Alexandra Lange | Essays

Rearranging the Deck Chairs

My erstwhile colleagues at New York Magazine have covered the first episode of the third season of Mad Men in so many ways, there’s not much for a fan to add. I must praise the tight and revealing parallelism of the promotions of Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser) and Ken Cosgrove (Aaron Staton). Their entrances, their body language, their questions for new British overlord Lane Pryce (Jared Harris), their exits were priceless displays of the difference between a pessimist and an optimist, an egotist and an extrovert. The jaunty way Ken took notes in the subsequent meeting, after their joint occupation of the position of Head of Accounts, made me chuckle with anticipatory glee.

But during the office scene with Pryce, something bothered me. Where in the Sterling Cooper office was his office? Why was it smaller than Don Draper’s? These questions are not insignificant, because they get at the ambiguity of Pryce’s position — which I suspect will be a dominant theme for the next few episodes. (I didn’t actually know he was the financial officer until I read the episode notes.) Pryce’s office says he is a rung down from Don in the hierarchy by its size, its lack of view, and yet he was making Don fire people, pulling company strings in the lavish and fanciful office of nominally in charge Bert Cooper. That Pryce is well aware of office appearances is apparent when he reprimands his own secretary (ambiguously male) for taking over the office of the old Head of Accounts. Mr. Hooker is sent back outside, to sit in public with the hens.

Series creator Matthew Weiner has been careful all along about office appearances. My dissertation was about corporate modernism in the 1950s and early 1960s, and this was when the size, furnishing and positioning of offices became an exact science. Don Draper’s office is, I would guess, twice the size of Pete Campbell’s, though I haven’t counted off the ceiling grid (probably a 5’ by 5’ module, which became standard) to know for sure. Don has a corner. You have to walk a long way to his door. Don has both a desk and two chairs and a sitting area, while Pete has a desk facing a sofa and a single window. Even Don’s modern art (undoubtedly picked by a corporate committee consisting of one Bert Cooper) is bigger.

Each element has meaning to the participants in the organizational chart, which is why having a door to close (even a door with someone else’s name on it) was so important to Peggy, and now Mr. Hooker. You can read a lot about character even in the same size offices of Pete and Peggy. He has his set up for socializing, desk facing the door and the sofa. Hers is all business, desk facing the wall and taking up the center of the room. Come to see her and you won’t get asked to sit down and have a drink.

We’ll see what happens in Pryce’s office, and to Pryce’s office as the season progresses. A change in furniture could spell disaster for our favorite sentient characters.

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