Real Work

Interior Design Magazine - June 2000

Art director Monroe Kelly and architect Lee Ledbetter transform a New Orleans landmark into a dramatic backdrop for MTV's Real World.

NOW IN ITS NINTH SEASON, Music Television's Real World has been rated the number one-ranked cable television program among 18-to 34-year-old viewers. For those who do not fall within the "MTV generation" (anyone outside the aforementioned age bracket or without cable), Real World is a "reality-based" docu-drama wherein seven "real people" (i.e., not actors), who are strangers to one another, are placed in a shared living space to have their ensuing trials and tribulations videotaped for five months--and then broadcast to millions of cult-like viewers across the country. Through the years, casts have cohabited in a diverse range of environments--from a Manhattan loft to a plantation house in Honolulu--each location and set providing a memorable and distinct backdrop for that season's particular melodramas.

This season's dramatis personae can be seen ensconced in the Belfort mansion, a landmarked Greek revival home built some time in the 19th century on New Orleans's historic St. Charles Avenue. Co-designed by art director Monroe Kelly and architect Lee Ledbetter, the house is a colorful and richly textured tribute to the vibrant and diverse culture of the Louisiana port city. Although the mansion's history remains somewhat vague, it is known that the building was divided into apartments during the 1930s. When the New Orleans-based co-designers first arrived on the scene, the house had been gutted down to the studs. Kelly and Ledbetter's job was to restore the original plan, and in doing so, convert the Belfort property (inside and out) into a comfortable living environment and a functional production set within a ten-week time frame.

As New Orleans natives and trained architects, the collaborators had little trouble approximating the original plan of the two-story structure. "Wide, central halls with parlors to each side serve as organizing devices on both levels," explains Ledbetter, who started his practice in 1995. With 4,000 sq. ft. designated for living space and 3,000 sq. ft. given to production offices, the house, as it is seen on television, harks back to the city's grand, old homes. On the first floor, a center hall gives way to an assemblage of common rooms including a library, billiard room, living room, and kitchen. Bedrooms are upstairs along with a large, communal bathroom. The central hall on this level is furnished with a collection of mismatched armoires for the cast.

Combining New Orleans's antique shops, art galleries, and thrift stores, in addition to surfing, the designers assembled an eclectic mix of furniture, art, and accessories that creates an evocative background for the show. "The house has to hold the viewers' interest for the duration of the show," explain the designers. "It is not just a backdrop--it has a distinct personality--much like a member of the cast." Furnishing the house posed a unique set of challenges. "A set is a set and a residence is a residence. It's not often that a project must function as both," says Kelly, who designed sets for Interview with the Vampire and The Pelican Brief The designers recall numerous lessons learned during the design of the house: "We couldn't use ceiling fans because they would produce a strobe effect when combined with the lights. We couldn't use canopy beds because they would interfere with the booms." In the end, Ledbetter and Kelly juxtaposed antique and contemporary pieces that underscore the youthful esprit of the show and reflect the many cultures that have converged in Louisiana during the past two centuries.

The profusion of color that gives the house an exuberant, offhand look was carefully orchestrated by the designers to be photogenic and flattering to the cast members. "A jewel tone palette was established early on," say the designers. "Stand-ins for each of the cast members were filmed against the walls and bedspreads, so that we could see how any given character would look in all of the rooms." Colors were then "massaged and enhanced" to create the textures and richness that is seen throughout the house. Bright, tropical hues lend the downstairs rooms a crisp, finished feeling, whereas the upstairs features layered wallpapers and other surface treatments that convey a "found quality and a decayed elegance." It is yet to be determined how the Real World cast members feel about their New Orleans home. But, says Ledbetter, "the house looks great from the camera's view."

Available from
The Real World You Never Saw: New Orleans The Real World: New Orleans Book

Updated - December 29, 2006