For HBO’s “Lovecraft Country,” production designer Kalina Ivanov’s work had to not only convey and reflect the 1950s Midwest and Chicago, but also tackle the supernatural, monsters, drag queens, 1921 Tulsa, outer space, 1920s Paris and the Dahomey Amazons of 19th century Africa. It was an epic task that Ivanov and her term handled with eye-popping aplomb.
Ahead of the Oct. 18 finale, Ivanov talks with Variety about her inspirations for some key elements of the show, including Montrose’s (Michael K. Williams) apartment, Ardham Lodge, the time machine and the tunnels in the museum.
What was the importance of the color palette of the show and the relation to the characters and supernatural symbolism?
I design from a very intuitive place, and often see colors when I read a script, so you can imagine the color explosion in my head while designing “Lovecraft Country.” I related to the deep humanity of the protagonists, and chose to bring the richness of their inner lives through deep, vibrant jewel tones. I wanted their environments to burst with life and purpose. A good example would be Montrose’s apartment. We created our own geometric wallpaper for it and painted the bedroom a deep pomegranate red to represent a non-traditional, jazz-loving, book-reading family. I purposefully kept the darkest palette for Christina’s Chicago mansion, since her character was full of secrets and mystery.
Each set had mythology behind it; for example, I designed the Marshall Field’s department store in black and white colors to symbolize racial segregation. My main goal was to examine the period through a modern lens, bringing complex richness to the past, so that the viewers felt seamlessly transported into each world.
I also wove into the design the supernatural symbolism of the Shoggoth’s teeth. You first see them manifest themselves as an architectural detail in the corridors of Ardham Lodge, then into the half-sun pattern in Samuel’s labs, and later in the Titus sculpture in Episode 4, “A History of Violence.” All of these designs have very sharp edges, bringing a sense of menace and danger to the world around our protagonists.
Where did you get the inspiration for Ardham Lodge and the observatory’s time machine?
[In the series] Ardham Lodge is the place where a male-only sect led by Samuel Braithwhite seeks to harness magic and immortality. In the story the lodge is a replica of the 1795 original, which burned down in 1832. I wanted to combine a Henry the VIII Tudor castle architectural style with the palaces of the American robber barons from the 1890s. I was trying to synthesize two generations of terrible rich men whose buildings reflected their giant egos, and somehow blend them into one magical, secretive and imposing lodge. I called this architectural cocktail “Tudor Romanesque,” and had great fun sketching it. We found a Tudor-style mansion an hour away from Atlanta, which was small in size, but through VFX and greens we turned it into our mysterious, imposing and unique Ardham Lodge.
The time machine was technically a prop, but I wanted to take the first stab at its look so that it would fit into the design language of the Kentucky abandoned observatory. In our story the machine was created by Hiram Epstein (owner of the haunted house Leti buys in Episode 3), so it needed to represent his scientific mind. I wanted twisted cables coming from it as if this was Hiram’s mental state.
[Showrunner] Misha [Green] told us the backstory of Hiram, that he had opened a portal, gone into the future and returned — therefore the time machine needed to have parts from future technologies he encountered. In addition, in Episode 7 I was playing with the concept of spheres and circles as the touchstone for its design, which was inspired by the shape of planets. All of these themes came together in my collaboration with J.P. Jones, our prop master, on the final look of the time machine, and we ended up incorporating the orrery into it too.
Talk about the thinking behind the sequence in the Boston art museum in Episode 4, “A History of Violence,” especially Titus Braithwhite’s hidden chambers.
Designing the Boston museum was such a delight since one of my favorite places in New York City is the Museum of Natural History, where I spent many weekends with our son. I pitched Misha Green the idea of a large Titus statue as the portal to the hidden chambers (the original script called for a trap door in the floor). For me Titus was like Columbus, a very bad man glorified as a hero. I wanted the statue to dominate the room, and specifically designed the crocodiles with their bare teeth flanking it to reflect the Shoggoths’ mouths.
Once our protagonists enter the statue, they climb 20 feet down into Titus’ chamber. I designed the chamber as if it had been carved out of stone as a bridge between the beautiful man-made architecture of the museum and the organic earth tunnels. Much of my inspiration for the tunnels came from the Sudwala caves in South Africa, which are over 240 million years old and have a very warm palette. Creating the tunnels and figuring out how to submerge them into a large water tank was a great technical challenge, and the entire art department rose to the occasion. We submerged a sample of the painted walls in water for a month to make sure it wouldn’t peel and create debris. The water in the tank needed to be crystal clear so that the camera could shoot from above and below.
For the “puzzle” door, I turned to Lorenzo Ghiberti’s “Gates of Paradise” as an inspiration. That was the departure point for our version of a Garden of Eden riddle. We also made the sculpted panels practical to push so the actors could interact with them. I believe in physical scenery, so it feels authentic not only to the performers but also to the crew; in this way the sets become an immersive experience for all.
Most importantly, was it a lot of fun to work on this show and why?
Throughout my career, I have always tried to design different genres and subject matters. I think it goes back to my training as a theater designer studying operas, ballets, musicals, Shakespeare, contemporary plays, avant-garde, you name it. So I was prepared for any style “Lovecraft Country” demanded. Misha [Green] encouraged me to think big, and it was exhilarating — the creative process was pure joy. I felt like a female Picasso, free to experiment with any style I wanted: realism one day, cubism the next. Ultimately, I was trying to capture the essence of the characters’ rich emotional lives, and to be true to their journeys, through color and architectural proportions. I connected deeply to their stories, and was acutely aware that the worlds I was designing needed to reflect not only the political realities of being Black in America, but also the richness and imagination of the culture. With each set I tried to evoke a specific emotion, and taking the audience on such a complex visual journey was great fun.
As a political refugee [editor’s note: Ivanov’s family fled communist Bulgaria in 1979], the historical aspects of the series and the task of doing them justice with an unflinching eye sometimes kept me awake at night. The 14 months I spent working with Misha Green and the entire team was a beautiful, challenging and powerful experience. A line in the script says, “Some stories stab you at the heart,” and this fueled my passion and guided me throughout the entire process. You can say that this entire project has been a magical gift, and it was both fun and humbling.