Frank [Kevin Spacey] insists on absolute loyalty from his team, including Congresswoman Jackie Sharp [Molly Parker], whom he tapped to succeed him as House Majority Whip and White House Chief of Staff Remy Danton [Mahershala Ali]…
First as House Majority Whip, then as Vice-President and now as President, Francis Underwood directly addresses the camera at times, giving us a clear view into his beguiling, charismatic and ruthless pursuit of power…
“For the first season, with Walker as president, this space was in the show’s neutral palette, Set Decorator Tiffany Zappulla SDSA describes. “Francis’s Oval Office is in shades of gray.” [See previous photos]…
President Walker [Michael Gill], Vice-President Underwood [Kevin Spacey and Walker’s Chief of Staff Linda Vasquez [Sakina Jaffrey] deal with the current agenda… Note the beige sofas, fully skirted compared to the grey pieces with pointed legs that appear when Frank takes over the presidency …
The ambitious Francis “Frank” Underwood who will stop at nothing to ensure his ascendancy, manipulates his way up from Majority Whip to Vice-President to President. In Season 4, he has to fight to win the presidency by election…it won’t be pretty!
“This was lit almost entirely by candlelight,” Zappulla reveals. “Steve and I worked with Director of Photography Martin Algren to get the look just right. We had camera tests with varying amounts of candles on the table. There was a fine line between seance and stunning.”
“The black and white checkerboard floor, a prominent feature in Claire's Eisenhower Executive Office Building office is not only strong graphically, it also provides a geographic clue to the set,” hints Zappulla. “Black and white checkerboard tile is a noted and recognizable deign element in the EEOB.”
HOUSE OF CARDS, the series that defined binge-watching, revolves around the power couple Francis & Claire Underwood [Kevin Spacey, Robin Wright] and their relentless machinations to ascend to even more power and amass perhaps more than a little revenge...
Each season has 13 episodes, referred to as “Chapters”…one chapter per card in a suit of playing cards. And, as the first Netflix original, it was the first of a new format, in which all episodes/chapters of a season are introduced on the same day. There are no time/length restrictions on each chapter and no commercials.
Executive Producer David Fincher directed the first two chapters, setting the tone and style, which continues to bring critical acclaim. The format established, two episodes/chapters are shot concurrently, each pair having its own director.
The series is as distinctive as the format. When we first meet the Underwoods, Francis is the House Majority Whip, a congressman from South Carolina positioned to become Secretary of State, and his wife Claire heads Clean Water Initiative, a NGO that she feels is too limited in international recognition. By the end of the first season, having been passed over by the president he helped elect, Underwood undermines numerous colleagues, kills a senator…making it look like suicide…and receives and accepts the nomination for Vice-President. Meanwhile, his equally ambitious wife Claire has ruthlessly fired half of her staff, dealt with her husband’s affair with an investigative reporter and fielded a tabloid revelation of her relationship with a famous photographer.
As Season 2 opens, Claire develops a friendship with the First Lady. Completely remorseless in his pursuit of self-interest, Francis kills the reporter he was bedding, Zoe Barnes [Kate Mara], who was getting too close to the truth, then courts the influential businessman closest to the president and the Chinese businessman engaged in back-channel negotiations. Underwood then undercuts both, subsequently setting up the fall and resignation of the president. The season ends as Francis J. “Frank” Underwood is sworn in as President of the United States.
Season 3 brought radical changes, including a visit from the Russian president and a subsequent visit to Russia to secure the release of an LBGT activist, the repercussions of a drone-strike gone badly. We also saw Claire’s stint as United Nations Ambassador and, after years of deep participation in her husband’s political and personal manipulations, her eventual mutiny.
Set Decorator Tiffany Zappulla SDSA and Production Designer Steve Arnold, who took over immediately after Production Designer Donald Burt and Set Decorator Doug Mowat completed the first chapter pair, are currently deeply immersed with their teams in creating sets for Season 4—which are totally embargoed from pre-release description!
However, we can visit some of the outstanding, Emmy-nominated signature sets and get a few behind-the-scenes notes.
Key sets for the first season alone included:
The White House
Office of the House Whip
Secretary of State office
Claire’s office/Clean Water Initiative
Underwood townhouse residence
Washington Herald office
Freddy’s BBQ Rib Joint
The Georgetown Hotel
DuPont Circle Bar
Underwood Library at The Sentinel
Russo’s campaign rally
There seems to be an intentional sparseness in some of the sets, which perfectly reflects the main characters. Zappulla explains, “Claire and Francis display a great deal of control and order in their lives, so their interiors reflect this. There is no clutter, everything serves a purpose. As the seasons progressed and the storyline grew darker, so did their interiors. By the time the Underwoods were in the White House, the palette was shades of gray. In one of the last scenes of Season 3, Claire and Francis are arguing in a hotel room. They were not seeing eye-to-eye, so all the art was black and white. They were complete opposites.”
Arnold discloses, “In Francis’s townhouse and in his office we chose things that had sharpness and edge to them. He’s such a nefarious character, and we wanted things around him to have metaphorical teeth, in very subtle ways. For instance a table leg might be very pointy and sharp, because he is that kind of a character.”*
When the series opened, a NY Times article stated that at one point during a studio tour, detail-oriented Showrunner Beau Willimon “explained with great excitement that Underwood’s office is a nearly exact replica of the actual House Whip’s office, down to such details as the height of the light switches.”
