Anthropology vs Aesthetics by Charlene Wang

Been thinking about anthropology vs aesthetics and how sometimes they are at odds and reconciling that idea when putting together a set.

I’ve had the great fortune to spend the last few months working on a number of different sets for characters from different class and cultural backgrounds. That is actually a rarity in our business. The great majority of stories that are told on screen (and thus the sets I work on) are centered on white people. Actually white males, actually straight white males from upper-middle class…but that’s a whole other topic.

What I’m trying to say is I have been RELISHING the opportunity to think deeply about different types of characters then I usually get the chance to do and imagining what their homes and spaces look like.

I love set decorating work for so many reasons and one of them is the aspect of anthropological curiosity we get to apply to how people actually live. Researching, learning, and finding what types of furniture, decorative items, functional pieces, artwork, curtain style, or leftover food wrappers that might be found on table surfaces specific people surround themselves with and what it means is a particular joy for me.

My goal when working on a set for a group of people who are often under-represented on screen is to learn as many unique little details and put them in the set so that when people from that group watch they see such a specific part of themself reflected on screen they delight in the recognition that someone “gets them” and feel truly seen. Or that the writer, actor, or director come onto the set and feel they understand the character better or cry in recognition (has happened twice!).

Most often the process to unearth these details is the set decorating team and the production designer find reference photos and work from there. Usually I take it a step further and try to interview people from the same community as the character and ask them anthropological questions about their homes.

For a few examples, that’s how I learned that it was really important to reflect Abbie’s identity as a black woman in America with specfic hair care products and sleeping caps near her bed in Irreplaceable You; that Doc and Scarlett’s characters as second generation Korean-Americans in Season 3, Episode 5 of High Maintenance, would most likely only be visually reflected in her kitchen so I dressed in the stainless steel bowls that are unique to Koreans, a rice cooker, and some Korean food products; that Adriana as a second-generation Puerto Rican woman living in New York in Season 3, Episode 8 of High Maintenance, a wooden beaded curtain would likely make an appearance in her home, and a bunch of details on the sets I’ve been working on for the last four months but can’t talk about until they air/get released.

Anyways, what I’ve been thinking about however, is where anthropology and aesthetics intersect and sometimes are at odds while putting together a set.

If we were working on a museum diorama or maybe filming doing a documentary our sets would just be recreating exactly how certain people and the anthropology would be the aesthetic. But as craftspeople, designers, and artists working on telling a visual story on screen our sets are artistically aesthetic expressions of the emotion and mood of the story as well as representations of the character and not merely anthropological recreations.

Often times the aesthetic tone of the story and character is defined and the starting point of imagining and creating a set before the anthropological details of character’s identity specifics are fleshed out. We want our sets to enrich the understanding of the character and illuminate backstories but we also want our sets to be aesthetically unified and visually satisfying.

What I’ve been thinking a lot about lately is how often the “perfect” lamp or side table for a character from a working class immigrant background is considering too ugly or far away from so-called “good taste” that they never make it into a set. On one hand there is already a fine line of representing characters with authenticity, compassion, and dignity vs being lazy, condescending, and working on stereotypes. On the other hand there is danger of imposing a certain mainstream (often white-centered) normative idea of decorating a home in “good taste” that often erases the specific details of living environments because they are “too ugly or cheap looking” but maybe there is more dignity in representing characters’ environments whatever their background as beautifully as possible.

Usually my guiding light is what makes sense for the character and what seems “too ugly” becomes “perfectly ugly” to me because it is an accurate or authentic representation. But many times that’s not how the decisions are made. I’ve worked with people where the aesthetic and design idea is the determining factor that trumps something accurate but “too ugly” and the resulting set is more beautiful and visually pleasing.

I can see both sides and I’m sure there is room for both approaches to work together when putting together layered sets to reflect both reality and the story. I would love to hear more about the underlying philosophy other decorators and designers use to approach these ideas.

That Gun Door Handle on Russian Doll by Charlene Wang

Russian Doll Bathroom Door Gun Handle.png
Russian Doll Door Gun Handle.png

Russian Doll has been out on Netflix for almost two-weeks now and it is exciting to see it has been received with such enthusiasm by critics and viewers. I worked on the series as the Assistant Set Decorator to Set Decorator extraordinaire Jessica Petruccelli.

