Amazon’s original series The Man in the High Castle, now in its third season and based on the novel by Philip K. Dick, examines what the world might look like had the Axis powers won World War II. Befittingly, the show presents a distinct, dark aesthetic that casts the midcentury period in a grim light. In direct contrast to the optimistic, post-war America that we know, production designer Drew Boughton created a Fascist alternate reality.
Boughton, who acts as the show’s architect by designing all environmental components that bring the narrative to life, manages to keep the aesthetics of this dystopian world relatable enough for viewers to understand by including familiar visuals from that era, but also interjects dark elements that give the show an insidious feel.
"In a realistic drama, you’d find locations and work with people to find the place that seems right for the scenes taking place, but in a situation like this, you are creating this alternative time and trying to pick colors, feelings, and moods that reinforce this dystopian drama," says Boughton, who was just nominated for an Art Directors Guild Award, and received Emmy nominations for outstanding production design for the show’s first two seasons.
With the recovery, revitalization, and celebration that happened after WWII, the American home was joyful and romantic with sweet, decorative touches like sunny colors, frilly draperies, floral patterns, and embroidery. It was Boughton’s job to find an alternative aesthetic that wasn’t happy and victorious, but instead solemn and imposing. The reversal in outcomes, with the Axis powers winning the war, completely changes the feel of the home.
The production designer started researching Eastern Bloc countries in the 1950s and 1960s to get a look at their totalitarian regimes. "You notice almost immediately that people are in dull colors and don’t drive flashy cars," says Boughton. "They don’t try to stick out; they try to conform."
To superimpose this world in America, the production designer subtracted all the happy things that existed in the post-war era. "We took out the pops of color and the cars with fins," he says. "We restricted the palette in clothing and sets, making it more dour. We continually worked with this system of removing things."
In season three, Obergruppenführer John Smith and his family move into a posh New York City penthouse, which gave Boughton the opportunity to create what he imaged the home of a high-ranking Nazi leader might look like. "It was a very exciting opportunity to do this with alternative modernism from the ground up," says Boughton.
In the Smiths’ apartment, the production designer incorporated architectural details like harsh, rectilinear forms and cold, shiny surfaces that he picked up on while visiting Berlin and studying Nazi-era buildings up close. "There are aspects in that style that are Art Deco, classical, and neoclassical, so going back and mining some of those Germanic details and mixing them in the midcentury style [came up] with this blend," he says.
"We restricted the palette in clothing and sets, making it more dour. We continually worked with this system of removing things."
Echoing the aesthetics of Eastern Bloc countries and historic empires, Boughton wanted to make architectural statements about coercion, control, and dominance throughout the show. That is why the production designer decided to incorporate Volkshalle ("People's Hall") into the alternative world: if the Axis powers had won the war, this massive structure, which was designed by Hitler’s architect Albert Speer, would have been built in Berlin, the capital of the Greater Nazi Reich.
To create that Fascist feeling inside the Smith apartment, Boughton drew inspiration from Biedermeier furniture, a popular style of furnishings in Germany and Austria during the Nazi era. "I took that cultural sense of what the furniture had been in the Nazi period and extended that forward," he says. "We took something that exists and changed it just a little bit."
He adapted the look of the neoclassical furnishings by adding pinstripes, gold accents, and silver-leaf lines, a nod to militaristic details like the silver piping on SS uniforms. Also throughout the Smith penthouse, there is a prevalence of heavy shades like gray and black.
The Smith’s bedroom draws inspiration from midcentury Baroque and the final death and re-birth room sequence in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, which mixed modernism and Baroque furniture.
"Designers were filling houses with this kind of furniture in the same decades," says Boughton. "In a midcentury ranch house you would find weird Louis XIV furniture. It was the Liberace period, where it’s kind of over-the-top, yet it works in some weird way. This is taking a stab at that."
The master suite also was created as a representation of Helen Smith’s character as she tries to fill the role of the perfect Nazi housewife. "The wallpaper is happy and floral, but not too happy," says Boughton. "The room is deliberately a little bit cold."
The production designer even worked meticulously to get the furniture color just right so that it wasn’t too bright, but more of an icy white.
Throughout the apartment and in other Nazi environments in the show you’ll find examples of what Boughton calls "cold formalism," an Eastern European take on modernism that is harsher, more angular, stiffer and grayer than the modernism in America.
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