Flowers and fake marble: How television production designers create the past
“I always say that if there was a marble Olympics, our team would definitely win the gold,” Bob Shaw boasted.
Shaw, the Emmy Award-winning production designer for the HBO drama “The Gilded Age,” was discussing the painstaking effort and insane attention to detail that goes into painting a wooden post so that the camera can’t help but read it as stone. Landscape artists of the Gilded Age could paint six different types of marble. To stop at almost any frame of the show is to admire the subtle mix of originals and exquisite imitations. Look closely at sconces, for example: they are equipped with fire-resistant LEDs mounted with wavy filaments that replace an open flame.
Although production design is often viewed as merely the backdrop to the action, scenery, furnishings, finishes, and props have their own stories to tell. These stories are often particularly complex in historical dramas, where the need for accuracy must accommodate the demands of the narrative and the constraints of the show’s budget.
The New York Times spoke with the production designers of four shows that collectively span a century this fall: Amy Maguire of The Buccaneers, set in the 1870s; Shaw’s “The Gilded Age,” set in the 1880s; And Kat Smith in her book “Lessons in Chemistry,” which takes place in the 1950s; And Drew Botton from The Continental: From the World of John Wick, which is set in the 1970s. Focusing on one model set for each, from a castle’s reception rooms to a dream garden to a nightmare kitchen to a hotel lobby, the designers discussed the challenges and rewards of stepping back in time through HD camera viewing.
Based on Edith Wharton’s posthumous novel The Buccaneers, premiering on Apple TV+ on November 8, it tells the story of five nouveau riche American girls who travel to England in search of titled husbands. In designing the show, which was filmed in Scotland, Maguire had to highlight the contrast between the lively, glamorous interiors of girls’ homes in New York and the more sober spaces inhabited and inherited by the English aristocracy.
The most important of which is Tintagel Castle, the home of Theo, Duke of Tintagel (Jay Reimers), the show’s most eligible bachelor. There is the real Tintagel Castle, but it is inconveniently in ruins; The film being shot needs more rigidity. “That feeling of ancestral weight and inherited status,” Maguire said.
So she and the locations team found an alternative at Drumlanrig Castle, in Dumfriesshire. Exterior designs were borrowed from other places, most notably the Colzian Castle, which sits on the cliffs above the sea, giving the place a sense of grandeur.
For the castle interiors, Maguire chose rich, deep colors for the tapestries and silk panels, often coordinating them with Drumlanrig’s veritable art collection. “The private art collections in these buildings are obscene,” she said. “So you really felt like you were surrounded by history, almost trapped.” This worked well in the story, as it showed how these loud heiresses felt in these formal, heavy-handed settings.
The rooms built in the studio near Edinburgh had to match the real thing, reflecting every type of wood grain, every shade of gilding. Maguire joked that the production used every piece of antique furniture in the houses for props in London.
For the American spaces, Maguire used other historic houses, including Manderston House and Gosford House, as well as some Glasgow cityscapes. These spaces are designed to be lighter, more modern and more feminine. The Wharton girls had all the money in the world, and these spaces had to show it, with marble, silver, and extravagant flowers. The bright colors and clashing patterns are meant to suggest what a teenage girl with no limits to her budget or imagination might choose.
“It kind of toes the line between flashy taste and adequate taste,” Maguire said.
A slightly less gilded era
Flowers were not enough.
In the first season of The Gilded Age, the home of Bertha Russell (Carrie Coon), wife of a railroad tycoon (Morgan Spector), is decorated with fields of flowers for every social occasion. So, even though the script for the first episode of Season 2, which premiered on HBO on October 29, described the Russell home as splendid with flowers, Shaw knew he had to do more.
In a scene at the conclusion of the episode, Bertha, the Metropolitan Opera’s fledgling patron, arranges a surprise performance of an aria from Gounod’s “Faust” by Swedish soprano Kristin Nilsson. While her guests dine, her stately staircase transforms into Margaret’s garden. There are flowers, yes, a mix of real and artificial flowers, decorating the fence. But above the stairs are several panels of hand-painted Italian scenes, as would have been seen in opera houses of the time.
“It was a challenge to be beautiful, poignant, tasteful and not bland,” Shaw said. “It indicates that Bertha goes above and beyond what anyone could imagine to get what she wants.”
The result is ostentatious but still impressive. This is the line that Shaw and his team often walk on lush carpets. “The Gilded Age” depicts the conflict between new money, like the Russell family, and old money, like their near neighbors, Agnes Van Rijn (Christine Baranski) and Ada Brooke (Cynthia Nixon). The excesses of the new money crowd gave it the name of the Golden Age, but whether in the studio or shooting on location in various historic homes, Shaw balances opulence with restraint.
