There’s more to a good film than a gorgeous actor, great script, and an evocative music score. Set design is a vital component in encouraging audiences to believe wholeheartedly in everything they see on the silver screen. When a film set is badly designed, audiences are transported out of the narrative and back into their cinema seats. It sticks out like a sore thumb and it’s hardly professional.
However, when a film set interior is designed well, everything clicks together in place. Not only this, but movies have the capacity to uplift interior designers into the heady heights and seemingly limitless budgets of Hollywood. Film sets can be incredibly influential, especially in shaping audiences tastes and expectations of their own homes. In the 20th and 21st Century, there have been some truly incredibly films which have influenced the latest trends in interior design. Here are some of the most iconic and inspiring set designs in the world of film.
Hot off the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb by Howard Carter, Cleopatra (1934) was one of the most successful and definitive film of the 1930’s. Filmed in the midst of Art Deco fever, Cecil B. DeMille’s Cleopatra is a true spectacle of set design as well as cinematography. If you put aside images of Claudette Colbert lounging around in a ‘milk’ bath, then one of the most memorable features of this film was its incredible set design. Not only did it fit the film perfectly, the design was incredibly influential in shaping the popular demand for all things Egyptian and oriental-inspired.
Everything from the set itself, to the advertising campaign, encouraged people to bring the Egyptian-Art Deco design hybrid in their homes. The film depicted black marble columns, gold-plated furniture, and everything that could feature leopard print and animal imagery.
Although this type of luxury could never be replicated on a daily basis, the influence of Cleopatra encouraged homeowners and business establishments alike to re-create the iconic set. In fact, the set design of the film was so popular that it was dubbed ‘Cleomania’. The Egyptian-inspired interior design was soon replicated everywhere. Audiences could buy Cleopatra chairs, Cleopatra rugs, and even make-up inspired by the famous film.
The absolute decadence of Cleopatra’s set design represented a type of aspirational living in the post-1929 economic crash. People loved the style and decadent image of Cleopatra’s palace. If you are looking for a good example of how the Egyptian style influenced Art Deco design, you don’t need to look further than the Chrysler Building in New York (1932-1939). Images of papyri plants and eagles (like Horus) can be seen in abundance throughout this Manhattan institution:
This is only one example of how Egyptian style influenced popular interior decorating. In addition to this, there was also the Radio City Music Hall in New York:
With Egyptian-style reliefs and plenty of columns, there can be no doubt that Cleopatra and its epic set design was a very popular influence in shaping contemporary tastes in interior design.
Sunset Boulevard (1950)
Sunset Boulevard is one the most iconic and memorable movies of the Film Noir genre. However, aside from the spectacular performance by Gloria Swanson, the set design truly stands out amongst its contemporaries. The film concerns the story of fading movie star Norma Desmond and her unlikely relationship with budding screenwriter, Joe Gillis. Norma lives in mansion on Sunset Boulevard that once represented her triumphant success in Hollywood. However, now that silent films are a thing of the past, she is no longer popular nor wanted. Dreaming of her triumphant return, the decaying set design of Norma’s mansion symbolises her descent into madness.
Without the interior style of the mansion, Sunset Boulevard would never have been so popular. With the rolling staircase, grand dining table, and beautiful (but aged) chandeliers, the set design of Sunset Boulevard is meant to remind audiences that Norma was once incredibly successful. However, as her relationship with Joe Gillis develops, audiences are slowly shown the extent of Norma’s endless and empty rooms. There is dust everywhere and all her possessions are covered with blankets, as if she was preserving them for their own eventual return to use.
With regards to interior design, Sunset Boulevard represents a changing taste and attitude towards traditional home decorating. As Joe Gillias narrates:
‘The whole place seemed to have been stricken with a kind of creeping paralysis, out of beat with the rest of the world, crumbling apart in slow motion’.
The image of Norma’s home saturated with antiques, heavy furniture, and classical design was entirely out of fashion with modern tastes (deliberately, of course). In the post-war period, people wanted contemporary amenities and practical solutions to every-day living. This meant modern compliances and furniture that was light enough so it could be cleaned with ease. In essence, the interior design of Sunset Boulevard symbolised how America had changed in the last 50 years.
For these reasons, this is why the set design of Sunset Boulevard is the true star of the movie.
Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961)
When most people think of Breakfast at Tiffany’s, they think of the stunning Audrey Hepburn with a cigarette in one hand and a pastry in the other, looking longingly into the iconic jewelry store window. However, the interior design of Breakfast At Tiffany’s is equally recognisable. Everything about the set is geared towards giving audiences an impression of what it was like to live in Manhattan. Moreover, it was designed to tell people about how young, newly independent, young women were now living in the city that never sleeps. Holly Golightly (Hepburn) lives in a fashionable and ever so chic New York apartment with some very quirky features. This includes the famous bathtub sofa:
And her small but oh-so-chic apartment:
It might seem strange to pay attention to Breakfast At Tiffany’s film set. However, the quirky and eclectic style of Hepburn’s apartment was to help pave the way for interior design throughout the 1960’s. The minimal, yet wacky, flat came to be iconic of the swinging 60’s. The sofa was a piece of art in itself and is something you’d expect to see in an Andy Warhol exhibit. However, the most important characteristic of the interior design was its simplicity. The apartment looks barely lived in and somewhat vacant; a potential comment on the new wave of young people who were moving to New York to pursue independent living. In reality, the set design of the film reminds people that Holly Golightly (even with all her glamour) is no more than a child.
