and produced by Eleven, Sex Education follows the students at Moordale High, where Otis (Asa Butterfield) becomes a sex counsellor for his classmates, following in the footsteps of his therapist mother Jean (Gillian Anderson) and supported by his friends Eric (Ncuti Gatwa) and Maeve (Emma Mackey). Mastering the balance between comedy and drama, the series has found the ability to draw in audiences across all age groups while sensitively discussing subjects such as sexual assault, sexuality and sexually transmitted infections.
But if the aim of the series was to create a unique and distinctive world where the events of the show would play out, it has been a major success for production designer Samantha Harley and set decorator Miri Katz, who have now been nominated for their work on season one in the production design category at this year’s coronavirus-delayed Bafta Television Craft Awards. The online ceremony takes place this Friday.
It was at the beginning of 2018 that Harley began work on the series, having previously teamed up with lead director Ben Taylor on Channel 4 comedy Catastrophe. From the outset, it became clear that everyone working on the show had to buy into Sex Education’s unique sense of place, which pays homage to 1980s romcoms and the films of US director John Hughes (The Breakfast Club, Ferris Buller’s Day Off). The challenge was to combine those numerous retro influences without making them appear mismatched or jarring to the audience.
“What’s so beautiful about the script is, to me, it’s always been about young people talking and having conversations,” Harley tells DQ. “It’s almost a more analogue world. What makes it work for me as a designer is every member of my team is also committed to that look.
“If you’ve got the runner or petty-cash buyer going out to buy something, they’re making a conscious design decision on my behalf, which I’ll approve and look at. But what really is invaluable is every single person in that team was signed up to what it was going to be. When they were buying a wallet or an action prop or just a door handle, it was a conscious design decision that it was part of our world, and that’s what really carried us through as a design department because it’s made it so much a holistic experience for the viewer.”
As production designer, Harley would lay out her initial ideas for the various sets needed for the show, before set decorator Katz would put her own thoughts together on how they might be realised, using mood boards, colours and patterns to start envisioning the finished setting.
“She’ll often go along with my bonkers ideas and we’ll come up with something pretty organic and quite beautiful. It’s a really nice working process,” Katz says. “One of our first discussions was about how we wanted to create a very distinctive world. We had a set of rules we wanted to stick to that would work within that world, so we were not too worried about something being very period, 70s or 50s.
“We had quite a lot of fun just playing with those different elements to create something that makes people go, ‘OK, this is unusual.’ Then you start getting into it and you think, ‘Of course that world exists.’ We don’t have to be tied to, ‘Would that really happen at school in the UK?’ because it’s not important. What’s important is these incredible characters. It’s a potent mix of real people in a beautiful world that could exist.”
The school itself proved to one of the biggest parts of the design work, with the production utilising a disused university campus in South Wales to create Moordale High. “That was a massive challenge at the start to source and dress a huge school and find all the furniture,” Katz says.
“There was so much stuff, and because it’s a long-running series, we were very keen to purchase everything rather than hire it. We didn’t have a very long prep time, so we had to hit the ground running. There were lots of trips to various antique fairs and auction houses, and eBay purchasing. I was driving all over the country at one point with a van trying to pick up as much as I could.”
The other key set in the series is the interior of Jean and Otis’s home, which also doubles as Jean’s office. “I personally would draw up the shape. Then, in collaboration with Miri and other people, we were looking at the tones and the layers of the house,” Harley explains.
“Jean lived there with her husband before their divorce, so they’ve been there for a while and nothing’s new. She’s a lady with an eye [for style], so she’s got quite an eclectic mix of stuff. But it doesn’t all match – we have all these different elements. Then myself and Miri would start looking at wallpaper and carpets. Miri found the sofa, which is just amazing. It’s quite an iconic piece in that set.
“We didn’t want to buy a new kitchen; we wanted it to have real life to it, so we found one on eBay and sent a chippie [carpenter] to London to pull it out of someone’s house and then build it into our set. Then we looked for tiles. It’s all of that. There’s also the life and the layers that live in that house. Is she tidy? Is she messy? How does it work as a family home with her workspace? Are there awkward moments if Otis is watching the television and Jean’s next client is there as well?”
