Re-creating ’90s Suburbia for Little Fires Everywhere

For Little Fires Everywhere author Celeste Ng, visiting the set of her novel turned Hulu series was a walk back in time. Production designer Jessica Kender gave the best-selling writer a tour of the sets she created in Los Angeles to stand in for tony Shaker Heights, Ohio, on the show and was pleased that Ng recalled memories of her own teen years in the Cleveland suburb.

Little Fires

Celeste grew up there and had a very clear vision, so we didn’t veer too much from the book,” says Kender. “She walked through the house, and it was great to hear her talk about her friends from Shaker Heights High School.” Leaving no stone unturned, the designer says a Cleveland Indians pennant, in particular, sparked Ng to reminisce.

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The eight-episode series Little Fires Everywhere, which premieres March 18, is the tale of two devoted mothers and their families, whose lives are intertwined but not necessarily in a good way. Reese Witherspoon portrays Elena Richardson, the perfectionist matriarch of a wealthy Norman Rockwell–ian family with four children. Kerry Washington’s Mia Warren, who rents a duplex from Elena, is the restless and often homeless bohemian artist and mother of daughter Pearl.

The Richardson mansion plays an additional character that should receive top billing in the credits, so finding just the right setting was paramount. Kender and the film’s location manager scouted homes in the real Shaker Heights before returning to Los Angeles only to find the perfect house in Hancock Park. “We saw this big beautiful Tudor-esque house built in the 1920s. It was in this little pocket on top of a hill with a fountain in the middle. Everything about it read very old money, it has this beautifully moneyed perfection type of vibe,” she says of the house’s exterior.

Research for Elena’s Type-A interiors began with a look at decor in the ’90s. “We stayed as close to the book as we could, and I pulled up all those aspirational catalogs. [These] people don’t believe they are rich; they believe they are comfortable, so we didn’t go super high end,” says the Midwest-born designer, who graduated from high school in the late ’90s.

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“At that time, Ethan Allen was aspirational.” Nineties-style Shaker Heights translated into an all-white kitchen with copper pots and marble countertops where much of the action takes place. Working with set decorator Lisa Clark, Kender created a living room with a massive fireplace, custom made of stone, that aids the narrative with the changing of the seasons. Elena, who would color-coordinate her four children’s lunch bags, also color-coded the books in her library. “Her character was all about control, so the items in the house were carefully chosen,” says Kender.