Amazing medical breakthroughs, cutting-edge inventions, new power sources, intrigue, wide economic disparity—it’s a brand new century and THE KNICK embraces it with such gritty realism and great style, we can’t help but become immersed in it. The new century is 1901, not the 21st, yet it is alive with innovation, edginess, modern sensibilities fighting conservative traditionalists, political machinations, and wondrous and sometimes disastrous discoveries, including personal truths.
We are led down this path by the wildly driven, brilliant chief surgeon of New York’s Knickerbocker Hospital, Dr. John “Thack” Thackery [Clive Owen] who, fueled by cocaine and opium, fights budget and tradition to create astounding medical advances. And we are pulled into this world by the incredible stylized but extremely realistic sets created by Production Designer Howard Cummings, Set Decorator Regina Graves SDSA and their teams for the equally incredible Director/Cinematographer/Editor Steven Soderbergh.
In conversation with SET DECOR, Graves and Cummings generously delve into the details of creating the series and working with Soderbergh to provide the viewer with such an immersive experience. Fans of the show will be thrilled with the details provided and even those who don’t know the series will be fascinated by the descriptions and process!
The uniqueness of THE KNICK…
SET DECOR: Clive Owen [Dr. John W. Thackery] says,
“THE KNICK doesn’t have the polish and restraint of a normal period project…it’s very, very edgy.”
Set Decorator Regina Graves SDSA: Well, at the turn of the century, it was rather edgy in New York City, and a little gritty, especially the Lower East Side. We took liberties with that in the decoration of the show. We didn’t want things to seem too precious or nostalgic. We wanted it to look a little modern in a way people today can relate to, but also being true to the period. We wanted to bring the edginess of New York City onto the screen.
SET DECOR: Owen describes,
“…It is a time that is hugely exciting, there were more discoveries in medicine in a few years than had been learned since time began. Boundaries are being constantly pushed. And Thackery is kind of at the forefront of all of that…they made massive leaps forward in a very short time…”
Is that how you felt about doing the sets for this show?!!!
RG: Yes! What Thackery was doing for medicine back then, we basically did for this show! Because of our intense schedule, we had no time at all to get our sets ready and all of our sets were BIG sets. We created entire worlds in a matter of hours. We were basically dressing sets some days up until the moment Steven walked onto the set.
SET DECOR: Owen notes,
"…It's a great way to look at a very exciting city at a very dangerous time, because you can go into the world of the people who are funding the hospital, or you can go into the slums where diseases are breaking out. New York was pretty wild in those days..."
RG: That it was. We were basically decorating uptown socialites’ apartments one day, then doing a string of tenements the next. It’s a very versatile show in the fact that we never really did the same thing twice. It was fun to explore the backbone of NY in those days…researching, acquiring the furniture, textures and components. We were either shopping at all the high-end antique dealers or scouring flea markets and thrift stores to fill the needs of the set.
SET DECOR: Owen points out,
“…Very often when you do period, it’s like ‘This is how they wore the hat.’ But I’m a drug addict, I don’t have to conform to these rules…”
Although thoroughly addicted, Thackery is also brilliant and making breakthroughs in medicine. How do you convey that duality in Thackery’s sets?
RG: Like Thackery, we weren’t following any rules, and I think it worked. Again, we strayed away from the nostalgia or the predictable choices. We really designed and decorated these sets with a lot of thought and a sense of freedom. We chose the palettes and the dressing based on the characters, keeping with the authenticity of the time period, yet conveying that they often were the “modern” of that time. We definitely produced a show that has a certain edge and polish to it without being stuffy. It’s a “modern” version of 1901.
SET DECOR: Thackery is at least partially based on the actual Dr. William Stewart Halstead. Do you have any direct references to him on the sets?
RG: We don’t have anything specific, although I did read his biography, GENIUS ON THE EDGE, and it helped inform our overall background re: the character.
Working with Steven Soderbergh…
SET DECOR: How involved was director/photographer/editor Steven Soderbergh with the sets?
Production Designer Howard Cummings: Steven’s process really demands that you bring on your “A” game—he wants you to interpret the material and deliver your ideas. It’s really collaborative. He does not come in with a predetermined idea that he wants you to execute. He certainly has ideas and can be specific, but not dictatorial.
So, for instance, on THE KNICK, he mentioned he would have made the series in black and white if he could have. “But nobody would fund a black and white project.” Because we were building almost every hospital interior, I realized that we could make the sets feel black and white by only using black, white, gray and wood tones, thus the only color in the hospital sets is the red of the blood.
