July 18th, 2022 by Marina Parker SDSA
Set Decorator Marina Parker SDSA
Production Designer Loren Weeks
Production Designer Neil Patel
Set Decorator Marina Parker SDSA and her teams went into extraordinary detail for the
recently completed literary historical series DICKINSON, for AppleTV+. Over 3 seasons, DICKINSON gave viewers an alternate look at the young life of the “Belle of Amherst”, creating lauded historical and period settings, while the language and soundtrack had a decidedly modern twist. Marina, along with Production Designers Loren Weeks (S1) and Neil Patel (S2,3), worked tirelessly to maintain the look of the series, and has been given praise in the most amazing way.
Upon completion of the series, the Emily Dickinson Museum and the Harvard Library collection, which houses Dickinson ephemera, received much of the set pieces from the series. Marina generously shares the unique resources, often small family-owned businesses that specialize in re-creating specific period pieces, as well as the SDSA Business members who specialize in these wonderfully arcane areas
From Set Decorator Marina Parker SDSA...
Set in 1850s New England, interspersed with surreal fantasies, it was a fun world to explore! I had never worked in the 19th-century period before, so the learning curve was steep. Photographs of interiors from the 1850s don't exist (as it predates photography), daguerreotypes were taken sparingly and captured the likeness of loved ones, not domestic spaces. So, we spent a lot of time looking to paintings for clues. Once we reached the early 1860s, and the Civil War, photography emerged and suddenly there was so much more documentation! The images by the most well-known of America’s first photographers, Mathew Brady, were incredibly helpful.
Although DICKINSON is not a straightforward period piece, it felt important to ground the show in period-accurate sets to provide a foil for the contemporary dialogue and soundtrack. We went to great lengths to understand the truth of the period, and then we leaned into what we found visually pleasing!
The Evergreens: Austin and Sue Dickinson, Emily's brother and his wife, her closest friend, were serious art collectors. We carefully pieced salon walls together for their parlor. Photo by Michael Parmelee. Courtesy of Apple.
We embraced color, patterns and the strangeness of Victorian taste (although we were often surprised at how contemporary some Victorian fashions seem). Alena Smith, the show’s creator, once described DICKINSON as a Victorian fun-house mirror through which viewers might examine today's society.
To be sure, DICKINSON is a weird, surreal period show—but the scripts were heavily researched and grounded in Emily Dickinson’s poems. This was also how we approached the set decoration. Every set, every element, came from researching Emily’s life, reading her poetry, and working our way out from there.
A clear example is the recurring set of Death’s carriage. One of Dickinson’s most famous poems begins:
“Because I could not stop for Death—
He kindly stopped for me—
The Carriage held but just Ourselves—
Death’s Carriage: Wiz Khalifa, as Death, is Emily’s friend and confidante. We pulled elements from different time periods into Death's carriage, which is the one place we really broke with period. Image courtesy of Apple.
Wiz Khalifa, as Death, rolls around in a posh carriage, and makes house calls on Emily—death is Emily’s friend and confidant. Because death is not confined by time…we weren’t either. We pulled elements from other time periods into the carriage. Death foretells the future in dialogue, alluding to a coming Civil War. It felt right for his style to also have a fluid relationship with time.
Season 1 Production Designer Loren Weeks envisioned bench seats for the carriage inspired by Fred Astaire’s limousine. We also incorporated Victorian elements...tassel-trimmed curtains, real oil-burning brass lamps. We added a hand-painted, silvery, night-sky wallpaper to the ceiling and floor, so the universe opens up above and below them. We wanted the space to feel both intimate and expansive. “The Carriage held but just Ourselves— And Immortality.”
When Loren mentioned the idea of the carriage walls to be wallpapered, I knew the paper I wanted to use, “Limerence” by House of Hackney. In dialogue, Emily explains to a would-be lover that lilies symbolize death. The white lilies and blue forget-me-nots blooming out of the darkness felt perfect for Death’s sanctuary. There’s such a lovely, wild sense of nature taking over in that paper...the absolute power of nature is a recurring theme in Dickinson’s poems.
“…And so as kinsmen met a night,
We talked between the rooms.
Until the moss had reached our lips
And covered up our names.”
Death’s Carriage: Hailee Steinfeld as Emily, Wiz Khalifa as Death. Image courtesy of Apple.
We also incorporated 20th-century glass limousine bud vases into the carriage...another reference to Astaire’s limousine...and filled them to the brink of exploding with blooming white lilies. A lot of arsenic green was used in Death’s carriage—another idea of Loren’s. We were very intentional about the carriage being a backdrop against which Emily’s red dress could really glow. The dress, and their intimacy, would be the focus.
