Behind the Scenes: A Dystopian, Midcentury Penthouse in ‘The Man in the High Castle’

Behind the Scenes: A Dystopian, Midcentury Penthouse in ‘The Man in the High Castle’

By Marissa Hermanson
Production designer Drew Boughton dissects the world of the award-winning series ‘The Man in the High Castle,’ wherein the Axis powers have won World War II.

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. 

In season three of The Man in the High Castle, the Smith family moves to a penthouse apartment in New York City, which gave production designer Drew Broughton the opportunity to create what he imagined the home of a high-ranking Nazi official might look like in the post-war era.

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.

For the exterior of the Smith’s apartment building, Amazon filmed Vancouver’s Guinness Tower, which was completed in 1969 and designed by Charles Pain. 

"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."

Militaristic details can be found throughout the apartment, like silver piping and gold accents.

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. 

Furnishings and upholstery were custom-made. Even the vintage television set was built from scratch with a manufactured lens to hide a flat-screen TV. 

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."

—Drew Boughton

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.

Boughton drew decorative inspiration from the neoclassical style of Biedermeier furniture, which was popular during the Nazi era.

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."

"I just love the black-and-gold wallpaper in the dining room," says Bougton. "It goes well with the Biedermeier pieces and is very Napoleonic and very powerful. It’s a big, aggressive Germanic pattern and statement."  

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.

Rigid rectilinear forms can be found throughout the apartment, echoing the modern aesthetics found in the Eastern Bloc countries during the midcentury era.

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 was designed to look feminine but also cold, a visual representation of Helen Smith as the perfect Nazi housewife.

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.

The Smiths’ penthouse has views of the Empire State Building and the American Reich Headquarters with its red stripe down the center. For the storyline, the Nazi headquarters was placed on the site of the current United Nations building. "In the story, the United Nations building would’ve never happened," says Boughton. 

"You realize the power of intention behind the choices in this set," says Boughton. "If you go to Berlin, you’ll see this—it’s formal, rigid and rectilinear."

Watch The Man in the High Castle on Amazon 

More Behind the Scenes: The Midcentury Mansion in Pixar's Incredibles 2, Grand Budapest Hotel

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