When working with Soderbergh, another refreshing quality is that he has a very reactive approach to the work. This applies to the sets and locations as well as to the actors. He always knows what the scene is about when he comes in, but he does not predetermine the work. So if an actor presents something in a performance that is unexpected, he will incorporate it into the shooting. The same goes for the sets. He will not preview the sets even when shooting in the same stage! He only looks at it the day we shoot it.
He loves to see what we bring to the table, and has an uncanny ability to find the best angle in any room. This process is both terrifying and liberating all at once.
SET DECOR: Did he have specific requests? [As director or as photographer?]…
HC: Soderbergh uses the RED Camera. Which is a digital camera that is very light sensitive. This allows him to light using available light and practicals on the sets. ALL of the interior lighting is done with practicals. Regina and I had to work very closely with the gaffer to develop lighting plans for the sets. If there is additional off-camera lighting, it is also done with practicals. It gives the show a very unique look. We sometimes shot scenes using only the light from unaltered oil lamps or candles.
The results often look like the lighting you would see in painting of the period. So, lighting is a critical part of the decorating scheme.
In order to support this lighting style, the set had to be constructed more like real rooms. All had complete and often detailed ceilings. Steven loves shooting ceilings, so it must be an essential part of the design. You could never do this with most DPs, as they tend to light from the ceilings.
Because of space consideration, the hospital sets were all built into one giant set that connected. Steven’s fluid use of the camera often would move from room to room or down hallways, all in one shot. Visitors to the sets would get confused and would ask, “How did the building get inside of the stage?” For the actors, it really provided a true sense of place as the built set really functioned like a location.
Another important piece of direction from Steven was, whenever possible, use gloss finish on the wall. He really wanted the “kick” and shine that most DPs shy away from.
This also translated to use of restoration glass in most of the exterior windows. The wavy handmade quality would give off reflections as the camera moved through the spaces. The use of textured glass on all the sets was enormous and a real challenge for the set dressers…in NYC they do all glass…as it was extremely complicated, with some rooms having four or more types of glass.
When we did not use glossy paint, we used wallpaper. Tons of wallpaper!!! The Victorians loved it, and it is a great way to add dimension and texture to a room.
SET DECOR: Owen emphasizes,
"…There's no fat. He only shoots what he needs.”
HC: Yes. We often do set-ups in one take. That means when you’re on a set or a location, the whole thing has to be ready because they could easily get ahead of schedule, depending on the day.
RG: There absolutely isn’t any fat. He does really only shoot what he needs. I have never worked with a DP that doesn’t pull walls or move furniture. He basically navigates around furniture with a hand-held camera. He goes in, sits in the set for a short while, lets the wheels start turning in his head, and then he starts shooting. He gets what he wants and is on to the next shot. He may go into the set with one idea and after seeing the set (for the first time!), he may turn his plan into something else.
HC: I told Regina early on that the way you know if Steven likes a set is how fast he begins to shoot it. If he is excited or inspired, he jumps to the work. There is very little time for compliments, but we did manage some “Wows” as he walked through the door. Hopefully you’re standing there to hear it.
We get to see cut footage of the day’s work almost every day. We shoot 8-hour days and Steven goes home and edits immediately. Usually around 10:30 at night, you get to log on and see completely edited scenes with temp music!! As a designer, this is so great because you see right away how he put things together and the style of it all. This kind of feedback is way better than a verbal compliment. You see it when you’ve hit the nail on the head. That’s rewarding. First thing everyday is Regina asking, “Did you see dailies???” I know how important that was to her as well.
RG: [Laughing] This is so true! After a long day at work, I normally arrive home to an email with the footage of the scenes we shot that day edited! I’m blown away with what he puts together in a matter of hours—it’s easy to say this man is a genius. It’s very satisfying to see your work at the end of each day…it’s like a little gift in your inbox each night, it’s very rewarding.
SET DECOR: Did Soderbergh’s hand-held camera style affect the set decoration?
RG: Definitely, I think with the hand-held you see more from the characters’ perspective. You see more of the set, you see more walls and ceilings and floors. It’s very personal. You basically get to experience it all and see so much more. It’s like showcase theater.
SET DECOR: Regina, Howard has worked with Soderbergh several times before…tell us about collaborating with both of them…and your process…
RG: I think Steven is great, but Howard is the person I really collaborate with, and I love working with him. I felt comfortable with Howard very early on—I have the utmost respect for him and I think we work very well together. We bounce ideas off each other easily and efficiently. It’s become like second nature to us.
