Bulgarian Diploma student Temenouzhka Zaharieva shares her thoughts on film set design. With an interior designer's eye she looks beyond the actors to the sets themselves
"The real star of this film is the look, the exuberant set design"
Reading this sentence in a film review about 2004's Down with Love (which I very much agree with) made me think of the importance of set design and especially of the furniture used there. It can be very interesting, especially for us as students of ID, to follow these famous pieces of furniture that undeniably evoke certain periods and styles and for this reason are the main components of set designs.
Set design is arguably the more exciting version of interior design: the task is much more clearly stated; the period most often dictates certain requirements; and the results remain in history! I envy set designers for all this and whatever the movie I am looking at, my attention is quite often attracted by the set design. This is also one area where having studied the history of furniture design helps greatly. And movies are the place where we can see our favourite pieces.
There are even cases when critics say: "The set design and costumes... are the only reasons to see it", as happened with Down with Love. Of course reviews are diverse as an estimation of the qualities of the film, but this quote is like a summary of the prevailing attitude that concerns the set design: no matter whether they like this movie or not, there's simply no denying among all reviewers that it's an absolute joy to look at. There I saw one of my favourite pieces of that period - the Saarinen Womb Chair.
This was in fact the chair with which Eero Saarinen and Charles Eames jointly won the first prize in the Museum of Modern Art competition entitled Organic Design in Home Furnishings in 1940. It was organized by the Department of Industrial Design, and furniture factories and dealers were persuaded to sponsor it; but in the early '40s industry still lacked the technical know-how to mass produce it. Herman Miller supported the experiments of Saarinen for a long time and when his models were produced they achieved a distribution of millions, and the company - previously insignificant - grew rapidly.
Eero Saarinen and Charles Eames had developed their early models in the workshops of Cranbrook University in Birmingam/Michigan, directed by Eero's father, the Finnish architect Eliel Saarinen. They worked there in a small circle of young architects and artists - also including sculptor Harry Bertoya, Ray Kaiser (the future wife and partner of Eames), and Florence Schust, who later created the well-known furniture company with her husband Hans Knoll. These were the people who were to have a decisive influence on American design in the years to come. Most of their furniture pieces are now amongst the so-called "modern classics" and are extensively used by interior designers and set designers.
The above competition can be considered formally the beginning of the period of so-called organic design. It has several definitions, based either on the form of furniture or on the unity of materials used; but the name of the chair - movie-star, we are talking about here - suggests exactly that : with its embracing form it evokes a feeling of coziness and security. Of course the first time this combination of words - organic design - was used was several years earlier by Wright and more in connection with his architecture, as well as about the moulded plywood furniture of MiŽs Van der Rohe; but since then it has become a very popular term. Even today a famous name in design such as Karim Rashid uses it as a foundation to create his own style named "organometry" - from "organics" and "geometry".
In movies it is furniture and fashion that reflect the aesthetics or styles of the period and help to create the mood. And in Down with Love the set designs flawlessly evoke New York City as it was in '60s movies. This is also the time when today's so-called "modern classics" were most popular.
"Working on Down with Love allowed me to take my favourite pieces of mid-century modern architecture and my favourite architect-heroes, like MiŽs Van der Rohe, Eero Saarinen, Richard Neutra and Alvar Aalto, and create a slightly more whimsical world with pieces and samplings of the period," says production designer Andrew Laws.
And Don Diers, the Set Decorator, says: "In Barbara's apartment we dyed the upholstery fabric for two Eero Saarinen chairs to exactly match the pink of her dress." Everything is choreographed and coordinated, from Givenchy- and Cassini-inspired costumes to Herman Miller and Knoll furniture, which is present everywhere; but the Womb chairs look as if they are the "main characters" in Barbara Novak's expansive penthouse, all in white and pink.
A key component of every film, set design reflects the aesthetics or styles of the period depicted. It manifests the power of the visual environment to frame events, create moods, heighten focus, and serve as an accomplice in the filmic art. It even helps to disseminate information about contemporary trends. Stunning and tasteful down to the last detail, the set of Down with Love reflects the popularity of mid-century modern design and may represent nostalgia for a period much loved by Americans: a period of optimism, new ideas and technologies, of a new way of thinking.
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