He designed the set of Seinfeld, yada yada yada

March 5, 2017 GMT

ARROYO SECO, N.M. — A show about nothing still has to look like something. Master of that domain was Thomas “Tho” Azzari, production designer for the hit sitcom Seinfeld.

Even now, in a lavish adobe home in the hills above Taos, with views that stretch from nearby snow-capped slopes across a vast mesa to San Antonio Mountain, Azzari, 76, is still never far from Jerry’s tidy Upper West Side apartment, the well-lit diner-style booths at Monk’s Café — the slices of Seinfeld’s New York he engineered on studio lots in Los Angeles almost 30 years ago.

On a recent afternoon, Azzari took a call from the design team of a new television show that wants to build Jerry’s apartment as a stunt. They hoped Azzari might send over his blueprints and sketches. Azzari told them he’d help. “It’s as popular as it ever was,” Azzari said, smiling as he hung up the phone. Seinfeld’s nine-season run ended in 1998.

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While not so identifiably Seinfeld as Michael Richards’ nutty histrionics or the real, spectacular phraseology that creators Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David wrote into popular usage, Azzari’s contributions to the show’s canon were essential to its enduring appeal.

Jerry’s apartment, for instance, is perhaps the most recognizable space in television history. Over the years, superfans have re-created that primary gathering place for Jerry, George, Elaine and Kramer as both a virtual reality gimmick and as a life-size pop-up exhibit.

Most recently, the internet buzzed with excitement at the news that a limited-edition collectible miniature replica of Jerry’s apartment was available, retailing for a few hundred bucks. The 6-inch-tall tchotchke, described by various bloggers as “flawlessly” and “fetishistically” detailed, has Azzari’s fingerprints all over: The collectible creators consulted with Azzari, borrowing his blueprints, swatches and photographs to attain the authenticity Seinfeld aficionados demand.

The miniature provides Azzari an opportunity to reflect on what has been a serendipitous lifetime spent constructing and designing the physical framework of fondly remembered sitcoms, films and television specials, Seinfeld being only the most conspicuous among a varied list of credits.

Although flattering, the level of interest in Seinfeld’s every scrap of minutiae reflects its overall quality and place in television lore, not necessarily a regard for the sets themselves, Azzari said. In fact, in his view, the ideal set is one you hardly see.

“My philosophy is that you should never be aware of the sets,” he said. “You want to make sure they’re appropriate, but you don’t want to take anything away from what’s going on. That’s why Jerry’s apartment is gray. … The color is the actors.”

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Azzari honed his set-design philosophy over a lengthy Hollywood tenure, one he describes alternately as accidental, incidental and lucky. A Bronx native, Azzari attended schools in Connecticut and Los Angeles for industrial design. In California, he worked a day job as a clerk in the purchasing department at CBS; he then leapt into a role as an assistant in the art department, where his background in design lent itself to sketching blueprints of studio spaces, offices and other off-set areas.

The idea that he could design materials in the television world was a welcome revelation. Without it, Azzari said, “I might’ve worked in Detroit, designing bumpers.”

Once, Al Heschong, the longtime head of CBS’ art department, spotted Azzari doodling. Heschong challenged Azzari to develop a three-dimensional depiction of a building using only an aerial photograph. The test went well; soon afterward, Azzari was working as a set designer, sketching out concepts under Heschong and others for projects like Gunsmoke, The Wild Wild West and Gilligan’s Island.

His curiosity about the business provided further design jobs. (“I was a pest,” is how Azzari puts it.) And each one would lead to the next. Azzari says he never had an agent. He progressed through the ranks, from talk shows to serial sitcoms, finally earning top-rung work as a production designer and even director, through personal connections and reputation alone.

“I laugh at myself; I say, I faked my way through 40 years,” he said. “… There’s no ego in this whatsoever. I was always looking over my shoulder, thinking, ‘Somebody’s gonna catch me doing this.’ ”

His highlights include building sets and quarterbacking the design for such programs as Alice, Caroline in the City, Newhart, Night Court and Sports Night. He won a pair of art-design Emmy Awards, one each in the primetime and daytime divisions.

Half-hour sitcoms were always his preferred medium, he said, because their shorter structure allowed him to work on more than one set at a time. He recalls being offered a gig in production design on The West Wingwith friend Tommy Schlamme, who would go on to executive produce 88 of the acclaimed series’ 154 episodes. Azzari turned it down, he said, with no regrets: The hourlong drama would’ve kept him on one set for too long.

Seinfeld stood apart as particularly rewarding. The autonomy the show-runners granted the production side was a gift, Azzari said, and it worked both ways. He and director Tom Cherones were able to tell David and Seinfeld, “You write the stuff, and we’ll make it work,” Azzari recalled. “Don’t think about production. Think about concept and what you want to do. And the show grew and grew and grew.”

As the show became more popular and the writers’ horizons expanded, the episode-by-episode challenges multiplied. David would set a scene in Central Park; Azzari and his team would get to work building it. The writers would hand down a script in which Kramer would use a massive chest of drawers as beds for Japanese visitors; Azzari had three days to figure out how to build drawers that could support a man’s weight.

If it was insanity then, Azzari enjoys serenity now. A cheerful man who speaks in a soft Bronx accent, he and his wife, Holly, retired to Arroyo Seco 15 years ago. He maintains a memorabilia room, a bona fide treasure trove of knick-knacks and mementos, primarily Seinfeld-related: Among dozens of scripts, posters and behind-the-scenes photographs, there is Kramer’s massive chest of drawers, the disconnected hands from the “bubble boy” suit used in a memorable fourth-season episode and a piece of the Frogger arcade game that George tried, in vain, to salvage in season nine.

Surrounded by the artifacts of a lifetime in show business, Azzari said he never stopped to consider the magnitude of Seinfeld, even as its viewership ballooned into the tens of millions. “You don’t even think in those terms,” he said, laughing. “I’m worried about what’s happening next week, and how we get to that stage.”

What interests him now is Taos’ vibrant art community. He and Holly host workshops in a studio on their property three times a week. There is a firm division between what designers build and what artists create, Azzari believes, and here he can dabble in the latter, even as tributes large and small to his set designs continue to appear.

“How do you define the creative process? You start with a blank piece of paper,” he said between long pauses. “I wish I could make the transition the way I would like, from designer to artist. But I’m a designer.”

Contact Tripp Stelnicki at 505-428-7626 or tstelnicki@sfnewmexican.com.