March 2, 2017

A Q&A with Cathy Whitlock During Palm Springs Modernism Week

Byron Cordero interviews Cathy Whitlock, the author of 'Designs on Film: A Century of Hollywood Art Direction' on set design and direction during Palm Springs Modernism Week.

by Byron Cordero

Modernism Week
Palm Springs Modernism Week.
Photo courtesy of H3K Design.

We've all been there—waiting in anticipation for our homes to be TV or film-ready only to find out our abode is far from it. What does it take to be picture perfect? If you've ever seen Passengers or Showtime's Masters of Sex and wondered just how they re-create the spaces from periods long past and for those set in the future, you're in for a treat.

As the festivities continue at Palms Springs Modernism Week, one event, Screen Style, hosted at H3K Design's new showroom, drew the parallels between the entertainment and design industries. Modern-day production-finds set decorators—such as panelists Gene Serdena SDSA, of Passengers, and Helena Siwolop SDSA, of Masters of Sex—search far and wide for those perfect pieces that re-create a style or an era for set film design.

Masters of Sex
"Masters of Sex" scene; Photo courtesy of Showtime.

Cathy Whitlock, moderator of the event and author of Designs on Film: A Century of Hollywood Art Direction, shares her thoughts on set design for both blockbuster hits and Modernism Week in all its influence.

Can you guide us through the process for Passengers?

Cathy Whitlock: The designers were influenced by styles from the Art Deco, Prairie School, and Frank Lloyd Wright as well as a carpet inspired by the late British interior designer David Hicks.

Did any other films inspire Passengers?

Passengers Set Scene
"Passengers" Set Scene; Photo courtesy of Sony.

Cathy Whitlock: Dyas was a big fan of the film The Shining which also influenced the decor. Many of the set's wallpapers came from Astec. All of the sets were done on a soundstage and Serdena took his cues from the script and directives from the film's production designer, Guy Hendrix Dyas.

Love that. With design work, budgets are the bane of our existence. Were there any budget challenges for Masters of Sex?

Cathy Whitlock: Since they are on a limited budget, she used furniture and period-perfect accessories from the studio property departments, local antiques shops, Ebay, and even Etsy!

In a perfect world, it'd be one, two, three: design! But we all know the work that comes before the execution, what was that like for MOS?

Passengers Set Scene
"Passengers" Set Scene; Photo Courtesy of Sony.

Cathy Whitlock: The show's set decorator Halina Siwilop conducted massive research on the real Masters and Johnson and designs from the later part of the fifties and the early sixties.

The furniture had to be period specific and since this was the sixties, she had to make sure they did not clash with the colorful costumes of the era.

What is it like arriving at Modernism for the first time? What struck you or set the tone for the rest of the trip?

Cathy Whitlock: I love Modernism as it's such an experience and takes you back in time to my favorite decade of the sixties. The houses, clothes, designs and even the occasional turquoise Thunderbird convertible contributes to the whole vibe.

Midcentury Modern furniture is typical at Palm Springs Modernism Week. Did you see anything unusual?

Cathy Whitlock: I saw a lot of variations of the Sputnik chandelier. Also, the remodel of the bungalows at the Hotel Lautner were incredible. I am always struck by how streamlined and low the furnishings are compared with what we know today.

Masters of sex
"Masters of Sex" Set; Photo Courtesy of Showtime.

Based on your book Designs on Film, what films could you see being made in particular spaces at Modernism?

Cathy Whitlock: I definitely saw a lot of interiors that reminded me of the current Oscar nominated film Passengers; the Doris Day/Rock Hudson comedy Pillow Talk; A New Leaf (an old Walter Matthau film), 2001: A Space Odyssey; Designing Women; and of course Mad Men.

How has Modernism Week changed over the years? It seems to grow exponentially!

Cathy Whitlock: What is new in the set design world that you think is vital to anyone going down that route? I think a lot more films are going down the route of CGI (computer generated imagery), and hope set decor can still be designed organically on a soundstage. My advice for anyone who wants to be a production designer or set decorator is to learn all of the disciplines and styles and bone up on your computer skills.

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