In this respect, there is a strange dichotomy in the use of interior design in the film. On the one hand, the Manhattan apartment was seen as a symbol of new aspirational living. However, it was also potentially a social comment on the harsh realities of young people living alone in a big, anonymous city.
Blade Runner (1982)
Blade Runner is a visually stunning film with an equally impressive performance given by Harrison Ford, Rutger Hauer, and Sean Young. However, the interior design of Ridley Scott’s film really make the motion picture stand out from its contemporaries. The movie is set in a futuristic Los Angeles where air pollution and intense cultural diversity have rendered the city unrecognisable from today. In order to encapsulate this modernity and influence from Chinese culture, the set layout utilises a variety of props and designs.
The film is undoubtedly very 1980’s, however the interior design of Decker’s flat is very much evocative of a futuristic lifestyle. The set is severe, cold, and has an aura of decay about it (much like in Sunset Boulevard). Moreover, the influence of Chinese culture on the set design was something would become very popular during the 1980’s. Things like paper lanterns, Chinese ornaments, and Chinese calligraphy would all become increasingly popular as the decade went on. The success of the film was partly responsible for this creative transition.
The success of Blade Runner’s interior design was encouraging audiences to recreate their own idea of what America would look like in the future. Things like Decker’s tiny apartment and darkened rooms were reminiscent of contemporary concerns about over-population and urban anonymity. However, there were also many characteristics of the Blade Runner set design which were influential in popular interior design. The rooms were plain and decoration was kept to an absolute minimal (especially in Decker’s apartment). This creative choice was reflective of wider interior trends during the 1980’s. People preferred simplicity (sometimes even austere simplicity) over the heavy patterns and fabrics of the 1970’s.
For these reasons, the set design of Blade Runner was incredibly important in depicting contemporary tastes and concerns for modern day urban living.
Although it received mixed reviews by the critics, Atonement has a truly wonderful set design. The movie was filmed in Stokesay Court, England, and was painstakingly designed to be reminiscent of the Edwardian tastes of the period. The mansion was actually in disrepair before filming began, but investment from the production company helped to revive and redecorate the stately home.
The interior design of Stokesay Court really is a marvel in itself. There are two rooms in particular which are of interest. The first is Briony’s room (played by Saoirse Ronan). The room (above) is intensely decorated with florals, representing Briony’s youth and energy. However, as trouble breaks out at the stately home, the design of Briony’s room because claustrophobic and almost overbearing. Suddenly, everything feels like it’s made of florals and it actually makes the room feel smaller. Even the wall-paper, which is a flowery vine design, appears entangled and symbolises a change in the narrative. The once idyllic home becomes the setting for a series of horrible events and tragic misconceptions.
The other interesting design in Atonement’s set is the family kitchen. Although the military shade of green was very popular during the time, it’s used to a different effect in the film. As Cecilia (Keira Knightley) dots in and out of the kitchen area, the sickly green colour comes to represent the poisonous atmosphere which begins to take over the home. The colour is deliberately over the topic and was a fantastic design choice by Sarah Greenwood.
Altogether, however, the interior design of Stokesay Court received wide critical acclaim. It was so popular, in fact, that tourists and fans alike can now visit the manor house to see the famous set. The nostalgic and whimsical style of the design has also been very popular amongst homeowners.
Famous films and their interior designs
Films can often have the power to take audiences to other world’s and experience new things from the comfort of their seats. It can be a magical experience and it can also have a powerful effect on individuals. That’s why set designs form such an integral part of movies. Not only can they be stunning, but they can reflect and shape contemporary tastes in interior design. It’s much more than people wanting to emulate what they see on the screen. Films sets are not just designed to dictate to people what they should have in their home. More often than not, set design, as an aesthetic, is a reflection of current tastes and trends.
In the case of Cleopatra, for example, there was already an incredibly popular fashion of people bring in the Art Deco/Orientalising style into their home. Cleopatra merely endorsed it on a massive scale. People simply bought more.
Furthermore, the Blade Runner set used interior design to reflect popular insecurities concerning the development of urban living and globalisation. Apartments were dark, dingy, and entirely sparse. However, this also represented aspirational living to some extent. In the early 1980’s, it was fashionable for homes to embrace the minimalistic look. Wall-paper was dead and architecture favoured the severe style. In addition to this, Chinese themes were also very popular during this time. Therefore, the Blade Runner film set was more than just an aesthetic. It reflected both contemporary tastes and concerns through the medium of interior design.
In the case of Atonement, moreover, the film shows how interior design can be a feature point in a movie. The style of the set was incredibly beautiful but it also felt dangerous and claustrophobic. Regardless of this, Stokesay Court has become a popular tourist attraction because of its incredible and historic design.
This is why film sets can be so important to our popular perception and tastes in interior design.