Grace Alie is the production designer on Netflix’s “The Chair” (airing Aug. 20), which stars Sandra Oh as the first woman of color to head the English department at fictional Pembroke University. Alie researched images of Dartmouth, Yale and Harvard for that traditional Ivy League look and found that throughout the eras, the furniture hardly changed at all.
“It felt appropriate to put Sandra’s character behind this very traditional, heavy, masculine [desk in a] male-dominated environment. It is such a fish-out-of-water story in some aspects,” says Alie. “We brought some life into her office with little things to put on her desk that would lighten the mood; she’s under the gaze of all those oil portraits of men that were at the university before her.”
In true hierarchical fashion, Professor Joan Hambling, played by Holland Taylor, who’s become unpopular with the students as she gets on in years, has her office moved to the basement of an athletic facility. Alie laughs when recalling how she detailed the design of that space, with paint peeling off the wall and dead plants due to lack of light in a room isolated from the rest of the English department.
“We were in contact with a lot of different professors,” says Alie, “especially with a professor at Dartmouth. She sent me a ton of photos of her and her colleagues’ offices, and besides the [department chair] they were usually quite cramped — pretty messy.”
Alie’s design is in line with the traditional, often accurate, academic offices depicted in film and TV. Professor Sean Maguire’s (Robin Williams) office in “Good Will Hunting” might be one of the most honest of college professors’ domains — notoriously dark and claustrophobic.
“It might be cliché,” says “Promising Young Woman” production designer Michael Perry, who created the dean’s domain in the film by dressing a mortuary office, “but we needed that office to be an icon — a moment where the audience goes, ‘I know exactly where and what that is,’ so that we could pay attention to the dialogue.”
Perry points to a power structure that writer-director Emerald Fennell asked for and Perry built into the office: Painted busts of former deans (all male) hang on the walls, and a huge desk aims to make Connie Britton’s Dean Walker feel safe and simultaneously intimidate the person across from her, Carey Mulligan’s Cassie.
Missy Stewart (“Good Will Hunting”) echoes Perry’s sentiments about designing for the academia power structure, saying that a professor’s office is bigger and better the higher up the university ladder you are.
“If you’re tenured at MIT and you’ve won the Fields Medal — like Stellan Skarsgård’s Professor Lambeau in “Good Will Hunting” —you probably have the nicest office in the college,” says Stewart. And whether grand and bright, like Lambeau’s, or messy yet homey and inviting, like Maguire’s, she believes it’s all a bit theatrical.
“I think that it’s intentional,” she adds.