Howard is very straightforward in relaying what he wants, what he visualizes. He puts it all out on the table, which is wonderful. Some designers don’t do that. He makes his vision very clear early on, either through interpretation or through our visual concept illustrations. It makes it easier for me to know what he’s expecting, what he’s trying to create. There is a trust and honesty between us that just works. I don’t get offended if he doesn’t like something and vice versa. Howard gives you the confidence you need to get the job done—especially with the crazy scheduling we have!
When it comes time to decorate our sets we usually start with a hero piece of furniture, or paint color, or favorite fabric and use that as a jumping-off point. It kind of evolves organically. Howard chooses all the paint colors, we collaborate on most of the wallpaper and soft good choices – it’s a team effort.
I love that he is interested in the little details like I am, that his door is always open and most of all, that he’s a hands-on designer. He’s often side by side with the crew…and he loves to hang artwork! We usually save the artwork hanging for Howard because we know it makes his day!
The pace and set scheduling…
SET DECOR: Juliet Rylance [Cornelia] says: “I remember reading the pilot and being blown away by how fast-paced it was, how much happens in one episode…”
RG: It is an extremely fast paced show…it’s basically a 10-hour movie. We shoot in blocks due to the location or set. Unfortunately for us, it has worked out that the upscale sets are usually blocked on the same days, bars are blocked with bars and street scenes with street scenes. We never seem to catch a break or have much down time between preps, so there’s a lot of intensive planning and coordinating that has to be done so that we can transition from one set to the next seamlessly.
HC: The biggest design and decorating challenge is the pace at which we shoot. We could easily shoot out 3 from-the-ground-up sets before lunch…often 6-12 pages a day. This means the design and decorating departments have to constantly work long hours to keep up.
Regina is amazing because she never lets the quality slip despite the grueling pace. And I will have to say she always is thinking in terms of the characters and bringing the details of their stories into the decoration, even when we would fly through shooting the sets. It was very inspiring for me, and the crew, to work with her.
SET DECOR: Actress Eve Hewson [Lucy Elkins] says,
“…We shot it location by location…Thackery’s house is in Harlem…we had 2 days, I think, in Thackery’s house to do all of Clive and my scenes for the whole season.”
HC: We did not shoot this episodically, rather more like a movie. Which is good for some logistics, but is a challenge in that all the locations had to be found in prep, and budgeting 10 full episodes at once is very difficult when you only have a basic idea of what might be required.
However, what filming all episodes at one location allowed us to do really paid off visually. For instance, we had a lot of exteriors that were set in the Lower East Side. So we ended up shooting at the corner of Broome and Orchard and dressed the streets as if they were different areas, one section was Polish, another part Irish and Italian. In two days, we shot sections of 6 different episodes. The location could never accommodate returning 6 different times. The other advantage was that we could really go to town—we could invest in full storefronts and all the different vendors, could dirt the streets and fully re-create that world.
RG: Creating turn-of-the-century New York in NYC is a decorator’s dream and nightmare rolled into one. We try to have as much fun with it as possible with our time and location constrictions. Creating the Lower East Side on the Lower East Side was incredible, but a challenge to say the least! We basically turned back the hands of time in a matter of days, complete with storefronts that were fully dressed, plus awnings and signage. We dirted the streets, added street vendor carts, and strung laundry from second and third story windows.
I should also add that we removed many TV antennas, air conditioners, and satellite dishes in the process. It was so difficult to make any and every thing that was made in the last 100 years disappear from the streets. Our set dressers were basically trying to hang signs and awnings and cover the streets with dirt while there were still actual pedestrians on the streets and traffic to deal with! It was like a ballet—things coming in, getting put up, things moving out, etc. Everything had to be timed correctly so we could work more efficiently, especially when we were out on location in the streets of NYC.
The same applies to the work we’ve been doing for the upcoming season…
We have great support from the NYC Mayor’s Office. They help us with streetlight and traffic sign removal on the morning of the shoot, and help us with any other requests we may have. The office also allowed us to dirt the streets, which was a tough job in itself for our set dressers. They were out at 4:30 in the morning prepping the streets with the layers of dirt, and then they would have to shovel it all up at wrap, being careful not to get it in the drainage systems. It is no easy task. Thankfully, the city has been very supportive.
