“Paris was the most opulent place in the world at that time,” Production Designer Jon Gary Steele notes. Here, the night version of the Paris apartment that he and Set Decorator Gina Cromwell SDSA created…
The day shot allows more of the details to be seen and appreciated. This set was one of many built onstage. The walls were kept grey throughout all of the apartment to keep it cohesive and to allow the furnishings and costumes to stand out…
Claire [Caitriona Balfe] and Jamie [Sam Heughan] arrive in France to escape the English machinations in Scotland and to give Jamie time to recover from grievous injuries. Soon the exotic world of Paris aristocracy would be their home…
Sam Heughan, who plays the Scot laird James Alexander Mackenzie Fraser, says, “The Paris apartment is more like a palace, really. It’s a very different world from the mud and the blood and the castles of Scotland in OUTLANDER Season 1...”
A favorite milieu of Prince Charles Edward Stuart, with its teal walls, gilded caryatids and impressive prostitutes… Jamie finds his enemy and business rival Le Comte St. Germain is funding the prince’s plans for war…
“It has the formality of a dispensing pharmacy of today, with all the pots neatly arranged, the medicine being measured and carefully wrapped, but with a strong flavor of alchemy and of old wisdom…the old mystical crocodile, the fire from the still and bubbling alembics, the drying herbs and weird substances in jars,” Cromwell smiles…
Jamie [Sam Heughan] and his brother-in-law, factor and best friend, Ian [Steven Cree] go over plans for the family, the farm and the crofters and tenants… Note the tapestry-covered walls, carved heavy woods…this is a land of primitive beauty and much cold...
Having lost her first child to stillbirth in Paris and believing Jamie may well die at the upcoming Battle of Culloden, a newly pregnant Claire [Caitriona Balfe] reluctantly agreed to go back through the standing stones to her own time in order to protect the life of their unborn child and to give Jamie a way to live on…
The OUTLANDER series took a major leap for this recent Season 2!
As Sam Heughan, who plays Jamie Fraser says, “It’s a very different world from the mud and blood and the castles of OUTLANDER Season 1.”
The first season took us deep into the lands of the Clan MacKenzie and the Scotland of the 18th century: Castle Leoch and incumbent village, plus Jamie Fraser’s home, Lallybroch, heavy stone structures, fields and forests, living rough...and Wentworth Prison. All of this after transporting Claire Beauchamp Randall from a circle of standing stones on a hilltop in 1940’s Scotland to the same spot almost two centuries earlier.
Just as Claire [Caitriona Balfe] and we were learning to adapt to the simpler yet more complex Highland life of the 1740s, she and Jamie move to Paris to try to stop Prince Charlie and the Jacobite rebellion, knowing the inevitable outcome at Culloden if they don’t. As Producer Ronald Moore points out, “The stakes are enormous. We’re talking about tens of thousands of lives, the entire Scottish culture…”
Heughan adds, “So they have to integrate themselves into the society of the court of Louis the XV…”
Moore points out, “Paris was the most populous and most sophisticated city of its era, so the entire look and feel of the show had to be fundamentally different, emphasizing that Claire and Jamie have left Scotland and are being plunged into a new and exotic world of Paris aristocrats.”
Set Decorator Gina Cromwell SDSA took a few moments, or several actually, from the midst of the third season’s filming to take us through how the she and her team helped us make that leap into 18th century Paris. But before our conversation, she and Production Designer Jon Gary Steele gave us a quick look at their approach to the process of creating the entire series...
“The design of the sets is of course a huge collaboration,” notes Steele. “First, the team will do research, I will do a sketch, then we build a study model. We all look at the research together, I will do a mood board, Gina will do one and it evolves from that. I almost always ask Gina ahead of time if there are certain furniture pieces that the set should be designed around, or leave more room for like cabinets, armoires, hutches and large tables.”
“We then make lists of every thing needed and get on with it,” Cromwell smiles. “There is a lot of multi-tasking as we are often working on up to twenty built sets or locations at once.”
“When it comes to color, everything must be discussed,” Steele points out. “Entire sets can change because of the perfect color of a couch or wallpaper. If we find an item of furniture that is the ideal shape but the wrong color, we will refurbish and upholster it. Similarly, if we can’t find something suitable, we will design and make it.”
“We are both really enthusiastic about this part of the process, as this is when the final look totally evolves. When the architecture, furniture, rugs, set dressing and all the colors come together…and it works…that is the magic of Art Direction and Set Decoration.”
With that delightful intro, let’s step into the specifics of creating this Emmy-nominated series – there’s still time to binge-watch before Season 3!
SET DECOR: Please tell us about the differences between Jamie and Claire living at the family home of Lallybroch in the highlands of Scotland and then in the elegant Parisian apartment…
Set Decorator Gina Cromwell SDSA: Although it has elements of grandeur from bygone days, Lallybroch is a friendly place, truly a home, so we dressed with as much 18th century carefree clutter we could rustle up.
