Ross MacDonald: Prop Man

By Peggy Roalf   Thursday May 5, 2022


If you’re a fan of TV superseries Parks & Recreation, Silver Linings Playbook or Boardwalk Empire—and one with a discerning eye for period detail—you probably have an appreciation for set property. Elements like old newspapers, books, a lottery ticket from Havana, and even a wallet or passport case can create an aura of authenticity that makes you a believer in the characters and their journey through the seemingly real environments they inhabit. How the producers achieved this realism lies in the exceptional artistry of detail. And master of the genre, Ross MacDonald, is the author of the work mentioned above. 

In the new book about MacDonald, Prop Man, Steven Heller introduces and interview the artist and artifactor, who could as easily be described as self-made man as he is as prop man. Growing up in rural Ontario, surviving a childhood bout of illness, MacDonald says that he spent most of his time in recovery reading comics and drawing from Classics Illustrated. Once he got home from the hospital, he says his parents practiced a form of benign neglect that encouraged him to pursue his own interests. “Not knowing how to do something was no reason not to do it,” he says.  

He found his way to Toronto and did a few illustrated book projects during the eighties, but admits that illustration was then just “one of the hustles I had going to pay the rent.” Eventually he landed at a big city daily, where he worked as a pool artist in a style he describes as a “syrupy, idealized, all-American innocence of thirties and forties children’s books” based on an encyclopedia his family owned, published in the 1930s.

Fast forward to 1987, when MacDonald had moved his family to NYC, and later to rural Connecticut, where he had room to set up a flatbed press in a print shop. His shop was in a barn and outfitted with metal and wood type that he picked up when commercial printers were going digital and practically paying people to take the old equipment off their hands. “I printed promo pieces like mad, sent them out to art directors and started getting display type and design jobs,” he says, using classical fonts like Bodoni, Cheltenham, and Alternate Gothic, to name a few.

His first prop job for a movie was in 1997; when it was done, he didn’t give it a second thought. But a few years later a prop master who was looking for someone to recreate a journal (left) from the 1830s got in touch. “Because I had been collecting, hoarding, really, a lot of old books and paper, I was able to give him lots of information,” he relates. Between the fascinating research and the idea the he was actually serving as a forger, he had a great time with the assignment. His enjoyment is evident in the results and the results led to a steady flow of projects. For the 2014 movie John Wick, starring Keanu Reeves, he trained the actor to do gold stamping in one of the scenes, for which he rented out the printshop props from his own studio and served as a “hands double” for the most delicate work.

There’s much more to the story, but for that you’ll have to get the book: Ross MacDonald: Prop Man (Princeton Architectural Press 2022). And if you’re anywhere near NYC this week, you can join Ross and Steve at the book launch at Rizzoli Bookstore. Thursday, May 12, 6:00 ET: Ross MacDonald in Conversation with Steven Heller, Rizzoli Bookstore, 1133 Broadway, New York, NY Register