The (great) Production Designer Michael Bricker gave an interview where he discussed the door and as he said we, the art and set decoration departments, had to figure out how we were going to execute the scripted idea of a gun triggered door. It is an important element of the apartment that is seen in every episode including the opening moments of the whole series.

Fun fact: those tiles are also very special handmade hunter green tiles from California we got for the bathroom.

Fun fact: those tiles are also very special handmade hunter green tiles from California we got for the bathroom.

The mechanics and specifics of the gun door handle was a project Jessica gave me to handle (door pun) and since it was so fun I wanted to share some of it here.

First I started with the antique hardware to match the idea of the house being an old East Village Yeshiva from the early 1900’s so I went to Olde Good Things and spent an afternoon in their antique door hardware section, which I shared with glee on here last year.

Victorian hardware - 4.jpg

Next I got in contact with our friends at The Specialists who not only are prop fabricators, but also are the premiere weapons rental house and weapon experts for the film and TV industry in New York City. I explained to them what we were trying to do and over the course of weeks we exchanged many many emails and phone calls.

The process in photo attachments looked something like this:

picking the gun we wanted to use

picking the gun we wanted to use

matching the gun to the chosen door key plate

matching the gun to the chosen door key plate

imagining what it would look like from the side and deciding how much of the barrel to keep

imagining what it would look like from the side and deciding how much of the barrel to keep

double checking measurements

double checking measurements

finished product (well the whole thing got painted after we installed it)

finished product (well the whole thing got painted after we installed it)

installed in the set

installed in the set

In the shot as a star!

In the shot as a star!

Sometimes hardware is the least fun part of set decorating or buying, but this custom gun handle was a super fun, creative, and gratifying piece of unconventional hardware that was a recurring featured detail in the show.


Low Budget Sleeper by Charlene Wang

Our low-budget take on the Sleepers aesthetic

Our low-budget take on the Sleepers aesthetic

In episode 4 of High Maintenance Season 3 on HBO, we had a set that was meant to be a set dressed into a homeowner’s home on a fictional filming crew’s set. (yes, very meta.)

We needed something that quickly read as drastically different than an ordinary residence’s furnishings so our designer Tommaso came up with the creative idea of doing a sleek futuristic look based on Sleeper to create a high contrast with the existing home.

the original inspiration from the set of “Sleeper”

the original inspiration from the set of “Sleeper”

The existing room we were working with looked like this:

BEFORE

BEFORE

AFTER with just some white linoleum, plexi glass, light boxes, table and chair set plus plants

AFTER with just some white linoleum, plexi glass, light boxes, table and chair set plus plants

For a set you see maybe for 2 seconds on screen and the reason it is there is not entirely readily apparent if you are just watching the show without knowing the script. The idea is that the homeowner is answering the door to let some set dressers in to put the finishing touches on the set.

High Maintenance Sleeper Set Still.png

Mother-in-Law's Brainscan as Art by Charlene Wang

On the window above the taped “HELP” is the brainscan also taped to the window.

On the window above the taped “HELP” is the brainscan also taped to the window.

In episode 2, in Season 3 of High Maintenance on HBO one of the characters is Darby who among other hustles she has going on around town, steals items from our corporate office job to resell on Craigslist. If you look closely, the items laying around her apartment ready to sell match items in her office.

We wanted to flesh out her character as a strange, dark, and creative woman with many little art projects in and around her apartment.

On the desk are many little art projects we created as we imagined Darby would have started

On the desk are many little art projects we created as we imagined Darby would have started

After gathering a bunch of elements to put together these aspects of her character, we still needed somethings that were off-kilter and a bit off.

So I searched around my own apartment for things that might add to this part of Darby’s character and then I saw my mother-in-law’s brainscan and was like hmmm this could work. And it ended up being a star.

High+Maintenance+Still+MSG+Brain+Scan.jpg

High Maintenance Season 3 Premiere by Charlene Wang

High Maintenance’s Season 3 Premiere airs tonight on HBO.

On set in one of the sets from tonight’s episode.

On set in one of the sets from tonight’s episode.

This set is supposed to be the home of a 1970’s hippie and the script called for “anti-establishment vibes, his home is a shrine to 60s and 70s counterculture, instruments from around the globe and protest signs from the distant and not so distant past”…

Seeing as we are very low budget and getting clearance on the more famous music activism images is challenging, we were pretty much relegated to what I could find on Library of Congress images. We were filling the house with these posters and images so I had a ton of things that were good, but I still hadn’t found the right music concert that typified that era yet.