The Parisapartment was more akin to living in a hotel now. They had a large staff to attend to them. Also, to enable them to infiltrate the Parisian elite, the style and richness for the decor had to match up with the fashionable and extremely wealthy society Claire and Jamie are trying to influence.
SET DECOR: For a specific set dressing comparison, we could look at a detail such as the difference in the beds…
Cromwell: Yes, most of the Scottish sets we dressed in what would have been old-fashioned by the 1740s. Thus, 16th and 17th century furniture and drape designs were used, taking a lot of inspiration from Dutch 17th century paintings.
The beds in Lallybroch were very much influenced by examples in those paintings, with heavy velvet drapes and valances. In Jamie and Claire’s room, set dressing had to complete with the intense blue of the wall hanging, so I used panels of alternate navy and teal for the palette, which was particularly complimentary with Jamie’s auburn hair.
The apartment dressing was again influenced by art references, but this time by the 18th century French painters, particularly Le Troy. The bedroom here was predominately rose pink with velvet panels set in the walls. The bed itself had a splendid canopy with deep burgundy damask drapes. We deliberately moved away from the four-poster to open up the bed to the room. I guess its warmer in France and you don’t need the extra insulation.
SET DECOR: Also the differences in something so simple as small tables and accouterment and in lighting…
Cromwell: For the most part, we stayed with Rococo/Late Baroque and French Régence stylistically. We had a research trip to Paris to visit Versailles and the Louvre. But the most interesting museum was the Musée Carnavalet, which houses French interiors throughout the centuries. We made strange tourists, as we were always taking pictures of door handles or we had our heads inside fireplaces photographing the fire backs. These sorts of details we had to make from scratch.
Other furniture was a mixture of choice antiques and good replicas that we painted and upholstered to suit our color palette. All lighting was beeswax candles. The large chandeliers in the apartment, the candelabras and sconces, were in the asymmetric Rococo style.
SET DECOR: And the different palettes for Scotland and Paris?
Cromwell: In both worlds, we use dark and sometimes intense colors that reflect the mood theatrically. Scotland was more influenced by natural, soft colors found in the Scottish landscape—heather tones, greens, browns and ochre. Paris was colorful and rich—golds and crystal, teal, blues, wine reds. I think this was heavily influenced by the French paintings that inspired us in our research.
SET DECOR: Tell us about fabrics, please, and wallpapers…
Cromwell: For France, we use silks and damasks. Scotland is more linens and wools.
We don’t really use wallpaper. The Paris apartment walls were silk or velvets.
Otherwise we print tapestries. We often dye fabrics to get more intensity. Some of our favorite suppliers are Bennett Silks, James Hare, Kobe velvets, Watts of Westminster and Mulberry for patterns, John England for Irish linen, Warwick’s Palazzo range for damasks and JAB.
SET DECOR: The dinner party Jamie and Claire gave was a key scene. We understand that consideration had to be made re: the ladies dresses and seating. Please fill us in!
Cromwell: Yes, the width of the ladies’ skirts did mean we were limited to using armless seats, and we bought a lot of stools and ottomans to accommodate them.
It’s great doing a dinner scene in period drama and this one was no exception. The food was researched and recipes were chosen from 18th century French recipe books, and prepared by Lisa Heathcote, who I worked with on DOWNTON ABBEY.
I particularly liked the guided eel, which I don’t think got as much onscreen time as it deserved. Everything on the table was carefully thought through.
We had the cutlery made. The glasses also were made and a few were engraved with the Jacobite white rose emblem. The plates were hired, but I was very keen to get a pattern that looked early 18th century, as I know china production technically changed a lot just after our period. In this period, all dishes were placed on the table at once like a buffet, which makes a great top shot as we saw in the show.
SET DECOR: Speaking of period accuracy, the series is set in historic situations. Do you have to remain extremely accurate in your detail, or because it is historical fiction, do you have more flexibility?
Cromwell: Achieving historic accuracy is important to strive for, but I do find myself often saying, “It’s not a documentary!” We are working with in the framework of the period, but it is a theatric piece and we sometimes have to use artistic license to tell the story. Realistically, we are restricted to using items that actually exist and are available to hire or buy. We actually also make so much, as so little survives, particularly of ordinary everyday items.
Although we research and get as close to the period as possible via the paintings and prints of the period, we are also looking for a twist of originality. This can be sparked by a fabulous eccentric photographer like Tim Walker or an awesome image from the National Geographic. We are forever seeking inspiration from all around us all the time.
SET DECOR: And far from ordinary, the palace scenes were, of course, resplendent. But as well, you had to re-create a portion of the Versailles gardens? And then there were all the magnificent floral arrangements for the interiors…
Cromwell: Fortunately we were lucky enough to film in Drummond Castle, which has beautiful gardens in the style of Versailles. For the interior arrangements, I was influenced by a 1730s set of botanical prints called “Twelve Months of Flowers”. Here, all the arrangements show a generously full complement of all the flowers grown at the time. I loved the chaotic nature of the arrangements for this period, with a full cacophony for every flower available in the seasons tumbling out of urns.
