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Set Pieces: The 1930s California interiors of HBO's 'Mildred Pierce'


"Mildred Pierce," director Todd Haynes' five-hour miniseries based on the James M. Cain novel, has been accused by some critics of being overly languid, like taffy stretched too thin. It may not be as snappy as the 1945 flick that earned Joan Crawford an Oscar, but for vintage design enthusiasts, this HBO event is intoxicating eye candy. 

Haynes, who channeled midcentury modernism in the stilted but stylish 2002 film "Far From Heaven," has filled "Mildred Pierce" with painstaking details culled from descriptions in the Cain novel, production designer Mark Friedberg said by email. Mildred (Kate Winslet, above right) and her spoiled-rotten daughter Veda (Evan Rachel Wood, left) live in a Glendale stucco bungalow.

Mildred kitchen_2 The kitchen, right, is painted a gray-green with yellow trim that matches the linoleum floor; the green and black tiled bathroom has a rose-colored toilet and tub that is close to heaven.

Though the story opens in 1931, Friedberg said the Pierce home was decorated in 1928 with a mix of Mission, Victorian, Chippendale and Spanish colonial furnishings.

"It was a time before the Depression when people spent exuberantly -- not unlike our recent real estate bubble -- and when upwardly striving middle-class people were trying very hard to impress," he said.

"Mildred's home is proud and carefully put together, but it oscillates between the presentational areas and the behind the scenes," Friedberg said.

Mildred's lover, Monty Beragon (Guy Pearce), makes note of this. "He says that the worst room is Mildred's living room, with its Spanish plaster crest and velour draperies, because it's all show, nothing personal," Friedberg added. "We tried to honor that assessment."

Image002_4 The production designer did extensive research at the Glendale Historical Society and viewed films such as "Bonnie and Clyde" and "Paper Moon" for inspiration.

However, he found the ideal Southern California exterior for the Pierce residence, right, in Merrick on Long Island, New York. 

"We found a communtiy of Spanish bungalows," he said, one that echoed the Pierce Homes real estate development that Mildred's husband owned. "I ended up amending the architecture, adding an octagonal room and the garages and recovering the roof with terra cotta."
Keep reading to see Mildred's bedroom and -- spoiler alert -- the magnificent Art Deco sets in Monty's Pasadena mansion.

Mildred is not content with her station in life, Friedberg said.

"She is not overly daunted by the fact that at the beginning of the story she is left with two kids, no money and no job. She just rolls up her sleeves and digs in."

After her husband leaves her for another woman, she beds his former partner. Decorated in muted red, white and blue, her boudoir has a Victorian bed, vanity and bench, above. "The hook rugs are matronly," Friedberg said, "to contrast with the steam Mildred lets off in there with her men."


Mil posh 2

The redecorated living room in Monty's mansion, above, is paid for by Mildred during their brief and unhappy marriage. "It's now 1938 and Mildred is showing off," Friedberg said. "She is trying to be upper class and more worldly. Monty has gone bust. That is their dynamic. She has the money, he has the bloodline. It doesn't work."


Mil poshSubbing for Monty's Pasadena estate was Winfield Hall, the 1916 Glen Cove, N.Y., mansion built by five-and-dime retailer F.W. Woolworth.

"We went for high Art Deco," Friedberg said of the design scheme for Monty's den, above, which has a Chinese silk rug and French Deco armchairs.

-- David A. Keeps

Photos: Andrew Schwartz /HBO, Mark Friedberg

Set Pieces usually appears here on Tuesdays. Given the schedule of the show, we brought you this week's installment early. For an easy way to follow future installments, join our Facebook page for home design.


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Comments () | Archives (5)

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I love this movie!!! I want the rattan/wicker lawn furniture that they had on the lawn. Where could I find that?

Thanks so much!

Really too bad this wasn't shot in LA. Thanks a lot, HBO!

I cannot get ENOUGH of the set design! Kudos to Mark Friedberg. I paused it repeatedly to see all the little details in Mildred's kitchen, etc.

This was one of the best mini series I have ever watched.

I enjoyed the series but was constantly annoyed by the lack of authenticity of location. Perhaps passable for someone who is not familiar with the various cities that are portrayed but an abomination for a native Angelino. The Laguna
Beach scenes were pure fantasy, I doubt there is any location like that on the entire west coast of California. It would have been far more believable if the whole story had taken place in the East.


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