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'Designs on Film' charts the history of cinematic art direction

December 7, 2010 |  8:00 am

P 73 Lost Horizon sketch

Film buffs and followers of this column may be tempted by the recently published "Designs On FIlm: A Century of Hollywood Art Direction," (It Books, $75). The 384-page almost letterbox-shaped book by author, interior decorator and cinema style blogger Cathy Whitlock traces the history of motion picture sets and interiors from early 20th century silent movies to 21st century sci-fi films.

Whitlock celebrates the usual subjects, such as MGM's Deco and Modernist master Cedric Gibbons (who also designed the Oscar statuette), and gives props to lesser-known names: British designer Ken Adam, who helmed the  Mod look of 1960s James Bond films and William Creber, who designed the "Towering Inferno" skyscraper and took inspiration from Turkish rock formations to create the primal architecture in "Planet of The Apes." 

The anecdote-laden text is informative, but I wish that iconic pieces of furniture, such as Michael Douglas' red leather office chair in 1987's "Wall Street," were identified. (I have seat envy. There, I said it.)

The main event, however, is the photographs and architectural renderings, such as the Carey Odell illustration for the 1937 film "Lost Horizon," above. Located in the fictional Shangri-La, the fantastic building melds streamlined columns and monastery windows into a structure influenced by Frank Lloyd Wright and the International Style of European modernists.

P 121 North by Northwest Matte_2 Another winner: Matthew Yuricich's  matte painting of the cantilevered Vandamm house, right, designed by USC architecture graduate Robert F. Boyle for Alfred Hitchcock's "North by Northwest."

The production shots of interiors, particularly those from the 1930s-1960s are even more inspiring. 

I put a few questions to Whitlock:

Which movie set would you like to live in? 

I favor cosmopolitan sets as a result of growing up on Doris Day-Rock Hudson films of the 1960s. I love the clean lines and sleek look of Cameron Diaz's Wallace Neff house in "The Holiday" (2006), the penthouse in the 1999 remake of "The Thomas Crown Affair" and, of course, the international style of 1949's "The Fountainhead." I could move into any of those interiors. 

Based somewhat on Frank Lloyd Wright, "The Fountainhead" had a William Haines style modern living room I'd love for my own. What are your cinematic dream rooms?

Clifton Webb's marble bath in "Laura" was over the top but to be coveted. In "A Perfect Murder," the Moroccan-style kitchen where Gwyneth Paltrow fights off an attacker was wonderful.

What piece of film furniture is to die for?

Jean Harlow's white bed in "Dinner at Eight." 

More photos and Q/A after the jump

What films started interior design trends? 

In the late 1920s, "Our Dancing Daughters" influenced audiences to use Bakelite, Formica and Art Deco accessories in their homes. In the '60s, "2001: A Space Odyssey" paid homage to Eero Saarinen, and years later the look resurfaced in "Down With Love" [2003], which was a remake of 1959's "Pillow Talk." The beach house in Woody Allen's "Interiors" employed bleached floors, which started a trend. The beach house in "Something's Gotta Give" was one of the most copied and still gets press. Audiences loved the relaxed yet sophisticated look. 

Did any movies beget regrettable styles?

In the 1930s, "Cleopatra" popularized Egyptian Art Deco. Thankfully that look was short-lived. And the "deconstructionist chic" of the '90s for the film "Wall Street" was ushered out in the millennium. 

What movie interior could you not bear to spend time in?

Anything with a '50s look. I appreciate the interiors in "Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House" and "Far From Heaven," (production sketch and the set below), but I find the looks too suffocating and boring.  Picnik collage

What film do you watch just for the sets?

I love what Sofia Coppola did with "Marie Antoinette." The designs were a great twist on costume dramas.

The book has a broad range, from historical period pieces to "Avatar"; what Los Angeles films made the cut?

"Blade Runner," "Mildred Pierce," "Sunest Boulevard," "Chinatown" and "L.A. Confidential" (below). I would loved to have included  "A Single Man." 

P 253 L.A. Confidential 

Above: An interior from "L.A. Confidential," which was shot in the Lovell house, a 1929 design by architect Richard Neutra.

Below: A "Chinatown" production illustration shows another type of Los Angeles architecture, the Spanish courtyard apartment.

P 198 Chinatown

-- David A. Keeps

CORRECTED: An earlier version of this post identified an "L.A. Confidential" interior as Richard Neutra's personal residence. Scenes in the film were  shot in a Neutra house built for client Philip Lovell in 1929.

Photo credits: "Lost Horizon" and "North by Northwest" courtesy of Art Directors Guild; "Far From Heaven," Mark Friedberg; "L.A. Confidential," Jeannine Oppwall; "Chinatown," the estate of Richard Sylbert.