Design Secrets From American Horror Story: Hotel’s Set Designer
If you watched the season premiere of American Horror Story: Hotel this week, you may still be reeling from the shock and gore of the first episode. We have to admit, despite the supernatural storyline, the mysterious Room 67, and Lady Gaga’s captivating performance, what we really can’t get over is the exquisite set. Morbidly beautiful, the hotel is a pastiche of The Shining with hints of The Grand Budapest Hotel. We were lucky enough to talk to legendary set designer Ellen Brill about how she created the 1930s Art Deco vibe and what went into planning such an elaborate set. Scroll through for our interview with Brill, and learn some dark decorating secrets just in time for Halloween.
Courtesy of FX Networks
MyDomaine: How do you begin your set-designing process? Is it with colors, textures, references? Tell us how the concept evolved.
Ellen Brill: Originally, the concept was a 1930s hotel with a renovation in the '70s. Somewhere along the way, Ryan [Murphy] decided he wanted to keep it pure Deco. So we dropped the '70s except for a few lamps here in there. Ryan wanted to feel like the bar and lobby hadn’t changed since the '30s. I started the research process on Pinterest, Craigslist, and eBay. My choices depended on whether or not I could afford to buy this stuff and what kind of Deco [we wanted]. French? American?
MD: How did you decide on red as your main color palette, and were there any colors that you stayed away from altogether?
EB: I landed on a jewel-tone palette. Weirdly, a lot of deep red, even though there is so much red in the show [thanks to all of the blood]. We tend not to do a lot of blue. We both [Brill and Murphy] tend to go to the red, green, gold spectrum more than the pink, blue, and lavender—although we have a bit of lavender. We shoot on film, which is really rare. That’s another reason why the colors look as rich as they do on screen.
MD: How do you ensure that dark spaces convey their richness and texture onscreen?
EB: You never know, but I think that if you have a lot of texture, it helps. There is a reason to use velvet and wood grains that show. Otherwise, it’s too flat, and you miss things in translation. More and more, I’ve noticed that they’re asking us as set decorators to design more lighting into the set. It’s important to make it look real. It’s important to make the light glow in the shades. Unless you want it to be shiny; then it’s crystal.
MD: What comes first—set design or costume design? Are you constantly working with costume designer Lou Eyrich to make sure the two go hand in hand?
EB: She and I worked together on Nip/Tuck. We did the pilot for The New Normal together. She’s amazing. We just have a great relationship and we talk. For some reason, we haven’t had too much of a dialogue about color. We are on the same page about what this feels like. And because Lady Gaga and her clothes are such important characters, Lou is working with a lot of Gaga’s stylists. I was just in the fitting room, and I was drooling. We’re doing a 1920s flashback.
MD: What are some things about the set-design/set-building process that you’d never know from looking at the finished product onscreen?
EB: When I was looking for a bed for Room 64 (a lot goes on in Room 64), I found this Art Deco wood set—a huge armoire, night board, and a burea—on Craigslist for a little over $2000 from Palm Springs. It had been advertised as a king-sized bed, even though that is rare for a 1930s piece. After trying both king- and queen-sized mattresses on the bed, we realized it’s custom, one of those European sizes. So my crew—they’re amazing—built a plywood mattress and we had it painted. It’s a little bit of a platform bed. We still haven’t fixed it, but no one can tell.
Also, there are supposed to be a million rooms in the hotel, and we have four that we’re re-dressing. But in a hotel, you peek in rooms and they all look the same. So we can get away with it. I’m doing some fancy footwork juggling three bureaus or however many I have. It’s like puzzle.
MD: What is your favorite part of the American Horror Story: Hotel set?
EB: The chandeliers in the lobby. That was one of those struggles. When I started looking for three massive chandeliers, I was like, "Well, this isn’t going to happen." We eventually designed it, and I had them made at Warner Brothers. Once we wrapped our heads around how massive this project was, we dove in and did it. I love the bar chairs. We redesigned and reupholstered 24 chairs for the bar in red velvet. I needed companies like Rejuvenation to work with me in a very short time frame, and they did an excellent job. Finding vintage is not easy when you’re looking at quantity.
MD: If you had to describe your set-designing philosophy in one sentence, what would it be?
EB: Only buy what really speaks to you. And then you’ll have it for life. You can’t be caught up in trends. Choose wisely. If you really love it, you’ll always love it. You don’t have to get everything all at once. Sometimes it takes some massaging items into space. You really have to learn the right scale. Once you get that, don’t be afraid to reach out to some different styles that appeal to you.
It’s very important to have someone help who knows more than you do. When in doubt, put your keywords into your Pinterest.
Are you an Art Deco fan? What’s your favorite element of the American Horror Story set? Share with us in the comments.