In preparation for Season 1, the first thing we did was take a field trip to the Emily Dickinson Museum. Production Designer Loren Weeks, Producer Diana Schmidt, Art Director CJ Simpson and I drove to Amherst, Massachusetts. Dickinson’s childhood home, where she lived until she died, only became a museum in 2003. When we visited in 2018, we found most of the house architecturally intact, but sparsely furnished.
Emily Dickinson had no public reputation when she died—she was unpublished and unknown. Her house was eventually sold and stripped of its contents. Very little furniture, art, wallpaper, light fixtures, rugs, or details of what her daily life may have looked like survived. When we visited, Dickinson’s childhood bedroom was the sole room that had been restored. The furnishings include a replica of her writing table and rose-covered wallpaper, dated to later in her life, which had also been replicated.
Emily’s bedroom set: “Mimosa” lace curtains from Cooper Lace, Amherst, MA – Dan Cooper is a SDSA Business member who provides historically correct and exquisite lace. Pewter oil lamp from Danforth Pewter, a family-owned company hand-turning pewter lamps in Vermont since 1755. Hailee Steinfeld as Emily. Image courtesy of Apple.
Emily Dickinson lived in that bedroom her whole life, and later in life rarely left it, speaking with visitors through the closed door. DICKINSON is about Emily in her 20s, a freer-spirited time in her life. I decided to use "New England Floral" wallpaper for our bedroom set. The pattern is from Thomas Strahan’s historic collection, dating to the 1850s. It's a youthful pattern that feels like a wallpaper her parents might have put up for her. It is light and lyrical, and has enough negative space to breathe.
We weren't sure how an academic institution such as the Emily Dickinson Museum would respond to the show's unconventional approach. Jane Wald, the museum's executive director, was very gracious. Her warm reception was a welcome relief! She shared intimate details from Emily's life. We learned she had a red blanket that she carried on walks, so she could lay in the grass and write, soaking in the day. We had one sewn for the show. We learned that Emily’s bedroom window, where her desk was placed, faced the main road. Funeral processions and hearses traveled down the street to reach the cemetery. She watched death from her window …driving by in a carriage.
Emily’s bedroom set: A montage at the end of Season 3. Our stage set was the same scale and layout as her real bedroom. The wallpaper is a Thomas Strahan pattern from the 1850s,"New England Floral." Hailee Steinfeld as Emily. Image courtesy of Apple.
The museum rooms were very spare, but replicas of three family portraits hung on the walls in the downstairs parlor over a square grand piano. The few personal items from Emily’s life that had survived—the one-drawer stand that served as her writing desk, her books and the original family portraits—live in the climate-controlled rare books library at Harvard University’s Houghton Library.
The Emily Dickinson Museum shared their archives with us and Harvard, which owns the rights to the family portraits, allowed us to re-create them, substituting our actor's faces. From a decorative arts standpoint, though, the Emily Dickinson Museum, in 2018, was a mostly blank slate.
Those original Dickinson family portrait paintings are among a small handful of belongings that survived. With permission, we replicated these paintings for our Homestead parlor set, modifying Mr. and Mrs. Dickinson’s faces to resemble our actors. Graphic designer Derrick Kardos altered the portraits. We had new pictures printed on canvas, which the charge scenic, Patty Walker, overpainted.
The Homestead: Jane Krakowski as Mrs. Dickinson, Emily’s mother. In background, the replicated original portrait with her image overpainted. Courtesy of Apple.
My father suggested we visit Ralph Waldo Emerson's home in Concord, Massachusetts, a couple hours’ drive from Amherst. Unlike Dickinson, Emerson was a very famous writer during his lifetime...as in, Abraham Lincoln went to visit him kind of famous. Transcendentalist writers, including Henry David Thoreau, Louisa May Alcott and Nathaniel Hawthorne chose to live near Emerson, in Concord, forming a literary community. Because Emerson was so famous during his life, the Emerson house is beautifully preserved.
The house is stunning, full of dark wood Empire furniture with sweeping lines and a regal simplicity (by Victorian standards). Bay Bancroft, Emerson's living heir, granted me a rare exception to the museum’s rules, and allowed me to take some non-flash photographs—images we pored over for the rest of the season. For instance, the idea of nailing a starched linen towel up behind a washbasin in Emily’s room, as splash guard, was inspired by a detail at the Emerson house. And the idea of a giant dollhouse in her sister Lavinia's rooms came from one of the Emerson children's bedrooms.
