A behind-the-scenes glance at our alumni
Interviewed by Allen Lee Hughes. This month: Jim Fenhagen '82
What are you currently doing in your life and career that you are proud of?
In terms of life, I am most proud of raising our son with my wife Julianne. He just graduated from Kenyon College where I attended before NYU, and he plans to be a lawyer. I'm hoping he can negotiate my contracts at some point! We are very proud of his achievements.
I am also proud to be a board member at Manhattan Neighborhood Network, the public access TV stations in NYC. It has evolved into a vibrant educational institution teaching journalistic storytelling and media skills to young urban broadcasters. You can also look at it as an extension of our constitutional right to freedom of speech, which is especially important right now for obvious reasons.
Career-wise, I am proud of the ongoing design studio dynamic I have created over the many years of being in the broadcast design business. I have been able to mentor and train a large group of talented assistants and designers, and together we have had great success winning 21 Design Emmys working both in the US and around the world.
I also want to add that my recent design for The Late Show with Stephen Colbert ranks highly for most satisfying project. Working in the iconic Ed Sullivan Theater was quite a thrill. I grew up watching my favorite British invasion bands perform on TV every Sunday night, never imagining that I would someday be part of restoring the theater to its original glory. I was very happy with how that project turned out and the success of the show. I designed the original Colbert Report and it was great be part of Stephen's move to The Late Show.
You graduated in 1982 and your career has been very productive. What secrets, principles, talents, assistance, and support do you feel have made you so successful?
Well fortunately, I love what I do. I think this is a huge part of being successful. I was also fortunate to get a good education and to be influenced at a young age by great teachers. I had a fantastic art teacher in high school where I learned to paint and draw. I also had, at the same school, an inspirational English and Theater teacher who I am still close with. I think my well-rounded liberal arts education (Kenyon College) has served me well, and is the foundation for coming up with original design concepts that are the key to staying successful in a very competitive business. Of course, I had great teachers at NYU including Lloyd Burlingame, Fred Voelpel, Arden Fingerhut and Oliver Smith.
How are you currently involved with the department? Are there any ways that you would like to be more involved?
I have enjoyed participating in numerous third year student portfolio reviews, as well several classroom talks for third year students. I have always been interested in doing a class on design for television.
Have you worked with any NYU alumni or current students? How did that work out?
I have hired many NYU graduates over the years, such as Andre Durette ‘96 and Mark Solan ‘91, both of whom are talented designers. Doss Freel ‘14, a more recent graduate, has recently joined my team as well. Andre is currently a senior design director in our group and has created numerous award-winning designs over the years.
I have worked with many talented NYU alumni lighting directors, most recently Neil Galen '91 who did a great job lighting our set for Megyn Kelly Today, which recently premiered on NBC.
Do you have an anecdote that you think current students and faculty would find amusing or learn from?
One of my favorite stories involves Jon Stewart who hosted The Daily Show on Comedy Central. The Daily Show had hired me in 2006 to design a travel set for the mid-term election. It subsequently led to being hired to design every set for Jon until he retired from Comedy Central. We designed his New York studio set twice as well as sets for every election and mid-term election. We had built up a great working relationship with Jon and the Daily Show staff. During one of our installations, Jon walked out into a brand new set, which he had not yet seen, and upon spotting me, shouted out to the room full of staff and stagehands..."Fenhagen, when are you going to fuck up?" The ultimate Jon Stewart endorsement.
Trace your entry into your fields from graduate school to your current pursuits.
When I was a second year student at NYU, I was fortunate to be hired as the designer for a summer theater in Colorado, based on a producer seeing my NYU Design Show work. Yes, you can get a job from the Design Show! There, I worked with two directors who both continued to hire me for years. One was from LA and one was from NY. The LA director hired me to design my first TV show, which I managed to complete during my third year at NYU. I didn't even own a TV at the time so it was quite the learning experience.
The NY director also hired me during my third year to design my first off-off Broadway show and I got my first NY Times review. So I got a big career boost before I even left NYU. I also spent time with former NYU teacher, Karl Eigsti, as his main studio assistant, which was a great experience. Karl did it all... Broadway, TV and film, corporate, and was a great mentor. He generously introduced me to directors and helped get my regional theater career launched. I continued to work with my NY director and worked on many new plays off Broadway.
I later was offered a job in TV as a resident designer for MTI studios where I landed just as cable TV was taking off. There I worked with MTV ,PBS, A&E, Nickelodeon, the History Channel and VH1 to name a few, designing every kind of TV show... news, sports , music video, talk , commercials. A great learning experience and the basis for my career.
At one point I took a job helping out some of my former NYU classmates at ABC News drafting and model making, my first big network job. In short order, all my friends left for other work and I was hired to be senior designer at ABC news, traveling around the world designing big news sets, morning shows and eventually sports shows. Right place at the tight time! At this point, I felt pretty well rounded and had numerous clients calling. I started my own design company, Production Design Group, and took on a partner because I had too much work for one designer.
We quickly had some really huge projects including the MTV VJ studio set, which was enormous; a great break that led to many subsequent projects. During this time, I landed the Where in the World is Carmen San Diego series on PBS, winning my first Emmy award. By that time, I had built a network of directors and producers who wanted to work with me and getting work in this business is 90% word of mouth. From there I became involved in bigger and bigger network shows covering sports, news, entertainment, and talk shows. I have worked all over the US and in Canada and Mexico as well as multiple projects in Israel, England, Australia, Kenya and China.
