James Pearse Connelly isn't just an Emmy Award-winning production designer, art director and set decorator. He is also a visionary who recognized from early on the potential of reality television. Connelly has worked on The Voice (2011 - ), The Biggest Loser (2004 - ) and Top Chef (2006 - ). But Connelly's résumé extends far beyond reality TV. Connelly and his production studio, JPConnelly, have designed environments for programs as diverse as the MTV Movie Awards (for which he won two Emmys), web series like TechCrunch.com, and feature films like the critically acclaimed The Kids Are All Right (2010).
His off-stage scenery work for NBC’s The Voice provides dedicated spaces for the show’s coaches and contestants designed to facilitate their creativity. These spaces also highlight the individual coaches’ personalities and philosophies.
Connelly is an unabashed lover of the reality TV genre (“People like to poo-poo this kind of television, but I love it because it’s fabulous”) and is deservedly proud of the work that he has done in that genre. We had the opportunity to catch up with the energetic and enthusiastic Connelly, who talked about his experiences as a production designer and shared advice about incorporating good design into one's everyday life. 

ScreenPrism: How did you get into production design and art direction? 

James Pearse Connelly: I’m from New Jersey, and as I kid I had never made it west of Ohio until I moved to San Diego after college. I grew up with a single mom art teacher and an architect dad, so my upbringing was in that kind of art and design world. I have to admit that for a minute I was like, “No more drawing classes!” But then I realized that I wanted to do art. I joined the drama club, but I was never a thespian. I worked backstage and did stage design.

I really did just sort of fall into it. I got into some good design programs. I went to Rutgers and on the first day, there was a checklist: Acting, Stage Management, or Design. 'So,' I thought, 'I just check that box.' And then that first day of design class, I knew. This was my career.

After college, I moved to San Diego and then I eventually moved to LA. I wanted to stay near the industry people. I wanted to stay near the people telling the stories.

I really hit at the right time. Reality TV was starting to take off, and I just surfed that wave of reality TV. It’s like a Barbie Dream Job. I like having a good time, and it is a lot of fun.

James Pearse Connelly

SP: What is the process like when someone approaches you with a new project? What questions do you ask?

JPC: I’m a bit of a feeler. I have lots of emotions. I like to talk to the visionary behind the series about the format and about the show. I almost always get lots of random adjectives from them, like, "cool," "gloss," "needs to feel real."

Then I dig deeper. I try to get the gossip about what they really think the show is about. Who is going to be watching? When is it going to air? That kind of thing. Then I do tear sheets – pictures from magazines or Pinterest or wherever. I’m showing them lots of things, throwing lots of things on the table and seeing what speaks to them.

Then, I go into a hole. I really pencil things out. I look for tangible things that can make [the set] feel real. I do a rough pass on the concept with the visionary. Nine times out of ten we will do video stills and a video fly through. We will see what really pulls the client into it. We will see what really works.

The Biggest Loser
The Biggest Loser

SP: What's an example of something that didn’t work? 

JPC: I make mistakes all the time; that’s like the story of my life. Sometimes I get too into my own head. I am my own worst critic. I just keep taking on as much as I can, but I keep practicing. When I first started on The Voice, I hated what I was doing. I always wanted to make it better. I am obsessed with getting better.

On The Voice, I wanted to incorporate gold, but then after color correction, [everything] just felt green. It was that chlorine blonde hair green. I kept trying to make it look gold, and I could never get past that chlorine green.

SP: Do you design your own furniture or fabrics?

JPC: I do. I like to take on as many custom projects as I can. It always comes out rough for me and then I’ll work with artists. I really want to bring something special and unique to each project.

In design there’s always a challenge to do custom work, whether it's textiles or wallpaper. There’s always exciting things happening there.

The Voice

SP: How can we incorporate good design in our own lives? 

JPC: Take your inspiration from your favorite restaurant or hotels. Everyone has been to Vegas, right? Think about your favorite hotels there. There’s really great and fresh design happening in hotels and restaurants. Ask yourself why you love it so much. Try to isolate that thing you love.

My boyfriend and I just moved, and we’re still kind of fussing with it right now, getting everything into the new place. First, you need to have an amazing couch. Then notice where you look when you first walk in. What are those first looks? Those are the places that will make you happy. You need to make happy moments there. Unpack the pictures of your husband or your family or your dog or whatever. That’s what we did. We’re living in a chaos of boxes, but we made a happy place.

The Voice 

SP: Do you have any final words of wisdom on design?

JPC: Don’t be afraid of color. Don’t be afraid of design. Try it. Design is about a journey. If you make a mistake, just change it.