For Christopher, designing awards shows offers its own rewards

If the rewards of one’s career reflect the volume of one’s achievements, Roy Christopher — this year’s Art Directors Guild Lifetime Achievement honoree — boasts a body of work that could fill three lifetimes.

The vet television production designer, who got his start at NBC as a background painter in the mid-1960s, has been nominated for 32 Emmys and won six. He has designed the sets of such TV favorites as “Frasier,” “Murphy Brown,” “Welcome Back Kotter” and “The Carol Burnett Show,” as well as the Oscar, Emmy, Grammy and Tony awards shows.

Christopher’s interest in production design was inspired unexpectedly: While painting the stage on “The Andy Williams Show,” he caught a glimpse of the set in a monitor, and “it was like a jolt of something went through me and I was like, ‘Oh, my God, I can do that.’”

From epiphany to practice, Christopher’s rise was quick. “In a matter of weeks I went from painting scenery to being the assistant art director on the Dean Martin series, which was the top variety series on the air at that time,” he recalls. The work has been steady since.

When Christopher first tackles a sitcom, his method is simple. “It’s all on the page,” he says. “I read (the script) about three or four times. As I read it I start seeing images — seeing the stairway, seeing the front door.”

As for his awards show work, Christopher first designed the Oscars in 1978. This year he’ll do it for the 15th time — more than any other designer. His design process is organic and doesn’t necessarily fit a theme: “I doodle around until something appears. It’s not an intellectual process.”

He does note that many of his Oscar designs have an art deco feel to them. When told that one of his sets was reminiscent of the 1939 World’s Fair, Christopher responded: “I think I was conceived at the 1939 World’s Fair! I do have in my DNA some kind of deco-moderne-futuristic-retro thing going.” The designer, who keeps three offices and often works in his home studio on nights and weekends, credits his fulfillment to the diversity of his work. “What turns me on, what keeps me fresh and young, is that variety,” he explains. “I wouldn’t want to do just awards shows, nor would I want to do just situation comedies. I’m very fortunate and blessed to be able to bounce back and forth.”

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