Across the street from the Emerson house is the Concord Museum, where the curator of decorative arts is David Wood. David introduced me to Jane and Richard Nylander, 19th-century New England decorative arts power couple. Richard specializes in New England wallpaper, Jane in New England draperies. Their direction, guidance, and feedback were invaluable.
David Rose, of David Rose Antiques —a vendor I met at the Brimfield Flea Market, the largest outdoor antique show in New England—was another incredible resource. He and I became frequent pen pals. He recommended books, helped me identify pieces by period, geography, tradition, and social class, and he hunted for specific dressings for us that we needed. For instance, Season 2 begins in an ophthalmologist's office. There is a theory that part of what drove Dickinson’s reclusiveness was loss of sight. Navigating the world may have become increasingly difficult as her vision grew worse. As she aged, her handwriting also got much more difficult to read. David helped us find some fantastic and terrifying ophthalmologic equipment!
Ophthalmologist’s office: A theory about why Emily became so reclusive is that she was losing her sight, which made navigating the world more difficult. BG: Assistant Set Decorator Susan Kaufman SDSA found the chilling painting, which our scenics painted spectacles on for the ophthalmologist’s office. Hailee Steinfeld, James Urbaniak, Toby Huss. Image courtesy of Apple.
Over and over again, my team and I found that experts, specialists, passionate enthusiasts, and people who cared deeply about a specific topic—whether it be historic carpet, light fixtures, wallpaper, drapery, furniture, antique stoves, or printing presses—were happy to share their knowledge. We loved listening to people who've spent years of their lives learning and exploring a topic, and we were thrilled to discover they were generally happy to share. Some were even excited that someone was interested in listening.
The deeper we dug into the Victorian period, the more surprises there were. I'd always thought of wall-to-wall carpeting as a very 1950s phenomenon. Apparently wall-to-wall carpeting was commonplace in the 1850s! Hand-hewn floorboards fit imperfectly, so wall-to-wall carpeting kept out the drafts and dust. Matt Bartley and his uncle Pat Kline run Heirloom Family Weavers, a small, family-owned business. Three generations in, they still use the original looms to weave ingrain carpet. Matt and Pat were incredible people to work with... they were willing to adjust colorways and have yarn dyed to coordinate with overall color schemes.
Edward’ Dickinsons home office: Emily's father was a lawyer and a serious man. Set dressers spent days making bundles of paperwork for his office, to illustrate his industry and work ethic. The ingrain carpet was woven by Family Heirloom Weavers. Adrian Blake Enscoe as Austin Dickinson, Toby Huss as Edward Dickinson. Image courtesy of Apple.
Editor’s note: Click on SHOW MORE PHOTOS below to see more of this and other reflective rooms/sets!
The two homes: Emily’s brother Austin marries Emily’s closest friend, Sue, and they build a home next door to The Homestead, the Dickinson family home. Their Italianate manse, The Evergreens, was a much showier house, built for entertaining and to host literary salons. Inside, the walls were, and are to this day, laden with art. In prep for Season 2, Production Designer Neil Patel, Assistant Set Decorator Susan Kaufman SDSA, Producer Diana Schmidt and I went back to the Emily Dickinson Museum.
The tone for Season 2, as Showrunner Alena Smith describe, was darker and sexier than the freshman season. In re-creating a version of The Evergreens for DICKINSON, we leaned into exhibitionism, showy collections of art, statues, crystal, marble, gilded finishes and rich, silky fabrics. Accomplishing that on a budget was a real puzzle, but I’m happy with the problem-solving we did, and the end result!
Neil had the idea of visiting the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. Their fabric-upholstered walls were inspirational. We loved how the luminous fabric kicked light back into the room, and we decided on silk-upholstered walls for our The Evergreens parlor set.
The Evergreens parlor: A humble, ragtag sofa which, after reupholstery, became the centerpiece of the Evergreens parlor. Ingrain wall-to-wall carpeting was woven for us by Family Heirloom Weavers. Finn Jones as Samuel Bowles. Image courtesy of Apple..
Austin and Sue Dickinson avidly collected art. Assistant Set Decorator Jamie Leigh Moore did a tremendous job sourcing the art for The Evergreens. We emphasized the Hudson River School, using a combination of found antiques and paintings we reproduced with the help of Derrick Kardos, our graphic designer, and the talented scenics. (Alex Garzero was the Charge Scenic for Season 2.)