What do you find to be the most difficult part of your process and how do you resolve it?
I think coming up with original, fresh ideas is both the most difficult part yet also the most rewarding part of the process. Solving this is something I really honed at NYU. Trying to get your first ideas out of your head and onto paper (or screen) can sometimes be challenging. At school, I learned to just start drawing ... freely, not worrying if it is perfect. Then put another sheet of tracing paper over that and keep drawing until you have created something you are proud of. Just don’t get stuck. I'm not sure this is as easy to do on the computer as by hand. I still believe drawing is the best way to get creative thoughts out of your head.
What moment(s) of your career are you most proud of?
When I was with ABC News, I was sent to Israel working with Ted Koppel who was the anchor of Nightline. The program was called "Nightline in the Holy Land "and it was a conversation between Israelis and Palestinians on a theater stage in Jerusalem. I designed the stage set making reference to the beautiful stone walls of Jerusalem. All was going well until at the 11th hour we had a request from Palestinians demanding that we somehow create a wall between their delegation and Israelis or they would not appear on the show. So the producers asked me to come up with something that would suffice. Instead of a wall I created a low railing that divided the two groups hoping that this would work. The day of the show the Palestinian group appeared and walked on the stage to take a look at my railing and thankfully approved it. The show went on that night and Ted Koppel even sat on the railing and used it as a metaphor for bridging a cultural and political gap as he jumped over to the other side. It was a wonderful moment in both television and history. A week later a picture of the set was in TIME Magazine who had covered this historic program.
Another of my proud moments was the first "Democracy Plaza” set at Rockefeller Center for NBC News election coverage in 2004 .We transformed the Plaza for two weeks into a visitor experience celebrating democracy and then televised it. We had come up with a crazy idea to use window washing rigs to hoist up red or blue rolls of fabric creating a giant graphic which illustrated who was winning the electoral votes on the facade of 30 Rock. It was simple but was very effective and was used for many more elections after that one. We created a winners line at least 20 stories high on the building. At one point on election night the blue banner passed the red banner and the huge crowd that had gathered in the plaza erupted in cheers. It was a thrilling moment. Unfortunately, the red banner was ultimately on top that night and George Bush became president.
When did you get interested in theater or film design and how?
I sometimes feel that I have been doing this since I was a kid. I was really into creating environments to hang out when I was a teenager. I turned my bedroom into a Moroccan den and our basement into a nightclub for live music in our family house in DC. I was president of the drama club in high school though I considered myself an actor at the time. In college where I started as an art major, I was able to combine art and theater as a designer for the stage. I actually was able to create an independent rendering for the stage course at Kenyon bringing together the theatre and art departments.
While at NYU I had my first exposure to design for film and television. I was lucky to have a course taught by Steve Hendrickson and one day we had a tour of the ABC design studio on the upper west side. I really had no idea of that type of work and I thought it was very intriguing. It took many years of exploration but eventually I found myself working and designing in that same studio.
What or who were your influences?
I spoke earlier of my great high school teachers who influenced me. One in particular, Ted Walch, who taught English and drama at St Albans school in DC was my biggest influence. He also went to Kenyon College and influenced me to attend which was a great experience and where I really began designing. He later hired me to design many of his professional projects. We are still in touch and are currently discussing my designing his farewell production as he is retiring from directing.
I was also greatly influenced at NYU by Lloyd, Fred Voepel, Oliver and Arden Fingerhut. They were accomplished designers as well as excellent teachers and I learned a great deal about being a professional designer in their classrooms.
As you design and meet the challenges of being a freelance artist, are there any voices that you particularly hear from the aggregation of voices? From School?
My teachers at NYU that taught me to express emotion in my designs. Without emotion, design is just a pretty picture, which fades quickly. Lloyd Burlingame's class was the first time I created an emotional response to music. Arden Fingerhut taught how the emotional qualities of light could be a tool to express a concept. These were great lessons that stayed with me and added to my ability to inject emotion in my work.
Fred, among other things, taught me how to be tough and stand up for my ideas. He could be very hard on students but we needed that to be ready to get out and succeed in the business.
What are some of your other interests in life?
I have always had a parallel career as a musician/ bass player. I have been in bands since I was in 7th grade and can't seem to give it up. After moving to NY I had an original new wave band that played clubs like CBGB's and the Mud Club. We even played a party for school at the old 6th street design studio. A few years ago I switched from electric bass to upright bass which had been a huge challenge to learn but now that's pretty much all I play.
My wife is a great singer and we now play in a zydeco, country, roots band called "Big Mamou". I compose many of the songs and find it a great way to relax and not think about design for a few hours.
Any final thoughts?
I often think about how timing and business developments played a role in my success. I began transitioning into TV design just as cable TV was taking off. I managed to make contacts with most of the major cable networks and as a result my design business grew as these new channels grew. It was a big change in the business where the major broadcast networks, ABC, NBC and CBS had always been the giants of the industry. I see this same sort of climate and industry change happening as Internet and web based TV is gaining traction. Some of the budgets are small now but eventually they will grow and likely become the new place for designers to work. I imagine if I were starting out now, this is where I would be looking to explore possibilities.