Jim Mees, an Emmy-winning set decorator who helped bring alien worlds to life in the long-running “Star Trek” TV series, died Friday at his home in Selinsgrove, Pa., said his partner, Michael Smyth. He was 57 and had pancreatic cancer.
Mees, who worked on more than a dozen TV shows in his 30-year career, spent a total of 14 years on “Star Trek” sets, spanning from “The Next Generation” to “Star Trek: Enterprise.”
He was known for the futuristic sets he conjured, often from scratch, with elaborate schemes and basic challenges such as a director’s edict against showing wheels on props.
Patrick Stewart, who played Captain Jean-Luc Picard in the series, remembers that Mees was particularly good at blending futuristic aspects with contemporary sensibilities.
“Jim was one of those who helped to establish the look of our new series from the very beginning,” Stewart said this week in an interview with the Los Angeles Times. “He made you feel hopeful about the future because you could see that good taste was still present in features of design 400 years from now and hadn’t been completely overwhelmed by technology.”
The sets depicted scenes ranging from the Captain’s Ready Room aboard the Starship Enterprise to 24th century torture chambers. One of his favorite projects was re-creating Freud’s office in an episode in which Data, an android, lies on the famous doctor’s couch in a holodeck simulation to get to the bottom of a strange dream.
James Jonathan Mees was born Aug. 10, 1955, in Mahopac, N.Y.
At 12 he befriended textile designer Vera Neumann, whom he credited with inspiring his pursuit of a design career.
Besides Smyth, his partner of 22 years, Mees is survived by his mother, Helen Mees; sisters Sherene Williams and Kathy Gordon; and a brother, Dan Mees.
“Television is a voracious medium,” Mees told the Chicago Tribune in 1995. “Our challenge is to make the show new and different but still give you a sense of comfort – that what you’re seeing is still a chair, a vase, a bowl, or a table.”
At times, the stress of creating the sci-fi sets from scratch created tension.
When longtime writer and producer Ron Moore had actors pulling off wall panels to fix the Enterprise, Mees protested. “Ron, do you know we’re not on a real ship here? Do you know that if they pull that metal thing off there isn’t anything there?” Mees once recalled telling Moore. “It costs money to do it, it takes time to design these things!”
In scripts, these panels became known as “Mees panels,” an inside joke to the set decorator’s ongoing complaints.
“The hardest part … is my mind never gets to rest very long,” Mees said in the Chicago Tribune interview. “But the most enjoyable part of this job is that nothing is ever the same.”
A five-time nominee, he shared an Emmy with production designer Richard D. James for art direction of a 1990 episode in which he gave viewers the first glimpse of the Klingon home world, decorating the warrior race’s High Council chambers and sinister-looking First City.
After graduating from high school, Mees studied theater and lighting design at Carnegie Mellon University, earning a bachelor’s of fine arts in 1977.
He then made his way to Hollywood and worked as an art director on music tours of the Beach Boys and Diana Ross.
Mees went on to work on TV shows including “The Jeffersons” and “Who’s the Boss?” before he joined the “Star Trek” series in 1988. He also worked on “The Gilmore Girls,” “Private Practice” and, most recently, “Bones.”