The location department does an amazing job on this show. They have found so many perfect hidden gems throughout the five boroughs! Most of our locations have the “bones” and the original architecture needed for our time period. It’s incredible to see all the detail that’s left in some of these old buildings and townhouses. I take a lot of before-and-after photos to document the transformation. We do re-dress at least 80 percent of wherever we shoot, so the transformation is clearly visible.
Research and reference…
SET DECOR: Please tell us about working with the inimitable Dr. Stanley Burns, medical historian, and his extensive collection of medical photographs and ephemera…and with Elizabeth Burns, archivist for The Burns Archive…
HC: Research was essential to the design process. The first person I hired was our full-time researcher, Coco Wyococo. Dr. Burns’ collection and his knowledge were invaluable. Regina and I worked with him and Liz everyday.
RG: Dr. Burns and Liz are wonderful. They are great collaborators and both harbor so much knowledge of the medical history for that specific time period. Coco goes back and forth to the Burns archive to pull specific photos, images and documents pertaining to different cases and topics that arise throughout the show. We have an extensive research library in our art department that she has compiled for us. Dr. Burns is on set to answer any questions we may have and is always willing to give us interesting back stories and feedback on specific medical set dressing items. We want to make sure that we are correct with what we use in the hospital, in the different patient and treatment rooms and, definitely, the implements used during our surgeries.
SET DECOR: Burns says,
“…In the mid-1970s, a friend introduced me to a medical daguerreotype, and when I checked, the written history didn’t match the visual history. And so I realized I had to collect photography because the evidence in an original photograph is irrefutable truth.”
Sets offer the visual truth that give credibility to a show or film.
Could you give an example?
RG: There are aspects of history that are often overlooked, and the good thing about this show is we try to integrate people’s different races and class. Through research photographs, we basically get glimpses of what life was actually like back then. We use the photos as a sort of stepping-stone to tell the backstory, the history of it all through the dressing of our sets. I think this is particularly true with the exterior sets we created, Chinatown and the Lower East Side. In one of the opening shots of the Lower East, you see a bunch of kids playing with a dead horse carcass. It probably just collapsed in the heat from lack of food and water and the owner just left it there. That was from a research photo and integrated into the show.
SET DECOR: It puts a great and yet wonderful responsibility on the production designer and set decorator…
RG: Yes, our responsibility is to tell the story thru the visuals. We want to take the audience back, to give the audience a sense of what it may have been like to walk the streets of New York City in 1901, for instance. It’s up to us to give context, to place the viewer within the surroundings, both immediate and distant…and to create the mood and atmosphere of the time and setting. We want the audience to have the full experience. It’s our job to give it to them.
HC: Soderbergh told me, when we were shooting the film CONTAGION, that he wanted to know, to see, the reality of the labs and procedures. He did not want to “movie-ize” the visuals because, as he said, “The real thing is truly the scariest.” We applied this to our approach for The KNICK as well. The medical procedures and the set-up of the hospital are very fact-based. If you watch the first ten minutes of Episode One, you thank God you do not live in 1900. This supported Steven’s approach that the show be realistic, not nostalgic.
SET DECOR: Luc Sante's colorful history of the New York underclass, LOW LIFE, was required reading [per Soderbergh]. Actor André Holland [Dr. Algernon Edwards] mentioned W.E.B. Du Bois's THE SOULS OF BLACK FOLK as important for his character…
What were some of the other references you used?
HC: For the hospital in general, there was an annual report issued by Presbyterian Hospital in NY that our researcher Coco found at Columbia University. In these documents were descriptions, floor plans (complete with furniture layouts) and photographs of all the essential rooms in their hospital; these are what we relied on for making beds and other hospital furniture and equipment.
The other inspirational research were the paintings of Thomas Eakins. His “Agnew Clinic”, which is brutally realistic yet beautiful, has the exact quality of light and color I was hoping to establish. We would refer to it over and over for all the sets.
RG: Again, research is a big part of the job. We also looked at many photos from the New York Historical Society for reference, as well as several books written on the period. Some of the ones I used more than others were:
· THE OPULENT INTERIORS OF THE GILDED AGE
· NEW YORK LIFE AT THE TURN OF THE CENTURY IN PHOTOGRAPHS
· MANHATTAN’S LOWER EASTSIDE IN VINTAGE PHOTOGRAPHS
· Montgomery Ward and Sears Roebuck catalogs of the period
The key sets…
SET DECOR: Let’s talk specifically about some of these truly fabulous sets…
The Knickerbocker Hospital—multiple sets…
HC: The heart of the show is really depicted in the Surgical Theater. It is such a unique volume of space and not something you see every day. The overall plan is that of a Greek amphitheater—it is literally the stage for our main character work. This is where groundbreaking surgery was being done. To bolster the sense of academia, Regina incorporated the busts of two Greek philosophers who stand as sentinels looking over the operating room. Again, it was inspired and truly copied from the paintings of Thomas Eakins.