“Francis’s Whip’s office had a presidential-blue palette since it was obvious early on that he had his sights set on that title,” reveals Zappulla. “The office is filled with appropriate accents: a shadowbox-framed whip and evidence of his roots from South Carolina, i.e. a photo of the Peachoid, the famed water tower of Gaffney, SC. There were also actual photos of actor Kevin Spacey with President Clinton, which meant no photoshopping required! The art also paid homage to SC, images such as Fort Sumter and other key historical sites covered the walls. When Jackie Sharp [Molly Parker] took over the office, the furniture configuration remained the same but the palette was softened: creams, blues, and grays. Francis’ desk…a Kittinger, from The White House collection…moved with him to the VP office.”
A sizeable section of the interior of the US Capitol building, as well as segments of the White House were built in a huge industrial warehouse space in Baltimore which is being used for stages for the series.
Arnold points out, “In conceptualizing the design of the show we wanted to avoid the flatness that you sometimes see in sets created for television. We tried to get depth with spaces that are often long and narrow like the corridors and hallways of our Capitol set.” He adds, “The Oval Office that we’ve built is an exact match to the real one. Those kinds of sets require a great deal of research and a lot of detail to give them the verisimilitude of the real places.”
And as happens in real life, there are changes made in the office with each new administration. Zappulla describes, “For the first season, with Walker as president, this space was in the show’s neutral palette. The rug for the Oval Office was manufactured for us and we had a significant lead-time. When it came time to turn the office into Francis’s, for Season 3, I did not have that amount of lead-time, so I had the presidential seal cut out and built a new oval carpet around the original seal. Francis’ Oval Office is in shades of gray.”
“To bring the Underwoods into the White House residence, I used a lot of contemporary art in the hallway,” she continues. “Francis’s room has lots of black while Claire’s is in shades of gray. In Season 1, I started using bird motifs for Claire—birds appear delicate, but they can fly! I also always have white tulips for her. The bathroom was the only area in which we took some creative license…there is very little accurate information about this space. Steve wanted a clean, traditional look and was fond of a Waterworks tub, so I basically designed the entire bathroom around the tub. Again shades of gray. The charcoal gray towels have the presidential seal and they are a crew favorite!”
“The White House residence was a huge set, and we only had a few days to dress it. I knew construction would not be completed until the 11th hour, so my crew marked out in tape on the warehouse floor designating what would be the hallway and sitting room. We called it the “dollhouse” and it allowed me to move the furniture around while they were still building. When construction handed over the set, there were no surprises and we were able to have it ready for the first day of filming. Hands down, I have the best crew in the business and they make my job a pleasure.”
As for exteriors, Zappulla says, “Everything is filmed in Baltimore with the exception of a few scenes in the last episode of Season 3, which were filmed on location in Santa Fe. Baltimore has similar architecture to DC so it works well. Our exterior shoots are usually about matching DC, so we avoid tall buildings, our scenics paint the fire hydrants green, and we switch out signage, trashcans, etc for accuracy.”
For recurring sets, there is the typical mix of locations and stage builds. Zappulla points out, “Originally shot on location, we ultimately built Freddy’s BBQ Rib Joint on stage because it became such a frequent set in the scripts. Werner’sis a location that we should have built on stage! It continues to regularly be written into scripts. The owners have remodeled several times since Season 1, so we have embraced the changes, most of them subtle, and moved along. Lucas’s apartment is one of the sets built on the deck of the Underwood’s Gaffney SC home set. I later came to refer to this set as the “chia” set because so many new sets “sprouted up” on that deck!”
Of the 150-185 sets per season, Zappulla divulges her favorite: “Freddy’s Apartment. It was not the most beautiful set, but there was so much character info in each and every item. I never place items on sets just to fill space, everything has a purpose, but this set hit all the marks. Conversely, I also loved Gavin’s Apartment. The clean lines and symmetry appeal to my personal aesthetic.”
She also reveals, “I try to tell the story with the artwork in the sets. Stamper [Douglas “Doug” Stamper, Underwood’s Chief of Staff & confidante] almost died in the woods from a blow to the head. There is a very strong graphic of a human head in his apt and all the other art is of woods. As I mentioned, I always have “birds” around Claire. Francis’ VP office was filled with battle scene paintings. He was about to launch the greatest battle of his life…becoming President. His townhouse study was decorated with Civil War art to reflect the story line.”
Arnold points out, “In the design of the sets for the most part we try to employ symmetry and balance wherever we can, giving the spaces a subtle sense of solidity and seriousness, along with a feeling that we are in the country’s seat of power.”
“The other thing that seems to be very critical to maintain is the color palette, the control of light and dark value, and the actual colors of the sets. We use a very narrow range of subdued colors, very carefully controlled.”
He adds, “Fincher is a brilliant filmmaker and an equally brilliant photographer, and his vision informs all of the projects he does. These episodes were shot quite differently from most other television, and partly that involves the way the sets are lit. For the most part our sets are fairly light in color, the opposite of what you would normally do. The tone of the show is very dark and moody. We’re showing the underbelly of Washington D.C., the shadowy behind-the-scenes part of it. Generally you would have lighter characters against a darker background, but we have done just the opposite. We have darker characters against primarily lighter backgrounds. The characters are lit and you can see their faces, but there’s also a lot of silhouetting that happens against these lighter backgrounds.”
Zappulla concurs, “Steve and I have a similar aesthetic and we both feel it is vital to maintain the look established by Fincher. David has a very strong aesthetic and an incredible eye for detail. The admiration I have for both of these men has made me a better decorator. I continue to fine-tune my eye to catch the slightest imperfections. It might seem tedious, but when you see that degree of perfection on screen it is impressive.”
When asked what she’s learned from this project, she smiles, “Just like the weather in Baltimore…wait a minute and it will change.”
*Read Arnold’s full interview with Google interface engineeKirill Grouchnikov at pushing-pixels.org