From the alternate history versions of 1940s America in Netflix’s “Hollywood” and HBO’s “The Plot Against America” to the very real reflection of the 1970s and 1980s political movements over the Equal Rights Amendment in FX on Hulu’s “Mrs. America,” muted tones, warm glows and bold energies were the palette of choice for production designers who created fictional worlds, often in real-life locations.
For “Hollywood,” set in a post-World War II Tinseltown that actually embraced inclusion, production designer Matthew Flood Ferguson recalls executive producer Ryan Murphy requesting “that golden Hollywood sheen and harvest tones.”
This set a very specific expectation for the look of the show, which was shot in Los Angeles last year.
Shooting such a distinct time period in the middle of the 21st century complicated matters, though. Whether he was re-creating the iconic Schwab’s Pharmacy or the bungalows at the famous Beverly Hills Hotel, Ferguson says, “There wasn’t one practical location that we didn’t have to augment or change to make sure we were truthful to the period as possible.”
To minimize challenges and better control the aspirational, almost fantasy-like version of the entertainment industry within the show, Ferguson says interiors of most sets were built on a soundstage. For the bungalows, he was able to source the iconic green-and-white Martinique wallpaper. “That wallpaper was not cheap,” Ferguson says. “But we couldn’t use a knock-off.”
Other details, such as Jack Warner’s real desk, were incorporated into sets to aid in authenticity but also to inspire the whole production team.
In contrast, “The Plot Against America” is a dystopian world in which the xenophobic Charles Lindbergh has become president and anti-Semitism runs rampant in the United States. The series follows the Levins, a Jewish family, and capturing their home environment was essential to both production designers Richard Hoover (who worked on the first three episodes) and Dina Goldman (who worked on the final three).
Hoover found Newark, N.J., to be the ideal setting for the Levin family home, which had to be a safe haven as the outside world disintegrated. The “frames and doors symbolized the feeling of being kept inside,” Hoover says.
Color-wise, the “tonality was muted because color was not in fashion at that time, nor was it affordable,” he says.
A deep-dive into historical archives helped him settle on using a color palette that was focused on neutrals. “We kept it warm using pale greens and ochres,” he says. And it was only when the show got into the Nazi Germany propaganda that he used pops of red.
Across departments on “Mrs. America,” it was a goal to make clear distinctions between the feminists and the conservative, anti-ERA women. The former played in spaces “strongly rooted in gem tones,” says production designer Mara LePere-Schloop, while the latter “lived in a dated palette from the 1950s, or the era of the domesticated woman.” There, she used earth tones, such as dark-stained woods and stone to “represent the masculine presence in their lives.”
Still, as time passed in the story (and in the case of Sarah Paulson’s Alice Macray, positions changed), LePere-Schloop shifted her designs accordingly.
“I didn’t want to present a cliche of the period,” she says. “Understanding that life and design aren’t created in a vacuum and that it is layered and nuanced, most people and their spaces are constantly evolving and being tweaked.”