THE GILDED AGE, the Julian Fellows created HBO series set in a period of American history of great changes in society and industry, focuses on both the established Van Rhijn/Brook family and the new money Russell family. Set Decorator Regina Graves SDSA gives a quick look into bringing the world of 1880s New York Society to life among the conservative world of Old Money and the brash nouveau riche, as well as the Black upper class, and the upstairs/downstairs domains of domestic servants. In the photo above, we see the incredible detail of the set, including carved ebonized woods, dramatic silk fabrics, wall stenciling, elaborate draperies, polished wood door frames, burnished gold picture frames, patterned wall-to-wall carpeting, chandeliers with crystal and frosted etched glass, dangling tassels, all the sumptuous things for a comfortable living. Award winners Graves and Production Designer Bob Shaw create meticulously researched and stunningly executed sets, sumptuous and simple, visually telling the story of The Gilded Age.
Van Rhijn parlor: Built set on stage in Glendale, NY. Landscape by Joseph Paul, sitting on Victorian easel/combined portfolio stand. Marble Sculpture by Adolfo Cipriani. Silk draperies by Scalamandre. Cynthia Nixon as Ada Brook. Photo by Alison Cohen Rosa. Courtesy of HBO.
From Regina Graves SDSA...
This project was one of the most fulfilling and trying of my career. It came at the best and worst time of my life. As we started working on the show, Bob and I were nominated for an Oscar and a BAFTA and riding the award show wave. [Editor’s note: See THE IRISHMAN in our Film Decor section] Then the following month, I lost my father, with whom I was very close, and we were hit by Covid, all at once. We shut down production, as everyone else did, for at least 5 months. I didn’t know if I had the energy to continue when we started up again, but I did commit, and it was the best decision I’ve made.
Notes on the making of...
The use of color to distinguish the old money Van Rhijn home and the nouveau riche Russell mansion. The storyline was basically Old Money versus New Money. The two main characters’ homes had to portray that on screen. The use of color is one of the best ways to set the tone.
Van Rhijn brownstone...
Society scion Agnes Van Rhijn [Christine Baranski] and her sister Ada Brook [Cynthia Nixon] lived in an archetypal NYC brownstone. Although uptown, it is modeled after the classic brownstones that line Gramercy Park. It was to have a much darker, heavier Victorian feel. We translated that thru the architecture, the use of darker carved wood furnishings and wall-to-wall carpeting on the ground floor, and the use of autumnal jewel-tone velvets, damasks and silks. We layered paintings on top of one another and tried to give it a more lived-in feeling, a long-established “proper” residence.
Van Rhijn parlor: Built stage set in Glendale, NY. Five-piece walnut and ebony Herter Bros-style parlor set. The centerpiece of the room is an American Empire mahogany center table surrounded by four matching chairs of the same period. The silk draperies are Lovebirds by Scalamandre. Christine Baranski as Agnes Van Rhijn, Blake Ritson as her scheming son, Cynthia Nixon as her sister Ada Brook, & Louisa Jacobson as their naïve but bright new-to-NY-society niece. Photo by Alison Cohen Rosa. Courtesy of HBO.
Van Rhijn parlor: The five-piece Parlor set was reupholstered in an Italian floral lampas figured silk fabric. Christine Baranski as society scion Agnes Van Rhijn. Photo by Alison Cohen Rosa. Courtesy of HBO.
We also couldn’t make it too messy or cluttered, which is typical to the traditional Victorian home, as they have a full staff of servants. It would have looked as if the servants weren’t doing their jobs if we made the house too cluttered. We used authentic Encaustic tiles throughout the foyer and kitchens. It was by far my favorite set—the entire house, especially the servants area in the basement. So much character.
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The decoration of the two homes were supposed to be almost completely opposite. The New Money Russells could have anything money could buy—George Russell is a ruthless tycoon, and his wife Bertha, a determined social climber—so their home was big and grand.
Russell drawing room: Built stage set, Bethpage, Long Island: The 19th century French inlaid Louis XV style Writing Desk Bureau Plat is the perfect choice for Bertha to write all her correspondence. The fabulous draperies are Palazzo Pamphily Stripe by Scalamandre. Carrie Coon as Bertha Russell, Morgan Spector as her husband, George Russell. Photo by Alison Cohen Rosa. Courtesy of HBO.
Russell drawing room: Built stage set, Bethpage, NY: Carrie Coon as the tenacious society climber Bertha Russell. Photo by Alison Cohen Rosa. Courtesy of HBO.
One of the first mansions to be built by McKim, Mead and White, the aesthetic was that everything was purchased in Europe and sent over to the States. The French-inspired drawing and dining rooms, with elaborate gilded carvings and painted ceilings, were meant to be a big contradiction to the staid Van Rhijn home. Most of the furnishings used were French or Italian antiques, and all the chandeliers were dripping with crystals. The fabrics were lighter and softer to show the contrast of the old and new.
Russell drawing room: Built stage set, Bethpage, NY: Louis XV canapé, side chair and fauteuil chair set upholstered in ginger bronze silk. French Aubusson parlor set in background. Custom brass and crystal chandelier and wall sconces. A beautiful rich French Aubusson Rug anchors the room. Courtesy of HBO.