And here is an example of Steven’s directive to paint every surface possible with a gloss finish. You see the “kick” from it very clearly in this ceiling, which, if you think about how it would be shot and the coverage of the doctors’ faces, is a very important feature in the room. So I invested a lot of detail and paint work in the ceiling, which, although dark, has lots of life.
RG: The main focal point of the operating theater is the two-tiered chandelier. I had it custom-made based on a research photo of an old hospital. As Howard mentioned, the other pieces that are very important on the set are the two solid marble busts on the tall pedestals: Hippocrates, the father of western medicine, and Diogenes, the cynic philosopher. We wanted a little grandeur in the room to mix with all the blood and gore. The sponge stand was acquired through a collector. We purchased a collector’s entire estate early on and we were all wondering what this stand was. We found out through research and from Dr. Burns that these stands were used to hold the sea sponges utilized for medical procedures.
Scrub room/surgical prep area…
RG: Quite a lot of dialogue happens around the antique bank of sinks I found for the scrub room. When I spotted them on the website, “Recycling The Past”, I knew right away we had to have them. They were shorter than usual, so we built a platform to raise them to a comfortable height for the actors. We also changed out all the faucets for a Victorian design to give them a more authentic feel. In that era, surgeons would dip their hands and beards, if they had them, into bowls with carbolic acid, following the Listerian principles of cleanliness, for sterilization purposes…hence the multiple freestanding wash bowls full of liquid.
RG: Thack’s office is full of character. We made the conscientious choice to give him the darkest room of all. Thack is an innovator, a wild thinker. We wanted to showcase that in his private workspace, to fill it with interesting looking items. Of course, the drawers always had to have a secret stash of cocaine. The oversized dark oak double-pedestal desk was the first piece of furniture that I purchased for that room. [I found it locally thru Ebay.] His throne-like tufted black leather desk chair was rented thru Warner Bros. His pair of Biedermeier bookcases from Omega Cinema Props are filled with antique medical books and dictionaries. His desk is layered with medical journals and magazines of the time period and a full set of WOODS LIBRARY series of medical books. I’m a lover of the little things, there’s a collection of small wooden painted marbles that are in a little glass tray on Thackery’s desk…
RG: Would you believe that the flooring in the lobby and throughout the hall was a custom-printed linoleum that our talented graphic artist Holly Watson created? Our set dressers, Tim Joliat and Rick Nelson had to piece it together like a jigsaw puzzle. The waiting area benches were all custom-fabricated two weeks before we started shooting, again designed based on a research photo Howard found. The lighting fixtures were basically all custom as well, coming from three different vendors. The front lobby and stairwell are lined with large Board of Directors oil paintings. I know it sounds corny, but I love walking down the halls in this set. You really do feel like you’re in a hospital. All of the rooms connect.
RG: The wards are beautifully serene with the gray and white color palette. The iron beds were also custom-fabricated based on research that Coco found, as were all the light fixtures. We kept the furnishings in the wards very minimal, so that the doctors and patients were the standouts here. The built-in cabinets house all the medicines, enamelware and dry good supplies. There is a private patient room usually reserved for the upperclass patient, and a private exam room that we decorated with period anatomical charts.
Algernon Edwards’ basement office & underground clinic for African-Americans…
RG: As he would have pulled it together, it’s a hodgepodge of found items: a wooden operating table from the Civil War era, old metal beds, and odds and ends we scavenged on our many shopping excursions. We painted the metal furniture black. We wanted to keep everything dark, again using the palette to differentiate the class of people who would be frequenting the clinic.
The outpatient clinic…
RG: Again, we relied on research photos to begin to understand how these places were set up and how they were used. We built cubicles along the back walls and covered the dividers in dark gray canvas fabrics. We had Early American style benches custom-manufactured to furnish the center of the enormous space…this was filmed at a location…and we borrowed our light fixtures from the hospital lobby to tie the two sets together. We installed brass railings to divide the waiting area from our mobile treatment areas.