“In all the houses we’ve done, we’ve had to step back from a look that is 100 percent period,” Shaw said. “Because it’s too much visual information for modern eyes.” He is careful to avoid using the set’s decor, a mix of period furniture and picturesque art, to judge or insult the characters.
“They are more complex,” he said. “They don’t want to simply say, ‘Anything you can get, I can get bigger.'”
Smith designed the perfect kitchen for “Lessons in Chemistry,” indulging herself in the most technologically advanced appliances and finishes the late 1950s could offer. She then presented her findings to Brie Larson, executive producer and star of the series, which premieres October 13 on Apple TV+. Larson plays Elizabeth Zoot, a brilliant chemist who finds herself hosting the popular cooking show “Supper at Six.”
Larson liked Smith’s ideas for a “six o’clock dinner” kitchen, saying that was exactly what Elizabeth would have chosen, Smith recalls. But here’s a problem: Throughout the series, based on the best-selling book by Bonnie Jarmus, Elizabeth is put on the lam in her career by men who resent her, distrust her, and think they know better. Larson believed the show’s lineup would be dictated not by Elizabeth’s taste but by what station executives assumed women would want. This is how the kitchen became so frilly and alarmingly pink.
After studying both “I Love Lucy” and Julia Child’s “The French Chef,” Smith settled on a watered-down version of Benjamin Moore’s “The Cat’s Meow,” which resembles the inside of a girl’s seashell. The kitchen island and lower cabinets feature turquoise detailing, intended to provide some contrast, especially in black-and-white shots. All appliances are period appropriate, they are not physically running, but water or propane can be piped in when necessary.
“We were very specific about what was available and what wasn’t,” Smith said. “Weirdly enough, you can find most of these things on eBay.”
The wallpaper, a nightmare of stripes and cherries, came about thanks to a Los Angeles company that scans and prints vintage patterns. Linoleum tiles were hard to find, but were eventually obtained as well. There are frilly curtains on the windows, and little trinkets – figurines, wax fruits, comfort items – on every flat surface. During its first broadcast, Elizabeth ordered these tchotchkes removed. Later, she brought the scientific equipment.
The collection illustrates the tension between form and function, which the series reflects. Because Elizabeth looks a certain way, men in power expect her to conform to certain behaviors. In a lab coat and push pedals, she defies those expectations.
This show kitchen is neither practical nor comfortable, and seems too rosy as a space to spark liberation. But in Elizabeth’s hands, this is what it will become.
The Continental Hotel, a luxury hotel with an assassin clientele, is a staple of the John Wick films. Those films used the facade of the Beaver Building in lower Manhattan to represent the hotel. But for The Continental: From the World of John Wick, a three-part miniseries that premiered on Peacock on September 22, the building’s owners refused to grant the rights to its image.
Bouton described this denial as “an obstacle with an opportunity inside.” He designed a new facade – more in the Rococo style, redolent of a secret society – and took a similarly expansive approach to the lobby of the Continental Hotel.
Even in the previous films, the lobby has gone through various iterations. “A lot of movies have deep concerns about consistency and making sure that’s the case, and the world of Wick doesn’t do that,” he said. “They’re just doing art. So, in many ways, it was one of the most liberating things.”
The series was filmed in Budapest, and for this version of the lobby, which was meant to represent the Continental Hotel in New York in the 1970s, the production was filmed at the British Embassy, which features a dazzling skylight. Because the series takes place at a moment of violent transition for the hotel, Boughton and his team filled that space with nods to the 1970s — a cigarette vending machine, a bank of phone booths, furnishings in shades of avocado and rust — as well as details. Which looks back to the Beaux Arts period.
“It’s a Frankenstein in methods,” Bouton said.
Bouton has created a new version of the guest services desk, which is staffed by Charon (Lance Reddick in the movies, Ayomide Aden here). While Bouton admitted he saved money on upholstery — those sofas aren’t upholstered in real leather — the bar is made of real walnut, which gave it the necessary heft in front of the camera before and after it was destroyed.
If you’ve seen the John Wick movie, it’s not a spoiler to point out that the lobby might suffer some collateral damage. Which meant that Bouton had to design it twice: once in its original form and once after the disaster. (This disaster is achieved by a crew armed with sledgehammers and drills.)
“There’s a certain sadness when you see a beautifully crafted walnut smashed into little pieces,” Bouton admitted. But he also said that what he called the “after-the-fact” scenes were about as fun as a production designer could get on set, where he takes all that hard work and, for the good of the story, destroys it.
“It’s a big kick,” he said.