Here’s How Hollywood Builds a Malibu Dream Home—on a Vancouver Soundstage

Tasked with designing a celeb-worthy Malibu abode in six weeks for a new television series on E!, production designer Daniel Novotny and set decorator Renee Read pull out all the stops.
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As a film and television production designer, Daniel Novotny has brought military centers, haunted houses, and police departments to life, but designing an upscale residence is a rare opportunity. So, he jumped at the chance to create a Malibu dream home for The Arrangement, a new series on E! that tells the story of Hollywood royalty Kyle West and his $10-million-dollar marriage contract with rising starlet Megan Morrison. Novotny, who lives in Malibu himself, has a deep connection to the city and proposed to his wife on Point Dume, a protected bluff with ancient sand dunes and bay views, which is exactly where he sited the celebrity home of the character Kyle West—using visual effects. In reality, the set resides on a stage in Vancouver, Canada. Designed and built in six weeks with a budget of about $1 million, the A-list abode is an architectural feat that also exhibits the tricks of the film trade.

Through visual effects, production designer Daniel Novotny was able to place the residence on a protected parcel of land in Point Dume, Malibu. He designed the exterior with SketchUp Pro. In this view, you can see the generous atrium that was never built on set. 

Before departing for Vancouver, Novotny met a fellow parent at his daughter's birthday party who had enlisted Brazilian architect Arthur Casas to design his home. Novotny visited the site and eventually incorporated the terrain and ocean views into his creation.

With such a tight timeline, Novotny dove straight into research, compiling images from the web into a 200-page PDF that he then printed out in tiles. "We plastered the walls of the office and grouped them in categories: kitchen, bedroom, ocean view," he explains. "Then we took a pad of Post-its and put one on the images that felt right for the character and story." The show’s protagonist, Kyle West, is not only a famous actor, but also part of a cult-like organized philosophy called the Institute of the Higher Mind. Says Novotny, "He has a look on his face sometimes where he is just following what his guidance counselor is telling him to do." The home needed to seem palatial while reflecting the somber, austere elements of the character.

Above, Novotny surveys the set. The concrete walls and floors were created by pouring a quarter-inch layer of concrete over plywood. While marble is traditionally painted for film and television sets, Novotny took a different route to save time. After hunting down the perfect slab of Calacatta marble in a showroom, he hired a photographer to capture a high-resolution image that was then printed on sheets of white plastic by Astek Wallcovering in Los Angeles. 

Novotny drew inspiration from iconic John Lautner designs and the Juvet Landscape Hotel, which was featured in Ex Machina. A friend in Malibu who was a client of Arthur Casas introduced him to the Brazilian architect’s work, and a site visit gave Novotny the view that would eventually become the backdrop for the celebrity residence. The resulting home features an open plan with a dramatically curved concrete staircase and floor-to-ceiling glass allowing expansive ocean vistas. For establishing shots, Novotny designed an exterior using SketchUp Pro that showed the residence nestled into the promontory. "I didn’t want it to feel like gluttonous," says Novotny. "It was about being controlled, organic, and feeling like part of the land."

Real cedar planks line the ceilings. Novotny works in the television area, which features Sorensen Leather Chairs by Restoration Hardware, the Torme Floor Lamp by Mr. Brown, and IKEA rugs.

Kyle West, portrayed by actor Josh Henderson, sits in the living room of his home. Set decorator Renee Read outfitted the space with a custom couch that was originally made for the film Fifty Shades of Grey, the Nicholas Square Coffee Table by Restoration Hardware, the Nova Side Table by CB2 in collaboration with Kravitz Design, and Cammeo chairs by Natuzzi.

"I didn't want it to feel gluttonous. It was about being controlled, organic, and feeling like part of the land." - Daniel Novotny

Two Oda Lamps by Sebastian Herkener create a soft glow on the raised dais, while two paintings reminiscent of Jean-Michel Basquiat liven up the space. Read explained that because of the number of closeups in television, backgrounds run the risk of seeming "dead." She says, "In every direction, there has to be a party going on because the lens need something to feature."

Kyle West's bedroom features an arrangement of Mori pendant lights by Rich Brilliant Willing and the Oviedo Leather Chair by Restoration Hardware, not pictured. A cloud mural painted by local artist Graeme Berglund contributes to an airy atmosphere.

Working closely with Novotny, set decorator Renee Read took on the challenge of furnishing the dwelling with deluxe pieces on a budget of $150,000. The time crunch also limited sourcing options, since most high-end items are custom orders. "I focused on using shapes similar to the midcentury aesthetic of the house with more of a contemporary edge," she says. "Just like any build, this show is going to live on beyond the zeitgeist in which it was made." Every single item from side tables to lamps—and all the way down to forks and knives—underwent a discussion and approval process with the executive producer or director. For the artwork adorning the walls, Read hired local painter Graeme Berglund and his studio mate Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun to create the likenesses of canonical works. Each piece went through a legal procedure that she called "fascinating and mysterious."

Kyle West and Megan Morrison, played by actress Christine Evangelista, have a conversation in the kitchen, which boasts walnut veneers. The glass panels that offer "oceanfront" views are each three feet wide, and are held with a strip of metal that allows the panel to spin—which comes in handy to manipulate reflections during filming.

Novotny employed an "old-school theater trick" to give the impression of depth on the terrace, angling the lawn upward toward the photo backing to trick the eye. He also printed additional trees, glued them to plastic backing, and planted them at the end of the lawn. "You move your head, and the trees move a bit to give you a sense of perspective," he explains.

"I don’t necessarily design a set the way I would naturally do a commercial or residential space," continues Read. She arranged the furniture to support how the characters would use the home; for example, scenes called for four characters to sit down at once, and for Kyle West to watch audition tapes, which led to the configuration of chairs and a mounted television adjacent to the main living area. There also needed to be space for the camera department to move around in.

For the headquarters of the Institute of the Higher Mind—the organization that holds Kyle West in its grip—the crew filmed at the Fox Residence in Chatsworth, the stunning midcentury home where Frank Sinatra used to live.  

Once filming had wrapped in Canada, Novotny hired a drone to shoot footage over Point Dume, which is prohibited without a permit. "It’s where I stood right when I proposed, it’s where my kids play all the time, and I still go there to surf and hike," he muses. "It was dream project and truly a Malibu dream house—we just did it in Vancouver."

The Arrangement airs on Sundays at 10 P.M. ET on E!


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