RG: The pathology lab is the set I would probably live in. It’s one of my two favorites. [Editor’s note: See Thackery’s townhouse] I’m in love with the black built-ins and the black hexagon tile floor. It has a lived-in eeriness that I’m infatuated with, layered with apothecary bottles, old anatomical drawings, worn industrial furniture and laboratory gak. It’s my interpretation of “Apothecary Chic”. It also has a copper faucet that my leadman, Jerry DeTitta, built custom for me from a reference I found in an old photograph. We dressed that set in about 4 hours and were dressing cabinets while the paint was still wet on them! I still remember that night like it was yesterday: Carpenters on top of scenics, on top of electricians, on top of set dressers, all trying to get it done…quite an adventure…
RG: The morgue is actually another take on our pathology lab. The morgue tables were fabricated and the morgue lockers were built by our construction department. We used old refrigerator hardware for the doors.
RG: We had a lot of fun with Mr. Barrow. He is the materialistic, corrupt one, so we made sure he was surrounded with very materialistic things…materialistic, but not tacky. Barrow wants the best of the best, and we gave it to him. His leather-top partners desk is full of shiny brass accessories, and we made sure he had the classiest furniture.
There was a scripted scene where one of the characters makes a sarcastic comment re: his not-so-good-looking children, while looking at their portraits on the wall. I found those on Ruby Lane. They were very Willy Wonka-esque children…they were perfect! It was a hoot.
Other key sets:
Robertson residence – the opulence…
RG: The Robertson’s mansion was the one place that we really wanted to showcase the gilded era in NYC. We shot that set on location in the old James Bailey mansion in Harlem. The location, which is being restored, was in very poor condition, so we laid all new carpeting to cover blemishes in the flooring and wallpapered all the walls and ceilings.
We used mostly rich blues and greens for the furnishings and draperies, and accented the rooms with crystal chandeliers, statuary and lots of silver to give it a little shine. The mansion still has an original oversized tiffany window on the second story landing that is just incredible. We played off the jewel tones of the stained glass. The walls are layered with oil paintings, hung 2 or 3 high in some places. I think we had at least 50 large paintings on this set. Howard was happy! We also divided each of the rooms with gold velvet draperies. In Cornelia’s bedroom, we used the most beautiful hand-painted wallpaper and brass half-canopy bed.
The servants’ kitchen was also at this location, as was Jesse and Evaline’s bedroom. [Algernon’s parents, loyal servants of the Robertsons] Their bedroom was cozy, painted a dusty blue…but you have to remember they lived in the basement of the mansion.
All of the scenes for Season 1 at the Robertson mansion were shot out in 2 days!
Diggs Hotel: the seedy boarding house where Algernon Edwards rooms – the poverty…
RG: Loved this set, too. We used dark burgundy and brown tones to create a really seedy environment reflecting that at one time this hotel was the place to be, but it became really run down over the years.
Algernon’s room was filled with traditional Victorian furnishings that gave it almost an Old West feel. Steven lit it with gaslight and actual oil lamps to create a somber mood. In the end, I thought it looked very sexy. There is a velvet-covered armchair by the window that I was totally in love with. We really played with textures in here—patterned velvet curtains, natural linen bedding and a textured wool throw all looked great together.
RG: Thackery’s townhouse was one of my absolute favorites. Each piece of furniture, artwork, accessory and fabric was thoroughly vetted to the character. It’s now my screen saver on my laptop. It was filled with all the right pieces: leather-tufted armchairs mixed with rich velvets, beautiful oil paintings and bronzes. It was how John would have lived back then, surrounded by beautiful things but in a non-pretentious way. We gave him the ultimate Victorian bachelor pad. The color of his dining room was a muted grey with purple undertones and Howard designed the most beautiful wallpaper border. Everything just worked on that set. We chose a bold black and gold wallpaper for his living room and an orange-brown large paisley patterned wallpaper for his bedroom. They were risky choices, but in the end I’m glad we went with them. It was quite a masterpiece.
We kept most of the furniture very dark, with the addition of two Eastlake brown tufted easy chairs. We set up his dining room as his workspace, littering the dining table with books, a microscope and his research materials. This is where he goes when he can’t sleep, and since he’s almost always high, he is there quite a lot. Thackery’s kitchen was shot at another location that had all the original kitchen cabinets and original cast iron stove intact and was in wonderful condition. We brought the rest in.
There was entire backstory with Thackery and Native Americans, which we incorporated into the personal touches of his townhouse. Black and white photos, small Indian statues and woven baskets were some elements used. I also have a small framed lithograph of a buffalo on the mantle in Thackery’s office that relates to his Indian-themed backstory.