It was important to me that the gold picture frames be lemon gold. Historically, they would have been in gold leaf. Antique picture frames are collectible and highly sought after, so most were out of our price range. In order to be able to afford these salon walls, we used a combination of new and vintage frames. The scenics were able to embellish our frames with sculpted plaster leaves and paint our motley collection a more uniform lemon gold, so the frames would contrast well against the cool blue walls.
I feel fortunate to have worked alongside such a talented group of people. Jenn Moller, the Costume Designer of Seasons 2 and 3, is especially talented. We communicated frequently about colors and fabrics we were thinking about using, to ensure that the sets and costumes would harmonize and play off each other. There were times I’d show her boards early on, and then show up on set to find she’d keyed elements of the costumes off the sets in really thoughtful ways. Other times, we considered our set dec choices, like tablecloths and curtains, around her plans for the costumes. It was nice to work with such an open-minded group of people who also paid such incredible attention to detail.
The Homestead dining room: The scenic wallpaper is a Zuber..."Scenes of North America," made by the French wallpaper company. Jackie Kennedy put this same wallpaper in the White House, in the Diplomats Room, when JFK was president. It’s up to this day! Assistant Set Decorator Jamie Moore worked with Zuber –who generously opened up their European warehouses in August, when all of Europe was closed, so we could receive this gorgeous paper in time! Toby Huss, Hailee Steinfeld & Jane Krakowski. Image courtesy of Apple.
The Homestead, Emily's home, which had been a spectacle in Season 1, became more austere and calmer in Season 2, to contrast with the materialism and maximalism of The Evergreens. That contrast deepened in Season 3, as the story played out in the long shadow of the Civil War. The stories struck out into the wider world more often in Seasons 2 and 3, expanding their world: a visit to the opera, salons and parties, the printing floor of the Springfield Republican, a cattle show at the county fair, and a large quilting bazaar to raise money for the war effort.
It was fun to create more opulent social spaces, but it was also fascinating to explore grittier spaces in Season 3, like a New York City Civil War hospital, an underground gay pub based on the real Pfaff’s Beer Cellar (which Walt Whitman frequented), Civil War encampments, a pillaged plantation, and a women’s psychiatric hospital.
Editor’s note: For the Civil War encampments, the opera and more impressive sets, click on SHOW MORE PHOTOS below!
We are flattered that the Emily Dickinson Museum was impressed enough with our efforts at period authenticity that they are incorporating major portions of our sets into their permanent collection.[PHOTO13]Jane Wald, the museum’s Executive Director, came to visit our stage sets and the set dec shop as we were wrapping up the final Season. Jane selected furniture (and entire rooms!) to be transported to the museum, which is currently embarking on a major renovation. It’s exciting that the museum is reintroducing more pattern, color, visual drama, and layers of life back into Emily’s family home. The museum has a link to a virtual event on their website (“Dickinson’s 191st Birthday Celebration”) if you’re curious to hear more about their restoration journey.
Homestead kitchen set: The actual Dickinson homestead kitchen, at the Emily Dickinson Museum, which has been used as a gift shop for many years, is going to be restored to a kitchen again, and filled with the furniture from our show: a dry sink, a long farmhouse table, a set of shaker chairs, butcher’s block, dough bowl washboards, blue willow spice containers, and whisk brooms. Photo by Michael Parmelee. Courtesy of Apple.
Harvard University’s Houghton Library also pursued a DICKINSON show archive, which will be permanently housed alongside the poet’s original writings. This archive will include physical copies of the scripts and handwritten poems used as props and made by our talented scenics; newspapers created for the show; hand-drawn plans of the sets; and a “Notes from a Set Decorator” scrapbook I made detailing the set decoration process of making DICKINSON.
The collection at the Houghton Library is free and open for the public to view, but reaching out in advance to make an appointment for time in the reading room is recommended.
And on a personal note, I'm deeply grateful to work with every one of these talented and thoughtful people! Loren Weeks, Production Designer Season 1 and Neil Patel, Production Designer Seasons 2-3; Assistant Set Decorators Susan Kaufman SDSA, Jamie Moore & Tyler Dawkins; Leads Kerry Weeks (S1), Tim Metzger (S2) & Steve Duke (S3); Coordinators Kate Lord (S2) & Emma Herrmann (S3), Graphic Designers Derrick Kardos (S1-2) & Valeria Fox (S3); Greensperson Ginny Walsh (S2-3) and PA Cece Hobson (S3)