SET DECOR: There are some distinctly Parisian sets, besides the Palace, particularly Master Raymond’s apothecary shop…
Cromwell: This was, in fact, the third apothecary we had dressed on this show!
We had the old apothecary at Castle Leoch and the workroom in Gellis’s house in Season 1.
The big departure with Master Raymond’s shop was it firstly had to be more businesslike and sophisticated to serve the Parisian people, yet, secondly it had to retain the same magical quality that we had explored in the apothecaries in Season 1.
The wonderful dichotomy about this set is, on one hand, it has the formality of a dispensing pharmacy of today, with all the pots neatly arranged, the medicine being measured and carefully wrapped, but with a strong flavor of alchemy and of old wisdom, which is demonstrated in the old mystical crocodile, the fire from the still and bubbling alembics, the drying herbs and weird substances in jars.
The way we approached the preparation was to immerse ourselves in the paintings and illustrations from the period showing apothecaries and alchemists at work.
It’s no one prop that make this set come alive, it’s an orchestration of hundreds of individual pieces which the set dec team collected over many months. We had the apothecary jars made by Trinity Pottery who work with many British museums.
The glass was either blown by the Georgian glassblowers or gathered from endless shopping expeditions, digging around in antique shops and scouring the Internet. We hired many weird and wonderful things from the London and Parisian prop houses.
The crocodile is an antique piece of taxidermy from London. The herbs were sourced from Chinese supermarkets or cut from a medical herbalist’s gardens. We were lucky to find some large aloe vera plants busting out of their pot just like in the Pietro Longhi painting of "The Apothecary" from 1752.
The backroom was interesting, as there was no direct reference from paintings from the 18th century, but I did get inspiration from James McNeill Whistler’s Peacock room, which is admittedly late-19th century but the shelves and wall paintings inspired me as a way for displaying the hundreds of sculls we had collected for the secret room.
Jamie and Claire are always on the move, so its hard to build character into their sets, however Master Raymond’s backroom was an opportunity to show his possible interest in time travels abs I read in one of author Diana Gabaldon’s blogs that he was also a time traveler from 400 BC. So, if you look closely, there are a few antiquarian items from Rome and ancient Greece.
SET DECOR: He was definitely a favorite character! And who could not love Mother Hildegard, her dog Bouton, her music and her healing hospital?
The challenge for the hospital was creating an environment that reflected the serenity and efficiency of a Catholic convent along with the harrowing chaos of a 18th century charity hospital.
The crypt at Glasgow Cathedral gave us a great space to play with—fabulous architecture of the forest of columns giving us peeks of grim scenes beyond.
We found an amazing image for a convent hospital, which featured rows of four-poster beds with red velvet drapes and had a heavy emphasis on religious icons and devotion. This was so alien to our secular modern day ideas of what a hospital looks like.
SET DECOR: Speaking of “modern day,” at the end of the season there is another leap forward in time, to 1968 with Claire and her now 20-year-old daughter. Please tell us about these sets that will lead us into the next season!
Cromwell: The leaps in time keep us mentally on our toes! I generally try to immerse myself in the magazine photos and the films for the mid-20th century to get into “the zone”. I have a lot of books on interior design from the actual periods and home catalogs, which I constantly refer to.
We covered 1940s to 1960s in Season 2, and we carry on the mid-century look in Season 3. It’s a very different feel and requires considerably more dressing as we hit the consumer society.
SET DECOR: How much of a crew do you have to deal with all of this set dressing?!
Cromwell: I have one Senior Buyer, Sue Morrison, with whom I worked on DOWNTON, plus one Dressing Buyer and one Petty Cash Buyer. We have temporary people who come in when we are very busy. I also have two Assistant Set Decorators. Then we have the set dressing teams of up to fourteen people.
We have a drapes team and a prop-making team and prop scenic artists with us at the studios. However, we do commission some props from specialist prop makers in London.
SET DECOR: Are there significant last-moment script changes, or are you fairly “safe” once the set has been presented?
Cromwell: The writers are here in the UK with us and discuss with us script changes usually early enough to avoid panic and hemorrhaging budgets.
SET DECOR: What were the biggest challenges on this second season?
Cromwell: Filming in Prague for Paris set big challenges, particularly as we had to dress and strike on the same day as filming. Fortunately, we took core members of the team who know the show well.
SET DECOR: We’re curious, with all that you provided this season, do you have a favorite set element?
Cromwell: I like the five canons and gun carriages we made for the battles episodes.
There is nothing like this surviving and nothing in the prop houses to hire. Our historical advisor happened to have a model of one and we copied it to make the full-sized models. Its just very satisfying to have them made knowing there is nothing else out there like them.
SET DECOR: What is the most important or best thing that has come out of working on this series?
Cromwell: It’s been great working with a group of people who have contributed their ideas and talents and grown with the project to become a really first-rate team. With out them, none of it would have happened.
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