Lucy’s boarding house…
RG: Decorated in soft hues of blue and green, Lucy’s boarding house was meant to be very innocent-looking with its lace curtains and floral prints on the walls. I found her butterfly needlepoint bedspread at a shop in Virginia and wanted to use it because I thought this would definitely be something her momma would have made for her before she left West Virginia. Her room was also lit with gaslight and oil lamps.
RG: Reflecting the Gallingers as a couple, the house was decorated in a very traditional Victorian style with green velvet sofas and a lot of tchotchkes…little trinkets, vases and statues that littered the living room and dining room, but because it was lit very dark, I’m not sure if you see it all…
RG: The opium den was one of the sets on the show where we just let our guard down and had a lot of fun. Our focal point was the large opium bed rented from Omega Cinema Props. We filled the rest of the room with assorted mohair and leather daybeds, chinoiserie screens and furnishings. We multi-layered our two-tiered opium bunkbeds with futon mattresses, rush matting, silk throws and velvet pillows. Everything was layered with different textures. We lit the room with red light bulbs, oriental fixtures and candles. Architectural elements like the Chinese-patterned cutout room dividers were back-lined with gauzy linen, so we could blow light through them—the effect was magical.
Chinatown – exteriors…
RG: We shot these in Chinatown. We built and dressed many storefronts, installed awnings, dirted the streets and added large signage and lighting fixtures. The storefront dressing was the most fun to work on. We created an herbalist, a florist shop, a photographer’s studio, a hardware store, a fresh fruit market, a housewares store, a fish market and the infamous exterior of our opium den.
Streets of NY – exteriors…
RG: Whenever we shot exteriors, we carried our street kit and a truckload or two of dirt or gravel. The kit usually consisted of ash and trash cans, keg barrels, saltboxes, lampposts and lamppost skins. We always had to be prepared to cover something up, like a fire hydrant or a bicycle stand.
RG: The abortions back then usually took place in the tenements. I think we dressed 8 different tenements last season, 4 of which are where Harriet performs the abortions. We wanted to show the poverty level in most of them and try to portray the reality in which most of these small railroad apartments housed entire families. They lived and worked out of these apartments. Most lived in squalor. They had to share a bathroom down the hall, most didn’t have electricity or even gas light.
RG: Just the opposite type of set, Cornelia and Philip’s elegant wedding was shot on one of the coldest, snowiest days of the year, in Yonkers, NY. We had an issue with many of our flowers because they ended up freezing on the truck! We were forced to use at least 80 percent silk flowers at the last minute. It was another hectic day, trying to complete the set on time with all the last minute emergency changes.
SET DECOR: How many sets did you have for Season 1?
RG: We had at least 100. I actually stopped counting at some point, because I didn’t want to stress myself out. I just took it day by day. Every day there is a new challenge or a new obstacle to face. You just have to face everything head on with an open mind and with a lot of patience. There is no time for BS or complaining—you just have to love what you do and let all the pieces fall into place.
SET DECOR: There are some specific unusual elements you had to address, such as the introduction of electricity…
RG: Dealing with the electricity was a feat in itself. There is a time in the storyline when the hospital finally gets its funding and converts from gas to electricity. We had to adapt our custom-made fixtures to the scene. The large operating lamp in the surgical theater had to be wired two different ways for the changeover, as well as all the fixtures in the hospital offices and hallways! We were constantly rewiring lamps with cloth wires and running wire and porcelain sockets up and down walls on location and in sets. We always kept those elements on hand. Since Steven lights the set with our practicals, we had to be ready and supplied with what ever we needed at all times.
SET DECOR: Please tell us about period furnishings…
RG: Most of the period furniture we tended to use was of high style Victorian. Victorian furniture is usually viewed as being grand and very overdone, so you have to be careful with what you choose, because a room full of Victorian furniture can get really busy. I love Aesthetic furniture and Chinoiserie, so I tried to use those styles as accent pieces wherever I could. I was gravitating towards furniture that people today could interpret as wanting to live with. I was trying to stay away from the Grandma’s attic look. I also used a lot of variations on the Chippendale style, especially in the grander dining rooms. My favorites were the carved Chinese Chippendale dining chairs that I rented from Newel Art for the Park Avenue Apartment set.