Russell ballroom: A wee glimpse of the huge final scene! Photo by Alison Cohen Rosa. Courtesy of HBO.
Russell dining room: The floral arrangements for the show were planned for every setting and were made fresh on a daily basis. Assistant Set Decorator Amanda Finnegan, who also happens to be an unbelievable floral designer, was in charge of the floral arrangements for all the homes on a day-to-day basis. She shopped for the flowers every morning at her favorite market and designed the arrangements. Christopher Bassett Designs took care of all the special luncheons, parties and galas. Between the two, I couldn’t have asked for more. The flowers blew me away and definitely made the room settings shine. I couldn’t even put a number to the amount of flowers purchased, or how many arrangements were made—probably in the hundreds. Courtesy of HBO.
The yardage of fabric we purchased went well into the thousands for all the elaborate draperies, bedding and furnishings. This job was a drapers dream! All of the draperies throughout the homes were fabricated and almost 75 percent of the furniture we used was reupholstered. We even upholstered the walls in George’s study, Bertha’s bedroom and the second-floor hallway in the Russell manse.
Russell mansion, Bertha’s bedroom: Built on stage in Bethpage Long Island. Alva Vanderbilt’s bedroom at Marble House was used as inspiration. A French Louis XV bed painted and reupholstered in a lush velvet, custom silk wall covering, draperies and bedding all Italian silk. Carrie Coon as Bertha Russell. Photo by Alison Cohen Rosa. Courtesy of HBO.
Furniture was procured in many different ways. I made a trip to L.A. and rented a lot of high-end French and Italian antiques, as well as Victorian. We also purchased furniture from different dealers around the country, and Canada, and used many of our local New York prophouses. We hit Brimfield in September 2019, right before the pandemic- so we lucked out!
Chamberlain drawing room: Societal outcast Sylvia Chamberlain is an expert in the arts and an avid collector. All of her art pieces were chosen by the director and production designer and were made in house by our graphic designer Holly Watson, then finished by our extremely talented scenic department. Jeanne Tripplehorn as Sylvia Chamberlain. Photo by Alison Cohen Rosa. Courtesy of HBO.
Chamberlain drawing room: Marian [Louisa Jacobson] delights in Mrs. Chamberlain’s exquisite art collection. Regina notes, “One of my favorite sets! Shot on location, the entire room was redressed by our team in the Rococo style. We chose a very light color palette of soft blues and off whites to accentuate the gilded furnishings. All of the upholstered furniture pieces in this room were restored and reupholstered for this set, with the intent of a conveying a sophisticated art collector with a feminine sensibility.” Photo by Alison Cohen Rosa. Courtesy of HBO.
Builds and locations...
While a few of our sets were shot on location, the majority were built. Sets that were shot on location had to be almost 100 percent fully dressed, as the antiquities in most of the mansions were too delicate or valuable to be used. The entire Van Rhijn home was built on a soundstage in Glendale, NY, as was most of the Russell home, except the basement and George’s bedroom were built in Bethpage, NY. We also built an entire city block in Long Island to portray the exterior of the Russell and Van Rhijn homes, and the arrivals for the final ball scene.
Marian’s bedroom in the Van Rhijn home: Built onstage, as were most of Van Rhijn and Russell sets. Note the smallness of the room in the heavy Victorian-style brownstone contrasted with the large and light rooms of the newly built Russell manse. Louisa Jacobson as Marian. Photo by Alison Cohen Rosa. Courtesy of HBO.
When I started, there was already a great amount of research gathered by our amazing researcher Nara DeMuro. She put together some great look-books from the time period, and also made timelines and summaries of the rich and noteworthy families from that era living in NYC. It was invaluable information. I also did my own research and had my experience of decorating the HBO series THE KNICK to fall back on. Although it was set later (1898), it still had similarities, particularly for the working class and tenement sets. For the upper-class sets, there are terrific books about the Gilded Age in New York...THE DECORATION OF HOUSES by Edith Wharton and Ogden Codman Jr was a favorite.
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Editor’s note: Set Decorator Regina Graves SDSA is always quick to acknowledge those with whom she collaborates. For THE GILDED AGE, her outstanding key crew: Assistant Set Decorators: Ashley Wellbrock SDSA Associate, Pippa Culpepper & Amanda Finnegan | Buyer Meagan Sacco | Lead Phil Canfield | Set Dec Coordinator Miccah Underwood | Set Dec Dept PA: Grace Villa & Maddie Pflug
And exceptional resources, particularly SDSA Business members: Amsterdam Art Gallery | Arenson Prop Centre | Art for Film | Astek Wallcovering | Bridge Furniture & Props | Carpet Time | Chairish.com | City Knickerbocker | Cooper Lace | Dazian Creative Fabric Environments | Eclectic Encore Props | Fabric City | Faux Library Studio Props |Fennick Studio Props | Furnish Green | History For Hire | Kravet NYC | Lost and Found Props & Surface Archive | Newel Props | Omega Cinema Props | Premiere Props | propNspoon | Sony Pictures Studios | Strickland’s Set Services | Universal Studios Property | Warner Bros. Studios
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