The look of the house’s interior space was also guided by its exterior, which is among the many real locations used in the series around the picturesque Wye Valley, on the border between England and Wales.
“We recced a lot of houses for that location because it was our key set in season one and they all informed what we were doing and how we wanted the space to work,” Harley continues. “When we found the chalet, it blew us away. I was then able to bring in elements of the exterior of the chalet, including the layout, that would be believable.
“All the windows are size replicas from the location house. All of that informed it so, as a viewer, when you see an establishing shot of the exterior and you follow your artists into the house, you believe that is one location and you’re not going into a set. Ultimately, as a designer, weirdly, you don’t want people to think it’s a set. You want them to think it’s a real location that you’ve dressed.”
Another key set is Otis’s bedroom, which is located in the attic of the home he shares with his mother. “Kids’ bedrooms are always a challenge. They’ve got to be so different and nuanced because they’re telling so much story about that character, so we go to the writers and we would ask their advice,” Harley adds. “There’s always a backstory that can be told through the design because we’re trying to tell a story about their lives.”
Katz says there were often last-minute changes to deal with, “but that’s the fun of the job. You’d think, ‘How on Earth am I going to do this?’ We had an amazing team. It’s not just me running around like a headless chicken. There’s an incredible production buyer and assistant buyer, and we had brilliant art department assistants.”
When it came to creating the season-ending school prom, the production office resembled a production line as PVA glue, glitter and tissue paper were used to create its fairytale theme. “It was a bit bonkers,” Katz says. “There’s always some challenge but, generally, you’re just trying to get everything ready in time. When it’s season one, you’re just establishing everything and making sure you’re establishing it in the right way so it can push forward.”
Harley and Katz would lean on the writers for information about characters or locations, to help make the sets as specific as possible to their shared vision for the series. But the design team was also given ample freedom to bring their own ideas to the world of Moordale.
“We’re trusted to do our jobs and given that freedom,” Harley says. “The dialogue is always there, and that’s so important for people who could work quite autonomously. I need to be able to tell them it’s a yellow sofa so they don’t dress the artist in the same colour. It’s very important we have those conversations, and that does show because the overall look has piqued people’s interest. Creating a world that people question or are interested in and having that dialogue about it is really exciting, because most people have enjoyed how it looks and how it sat with the characters and the story.”
Building the world of Moordale continues to be an evolution heading into the show’s third season – production is due to resume next month after being delayed by the pandemic – and every member of the design team is now integral to maintaining Sex Education’s unique tone and style.
“Everyone is really invested in it, which is great because it means the pressure’s spread. It’s also really good for everyone in the team to feel like their input is really valued, which it is. But it doesn’t ever end,” Harley notes. “You’re constantly working on new locations or new sets, or there are new characters and you’re thinking about how they are going to fit into our world. We always have the framework and the guidelines, and we know we’re in tune with it, but it’s important to make sure it still all works holistically.”
In the current landscape of high-end drama, where series increasingly push the boundaries of genre, style and tone, Harley says people have “huge appreciation” for design.
“My role is always going to be about creating a world for really good scripts and really good characters,” she says. “That’s the same whether I work on a lower-budget project or a big-budget project. There’s just a different scale. Whenever there are conversations about bigger-picture stuff like money, my role is ultimately to be responsible for all of that but also to make sure what’s on screen at the end is right and upholds the look, be it very stylised or very accurate and period correct, whatever it needs to be.”
Harley also points to the collaboration between different departments on Sex Education, with design, costume and lighting, among others, all working together to create the best look for the series.
“It’s not everyone working on their own. It’s really collaborative,” she says. “It’s something we’ll go forward with and it makes for a much more unified and successful show. There are lots of exciting things to come.”
Katz is grateful for the “special” opportunity Sex Education has given her to create a unique-looking show. “Working with Sam in that way, it was amazing,” she adds. “The reason why people love the show is the characters are so brilliantly written and everyone can empathise with someone. It’s a show that’s come at the right time. It needed to be seen, and people are definitely ready to hear the stories of those characters. And it looks great.”