Most of the textile and fabrics we used weren’t copies of historical prints but modern fabrics that had a traditional or period feel. We basically used patterned velvets, brocades and lace purchased at the D&D Building, Fabric City or down in the garment district. We did this to keep the modern, edgy look of the show. I wanted the show to look different, I didn’t want to use fabrics from all the same historical places that museums or restorers use…
SET DECOR: Please tell us about some of your resources…
RG: We set up our set dressing shop as a mini-prophouse that we could pull from when we needed to dress sets. We determined early on that we would need to do this in order to keep up with the pace of the show. Otherwise the sets just wouldn’t get done.
I went to LA to shop the prop houses…my first time ever! And I filled 4 tractor-trailer trucks with furniture. I also took various shopping trips to all the big antique markets in the East, Brimfield for instance, plus a week-long buying trip down to Virginia, shopping all the way there and back to NYC. I do a lot of shopping throughout Pennsylvania and New Jersey. I have all my favorite little mom and pop shops I’ve dealt with for over 20 years.
For my first time meeting and shopping in LA prop houses, I was welcomed with open arms. The great David Manhan was my escort, Allan Songer at Omega/ Cinema Props, Dicky Broussard at Premiere Props, Robert Greenfield at Warner Bros, Beverly Hadley at Universal and Pam Elyea at History for Hire made incredible run-of-show packages for us. They were also very accommodating in shipping items to us throughout the season while we were shooting.
In New York, I relied heavily on Richard Szepinski at Newel, Art and Scott Liroff at City Knickerbocker, Barry Godin at Eclectic Encore, Arenson Prop Centre, Prop and Spoon, and Bridge Props, as well as Carpet Time and Kravet Fabrics. John Koch Antiques brought more Victorian and period pieces into his shop, with THE KNICK in mind.
We manufactured A LOT on this show—we had no other choice…
· Strickland Window Coverings and Circle Studios made all of window treatments and bedding.
· Victorian Lighting Works, Nowell’s Lighting, PW Vintage and Brass Light Gallery did most of the custom lighting for us
· American Iron Bed made all of our ward beds, nightside tables and gurneys
· George and Martha, a fabulous furniture maker and upholsterer, made most of our custom wood furniture, as well as our waiting room benches. Sichel Sleep Company fabricated all our ticking mattresses and pillows and even made “hay” mattresses as a special request!
· We also counted on House of Antique hardware and Crown City for our hardware needs.
Our most unique find was all the dirt and gravel we used. Who would have known there were so many different colors, types, textures etc.? Bay Aggregates has it all.
SET DECOR: You have worked on so many great projects in film and television. What did you particularly bring with you to this one from your past experience?
RG: The most essential, my crew! They are incredible. I can only be as good as them. I can find all the best set dressing in the world, but if your crew doesn’t know what to do with the stuff it means nada! I have been lucky enough to work with my leadman Jerry DeTitta on multiple projects. We have discussed this job on numerous occasions as being the toughest we have ever done, both together and separately. It is a very stressful FAST paced job. We are making a 10-hour movie here, this is not your normal TV show, plus it’s period. AND shot in NYC!
Jerry has a group of people working with him that are tops…he literally has the A team. Every one of his core crewmembers can run a big set on their own, and do an incredible job at it. This is a shout out to Tim, Sean, Cliff, Rick, Jolie, Keith, Anthony, Vinnie and Nick and our on set dressers Adam and Tony. They are the best! I have a lot of respect for what my crew does and enjoy working with them everyday. I don’t think they realize how valuable they are—talented, professional, truly special. My assistants on Season 1 were Susan Kaufman SDSA and Lisa Kent, two great set decorators. My coordinator Stephanie (Season 1 AND 2) is a shining star, as well as my Season 1 PA Tara. We also have great teamsters, sometimes having 5 trucks on at a time just for set dressing.
SET DECOR: Besides the incredible delving into history, what have you learned from this experience?
RG: From a personal view, I have a better understanding of how hard it was to live in this city back then…how hard it must have been if you were sick, if you were middle class, if you were black, an immigrant, or if you were simply different. My family were immigrants from Italy on my mother’s side and from Germany on my father’s. My ancestors passed thru Ellis Island at the turn of the century, I can only imagine the hardships they had to face.
RG: I am finishing this interview during my last few days of wrapping out of Season 2. Trucks are heading back to LA with our set dressing and our set dressers are wrapping out in our shop, sets that we worked so hard on have come down. Over the past 2 years I have become incredibly attached to this show and to all involved. It is a pretty amazing team we have here. As I took a look around my empty office and shut the door for what may be the last time, I have to admit I got a little teary-eyed, I never got emotional leaving a show before. This has probably been the most fulfilling job I have ever had in my career.