I was searching and searching trying my best to come up with something that really represented that era to this character, thinking of all the activist musicians of that era I could think of. Often I would search and no good images, or just black and white photos of them would come back. And then I had a moment of inspiration when I thought about searching for “Joan Baez.”

And no joke, one of the best moments in my relationships with Library of Congress images appeared after that search when I came across this.

Joan Baez concert.jpg

Exactly what the script called for, the total kind of concert our character Berg would have been at, but most of all: the aesthetic and fonts of this poster were just perfect.

It is the little triumphs that can make you ecstatic.

Designer Bags on Canal Street by Charlene Wang

Worked on a pilot last year at this time about the high fashion world and just remembered this hilarious experience shopping for designer bags. I felt conflicted about posting this or not when it happened, because of the legality of buying imitation designer bags, but since the pilot hasn’t aired yet, feels like it is fine.

Designer Bags Canal St - 9.jpg

Had the funnest and funniest peak Chinatown Canal St experience.

I needed to find eight or so different purses in the manner of the hottest luxury designer bags for a set I’m working on. Buying them was out of the question, even renting the real thing was out of the question budget wise (it is like $500 each to rent a real designer bag!), and no brands wanted to product place with this pilot.

So I walked to the intersection of Canal and Centre St and approached two middle aged ladies loitering at the corner. I asked them if I could buy purses and they gave me a nod of “yeah we got that.”

They asked me what kind and I showed them some reference photos—looking at the photos they were like oh those are the latest styles we don’t have those yet.

Designer Bags Canal St - 11.jpg

So then we switched to Chinese and they asked me if I wanted “A” level purses the kinds that are super good almost indistinguishable knock offs that are $300-$500 each. I said nah I just need regular quality that will look convincing in the background.

So one lady Ms. Ye took me a block or two away to another young woman who I showed the photos I brought. She said they didn’t have that and then quickly darted away to surreptitiously finish another transaction 20 feet away.

Ms. Ye was getting annoyed with me and asked me how many I needed. And I tried to explain in more detail what I needed and she brought me across the street to another guy Mr. Hai standing in Canal St who started showing me photos on his phone.

Mr. Hai. He knew what was up he got what I was looking for and we browsed the catalog of bags he had on his phone and chose 8. The whole time Ms. Ye is standing a few feet away as the look out.

I’ve been on the street the whole time.

We are getting close to closing the deal but I want to send photos of the photos to my boss for approval, so all three of us walk two blocks up away from canal behind some phone booths so I can use my phone to take photos of his photos.

Designer Bags Canal St - 12.jpg

Boss likes them we are good to go, I go get my car and pull up to near the warehouse door and then I realize oh no I need more cash.

These are Chinese entrepreneurs—they don’t mess around so Mr. Hai offers to sit in my car for me since I’m illegally parked while Ms. Ye offers to escort me to the closest Bank of America. We all trust each other somewhat now after spending the last 20+ min working out this deal together so ok sure. We get that done. Ms. Ye walks me to the bank and waits outside.

She’s from Wenzhou and she’s going back in 20 days to visit her 80+ year old parents for Chinese New Yesr. Mr. Hai is from Hangzhou. She told me there is a new police person on counterfeit bags duty and not everyone knows what he looks like but word on the street is he already made his rounds for the day.

Designer Bags Canal St - 13.jpg

We head back, I get inside the car Mr. Hai gets the bags, brings them to the car sits in the passenger seat and we look over the merchandise together. Looks great! Like really impressive for the price. I give him the cash, we work on the receipt I need to turn in, and we become Wechat friends then he gets out the car and leaves.

You guys I loved every minute of it.

High Maintenance Season 3 Wrap by Charlene Wang

Season 3 Art Department with our “Just Ask Jackie” shirts I made for everyone at the wrap party

Season 3 Art Department with our “Just Ask Jackie” shirts I made for everyone at the wrap party

We made it! I finished decorating my first whole season of a TV show HBO’s High Maintenance.

As a wrap gift I made “Just Ask Jackie” shirts for the Art Dept because our Art Coordinator Jackie Gonclaves was a phenomenon. She was the most on-top of it, unwaveringly calm, somehow omniscient, and always two steps ahead person I’ve ever worked with.

A common refrain for all of us whenever trying to solve a problem or not knowing an answer was “just ask Jackie” so I felt we needed a shirt as a tribute to how much we all treasured her.