Design Inspirations From Film

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The soaring Box Canyon of Telluride, Colorado, is an inspirational location for a film festival.The six-day Telluride Film Festival concentrates on brilliant film directors, talented production designers, mega-stars, over-activated producers and driven movie buffs—all in a four-block radius of eight theaters screening 45 movies, plus star-studded panels, seminars, shorts, animations and countless book signings. Telluride’s almost 2-mile-high altitude, crisp air and laissez-faire atmosphere transports the average sea-level wayfarer to a pleasant delirium.

Add four or five viewings per day of deeply felt intense films, followed by deeply felt and intense question-and-answer panels with directors, actors and designers, accompanied by contact with bright, informed friends and fellow film-goers who disarmingly engage in deeply felt and intense conversations, and by the end of the day, you find you have fired every synapse your overcharged brain can ignite. Actively viewing movies from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. is a fabulous marathon, well worth the rich coffee and artisanal chocolate it takes to keep alert.

For the designer, it is a treasure-trove of research. “The Invisible Woman,” starring Ralph Fiennes, elegantly crafts a poignant and rich re-creation of a young aspiring actress who survives a torrid affair with Britain’s pre-eminent Victorian writer, Charles Dickens.

The suffocating secrecy necessary when loving someone in the spotlight is reflected in the interiors of the period. Dark, stuffed rooms with thick curtains, swagged and tasseled to the stifling Victorian taste, seem to squeeze out even the air the actors breathe. Somber maroons, heavy golds, peacock blues and moss greens infuse the damasks, brocades and woolens. Turkish carpets and patterned Wiltons upholster the floors, leaving only dark-stained Jacobean furniture to reflect even a glint of light.

As the female lead, Felicity Jones’ character’s living room is so tight on space, so filled with furniture and so unreceptive to male company that one wonders how the camera itself even managed to pierce the space. Despite colorations of pink and cream, the film’s production designer manages to capture an airless cell of intimate entrapment.

Additionally, the magnificent private clubs, Dickens’s somber country house and newly appointed London flat are not to be missed. “The Invisible Woman” is painstakingly researched, providing the interior designer with a deep well of information about one of the most elaborate periods—the Victorian Age.

Alexander Payne’s film, “Nebraska,” is a wakeup call to any furniture designing wannabes who must take a harsh look here at rural America’s bleak view of comfort and how Midwestern rural folks really do live. Not to ever be seen in the pages of glossy design magazines, these duct-taped-together rooms, grimly describe the attrition of hope and communication.

Though he hardly speaks a word in this film, Bruce Dern’s star turn could garner him an Academy Award. This frustrating and tough but ultimately tender story of redemption of a bitter broken alcoholic trapped in the detritus of the Great Plains is arresting in its black-and-white vistas. It’s also touchingly complex, with the superb acting.

Every year at this festival there is an unannounced surprise film. At the Telluride Film Festival’s 40th anniversary this year, it was the period feature, “12 Years as a Slave,” which debuted there.

The film is based on the horrific account of a successful free man—an African–American in upstate New York—who was abducted by ruthless profiteers, sold into slavery and shipped by riverboat down to Louisiana. It’s so brutal and riveting that it is difficult to focus on the sets and interiors, but on second viewing I was able to take in the meticulous details.

This deeply disturbing film takes you on the horrifying journey of a man kidnapped from an elegant, established, enlightened world and taken to the inhumane, debased world of slavery. The director and designer have spared no details—from the 1840s Federal northern townhouses, to the steamboat galleys, to the slave auctions held in an elegant southern mansion, to the crowded slave cabins and cotton lofts.

Though geared to support the story, these sets and locations bring forth a living, breathing, highly researched and accurate portrayal of life. These interiors are of the quality that no museum or still photo could possibly render. And seeing how they were lived in only heightens an interior designer’s appreciation of context.

The majority of the plantations benefited from a beautiful building period: the Greek Revival. This format, with the columns and deep verandas used to escape the interior heat, allowed for ventilation and outdoor living.

But these verandas, built high above flood levels, were also used to oversee the workings of the farm and control the slaves. Slave cabins, pigpens and horse stalls were surprisingly located not far from the main house.

Despite what the sets on “Gone With the Wind” might lead one to believe about the antebellum south, these plantations were dusty, often filthy affairs with spare furnishings and decoration only in the form of polished floors and painted mouldings. Plantations were far from the centers of commerce and style.

The production designer must imagine and create the visual environment that the story’s character lives amidst, not simply the architecture and interior design but also the daily items that the character needs to function and wishes to surround himself or herself with. The interior designer can utilize this approach to imagine and create an environment that his or her client can comfortably immerse herself in. As the production designer must stay true to the script, supporting and illuminating the characters, a good interior designer must set aside ego and support and illuminate his or her clients’ dreams and aspirations.

Film sets have inspired many an interior designer. But movies themselves have the ability to help us understand and elucidate the human condition, which ultimately can make us better designers. I highly recommend a jaunt to the upcoming Hamptons International Film Festival in October, where an immersion into a variety of worlds can only stimulate the imagination, enhance one’s research and add to one’s portfolio of ideas.

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