In Lena Dunham’s hit indie comedyTiny Furniture, she plays Aura, a recently minted college grad who has come home to her art star mother, overachieved high school-aged sister and the Tribeca loft they live in. As Aura navigates the rocky shoals of post-college life, the loft her family lives in plays a kind of understated character in the film. Is it really home, or just a way station to the dreamed-of New York apartment she aims to share with a college buddy? Can she do as she pleases or must she ask her mother’s permission to have a friend over, or to drink a bottle of wine? All told, it’s a charming debut film made all the more remarkable by the fact that Dunham’s mother and sister play Aura’s mother and sister, and that the film was shot in the loft the family actually inhabits. I had a quick chat with Laurie Simmons—Dunham’s on and off-screen mom and a successful artist—about seeing her house onscreen, the demerits of overhead lighting, and who designed those hilarious white cabinets.
Is the house that we see in the movie actually Lena’s girlhood home—the place she would have returned to when coming back from college?
I’m one those people who loves to move houses, so no, it’s not Lena’s girlhood home, though the apartment in the movie is very similar to the loft she grew up in. We lived in Soho when she was young, but in 2004 we moved to the fringes of Tribeca. But both are on the fourth floor, both have big windows in the front and both are former factories. The similarities between the two places are kind of crazy.
And to what degree did you recognize your house as the one in the movie?
Well, the furniture is ours and all the objects are ours, but Jodie Lee Lipes, the director of photography made the place look bigger, lighter, and emptier than it is in real life. What I recognized was a caricature of our home. Which was pretty cool.
So often modern design in a home is meant to suggest some kind of villainy or sterility or neuroses. Did you see that playing out in Tiny Furniture? And might that have felt strange considering that it’s your house and hour stuff?
Again, Jody was really great at creating this mood using the lighting. My husband and I are really into true lighting so when we come home we’re always turning on lamps, adjusting lights, changing them to suit the time of day or our mood. We hate those big overhead lights—we call them brain burners. But Jody got this really even light that totally reinforced the chilly atmosphere of the home in the movie. Lena and Jody used it to the best effect in expressing that the people in Tiny Furniture were disengaged, disenfranchised, chilly and brittle.
Yet for all that, it’s quite a funny movie. And maybe the best running design joke is to do with this big wall of white cabinets. Who made them?
They were designed by Nick Dine. He also did our renovation. I told him that I wanted a wall of white cabinets and now they’ve wound up as a character in Tiny Furniture. I think they’ve played a significant role in people’s minds.
In the film your character Siri is an artists who photographs all kinds of miniature furniture—much like your own work is interested in photos that play with scale—so that resonance, as a reference to the mother character’s and your own real life work, is strong. Do you see anything else in the title Tiny Furniture?
I think it’s a really good title. Of course it refers to the work the mother character does, but there’s another scene when Aura makes reference to the little furniture that her college friends make out of balsa wood. She makes fun of what they do as a way to distance herself from that life. But the way I see it is that when Aura comes home from college she feels like a piece of tiny furniture. She’s not sure what her place is in this home.
Tiny Furniture is doing well, what’s next for Laurie Simmons?
I have a show of my own work opening on February 17th at Salon 94 Bowery.