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Mise en Scéne: Set Design Inspiration from Sundance

Sundance Institute x Chicago 2024 has arrived, with four days of events, film screenings, and artists programs across the city. Sundance’s motto is “championing creative independence” and PAGODA RED has always been a design destination with a similar goal. The most compelling interior designers channel creative independence into memorable spaces. This is also true of the set and production designers whose work has been featured in the Sundance Festival over the years. For the creatives behind these critically acclaimed sets, masterful design is a crucial storytelling tool, underscoring the narratives, character motivations, time periods, and ambiance of the work. It may have begun with Nancy Meyers’ enviable onscreen kitchens, but set and production design now regularly features on social media, in magazines, and as inspiration for designers and clients alike. Here are a few PAGODA RED favorites from the past five years of cinema, each an example of meticulous, outstanding design.

Parasite (2019) Photo: ©2019 CJ ENM CORPORATION, BARUNSON

The enigmatic beauty of meditation and scholars’ stones – has long inspired philosophical thought and creative inspiration. In Parasite, Bong Joon Ho’s lauded 2019 film, a scholars’ rock plays a prominent and symbolic role that’s still debated by film aficionados – and of course, leads to an ending we’d rather avoid in real life. Still, when the impoverished Kim family receives a stone as a gift from their son’s friend, it’s rich with meaning, suggesting a life with room for contemplation rather than just survival. The rock is a nod to the life the Kims aspire to – and one for which they’ll infiltrate the wealthy Park family.

Of course, the natural forms and meditative past of scholars’ rocks make them compelling for collectors and designers alike. PAGODA RED has offered them since we opened, from an incredible red falcon rock to a newly arrived Jiulongbi mountain meditation stone in a custom-carved base. Our rocks have been destined for far happier endings than in Parasite, ending up everywhere from organic modern dining rooms to traditional living rooms.

The 2023 film Saltburn is another tale of class warfare and aspiration, with a similarly dark trajectory. Here, however, wealth is signified by the tumultuous glamour of a palatial English country house, rather than sleek modernism of the Parks’ home in Parasite. The Catton family’s wealth has accumulated over centuries and their home is layered with objects acquired over generations of time. In real life, the filming location has been kept under wraps, other than the disclosure that the 127-room privately-owned manor dates back to 1300 AD.

Saltburn (2023) A Catton Family Bedroom Photo: Chiabella James

Saltburn is very much a home that tells stories, those of generations of the Catton family. We don’t recommend Oliver Quick’s route to home ownership, but we absolutely recommend copying production designer Suzie Davies’ design approach, with bold colors and an irreverent mix of antiques and art that span eras. Similar to the fictional Saltburn, the shelves at PAGODA RED reflect centuries of design, mixed into a curated, artistic aesthetic. In our gallery, Ming cizhou wine jars sit beside French tables, while frosted art deco pendants hang above an artist’s crafted steel tables. Choose what you absolutely love, and mix it with creative nonchalance and a fearless use of color.

Neil Gaiman’s Amazon adaption of his novel Good Omens is another Sundance favorite featuring objects collected over time, here with a nostalgic undercurrent rather than the boho chic of Saltburn. Much of the show takes place in the antiquarian bookshop owned by the angel Aziraphale, who has been on Earth since its creation. In an interview with Collider, production designer Michael Ralph said, “The crew walk onto that set, and all they wanna do is live upstairs and drink red wine and read books all day. . . that’s incredibly complimentary because, in a way, it means that you’ve touched a nerve of comfort and nostalgia and safety, and an overwhelming sense of well-being that people feel that they feel happy enough to want to do that.”

Good Omens (2023) The cozy bookshop Photo: RadioTimes

The idea of comfort in times of massive uncertainty – in the show, the impending Apocalypse – is certainly evergreen. Aziraphale’s bookshop is a cozy respite, with an overflowing wooden desk, an upholstered armchair, and books stacked on antique tables. It’s a place for everyone to escape to, from fictional immortals to the real-life crew.

