An aura of economic growth and wealth permeates the new drama “The Gilded Age,” premiering Jan. 24 on HBO. Christine Baranski is Agnes van Rhijn, a socialite living in early-1880s New York City with her sister, Ada Brook, played by Cynthia Nixon. The sisters represent the old money of New York’s aristocracy as it was beginning to be challenged by new people and modern ideas.
While production designer Bob Shaw needed to reflect the opulence of their home, he also wanted to give it a “lived-in” feeling. That meant hanging picture frames one on top of another and using pattern on pattern — on the wallpaper, the curtains and the chairs. He tried not to go overboard. “We had to convey that style without making contemporary eyes bleed,” Shaw says. The layering is what “gave that sense that they had lived there for 20 years.”
While Shaw consulted books and photos from the era, they were in black and white. To fill in color and detail, he turned to companies that specialize in historical preservation. Architectural historian Abby Stewart, from Newport, R.I., helped Shaw immerse himself in the world of lavish mansions. Relying on her knowledge of hinges, doorknobs, pieces of furniture and carved detail, Shaw could build his sets.
Representing the nouveau riche is the Russell family — George, a railway tycoon played by Morgan Spector, and his wife, Bertha, portrayed by Carrie Coon. Shaw points out that in contrast to the lived-in Brook home, the Russell house was used often for entertaining and filled with molded ceilings, chandeliers, paneling and the grand staircase that greets visitors upon entry.
To find the right type of staircase to serve a particular shot, he cherry-picked from many mansions. Newport’s Marble House ended up being a model for the configuration that was needed.
For the wallpaper and fabrics in the Russell house, Shaw turned to the experts at Scalamandré, a nearly 100-year-old New York company specializing in historic design. “They re-created a fabric they don’t make anymore, and they were able to do that because they have access to their archives,” says Shaw. “I call the Russell house ‘Newport’s greatest hits.’”
Despite his numerous credits, including “Boardwalk Empire,” Shaw says that shooting on practical locations was “terrifying,” because the sets had to be built around the modern world. The production had to construct its environment around the main characters and show the rest with visual effects, such as the train station seen in Episode 1.
The ferry landing, also seen in the first episode, went through a few concepts. Shaw had spotted a freestanding bowling establishment by the river in Tarrytown, N.Y., which he thought could be converted into the ferry terminal. “We had an illustration, and we sold the idea that it could work,” Shaw says. But COVID protocols and restrictions thwarted the concept, so Shaw and his team built a copy of the ferry landing on the lot in Long Island.
Similarly, the series’ Russell Consolidated Trust building was a mix — only the doorway was real, while the rest of the structure was enhanced through VFX. “That’s what we call a ‘Frankenstein’ because everything was stitched together,” he says.
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