Far from any angelic inspiration, the magnificent NYC brownstone of Prime’s Mrs. and Mrs. Smith reflects the tastes of three characters with lower moral compasses and more modern sensibilities. In the show, the brownstone – called “the show’s true star” by Architectural Digest – is first decorated by a mysterious, wealthy employer and then changed over time to reflect the tastes of John and Jane Smith, the undercover assassins who live there as a married couple. The characters spend their newfound wealth in different ways, with Jane acquiring rich objects and art. Set decorator Michael Nallan told Architectural Digest that “Jane’s more practical and pragmatic and these art pieces are an investment while also being things she finds beautiful and that she cares about. These details are a way to show the difference in how they view money and what type of people they are.” For Jane, wealth is about refinement, not overt displays of status.

Mr & Mrs Smith (2024) Photo: Amazon Prime Video

The Smiths’ luxurious mix has a more modern edge than Good Omens or Saltburn, with hints that its occupants are overtly aware of “good taste” as filtered through design magazines and Instagram. Chinese porcelain is paired with fresh finishes and clean-lined furniture. It’s fantastically well-designed, but also a familiar contemporary aesthetic, one often favored by PAGODA RED clients. Our reclaimed wood waterfall tables are a consistent designer favorite for this reason – they effortlessly bridge the gap between contemporary and antique, the ultimate organic modern, rough luxe touch.

John and Jane Smith conceal their criminality beneath tasteful, upper-crust NYC sensibilities. In the Netflix limited series Griselda, ill-gotten wealth is flaunted with brash opulence in 1980s Miami. Based on the real life of Griselda Blanco, once the queen of Miami drug trafficking, the spaces in Griselda are retro and over-the-top, if incredibly memorable. Naturally, we gravitated toward Griselda’s study, a bold red space layered with Asian antiques.

Griselda (2024) Photo: Kim Leonard

Given her penchant for violence and revenge, Griselda herself is no inspiration. However, the choice by set decorator Kim Leonard and production designer Knut Loewe to flank her desk with Fu Dogs for protection is excellent. They create a dramatic frame against the quietly patterned wallpaper, looking like fierce, mystical bodyguards when Griselda is at her desk. We also love their choice of a pair of ornate official’s chairs, a desk with full moon pulls, and a wonderful painted scholar’s compound cabinet. It looks like the stylish room of a knowledgeable collector – and while we love eclectic rooms, a true collection also makes an impact.

The Smith brownstone is set firmly in modern New York City, Griselda’s aesthetic reflects 1980s mob decadence, and our last choice instantly grounds the viewer in another specific time: Regency-era England. In Bridgerton, interior design is not an experiment in individuality, but a callback to the ridid taste and class markers of Regency aristocrats. Here, antiques are set against elegant wall colors, with a focus on harmony rather than the unexpected. Romance is the main draw, with delicate porcelain, overflowing flower arrangements, and oil paintings hung on the walls.

Bridgerton (2024) Photo: Liam Daniel

In the Bridgeton family’s morning room, each piece is part of a delicate whole, utterly believable as a 19th-century home, despite being created from scratch on a soundstage. Unsurprisingly, the show’s tremendous popularity has led to a resurgent interest in Regency antiques, particularly Regency chairs. This is also the era that brought chintz firmly into interior design, where it has come and gone in popularity ever since. Several of the pieces in PAGODA RED’s Regency furniture collection come from the wonderful European collection of Chicago’s late Francie and Gary Comer.

Outstanding set design is not a new concept, but the move toward prestige television and the ability of the internet to screenshot and dissect sets has led to ever more memorable, inspiring set and production design. We love working together with set creatives to help make their visions come to life. We look forward to the films debuting at Sundance Institute x Chicago 2024 this weekend, and to continuing to find design inspiration and creative independence in films and television.

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