For HBO’s “Lovecraft Country,” the work of decorator Kalina Ivanov was to not only convey and reflect the Midwest and Chicago of the 1950s, but also tackle the supernatural, monsters, drag queens, 1921 Tulsa, outer space, to Paris of the 1920s and to the Amazons of Dahomey of 19th century Africa. It was an epic task that Ivanov and his tenure handled with startling aplomb.
Ahead of the October 18 final, Ivanov talks to Variety about his inspirations for some key elements of the show, including Montrose’s (Michael K. Williams) apartment, Ardham Lodge, the time machine, and museum tunnels.
How important was the color scheme of the show and the relationship to characters and supernatural symbolism?
I design from a very intuitive place and often see colors when reading a script, so you can imagine the explosion of colors in my head when designing “Lovecraft Country”. I bonded with the deep humanity of the protagonists and chose to bring the richness of their inner life through deep and vibrant jewelry tones. I wanted their environments to burst with life and purpose. A good example would be Montrose’s apartment. We created our own geometric wallpaper for this and painted the bedroom a deep pomegranate red to represent a non-traditional, jazz-loving book-reading family. I purposely saved the darker palette for Christina’s Chicago mansion, as her character was full of secrets and mystery.
Each set had a mythology behind it; for example, I designed the Marshall Field department store in black and white to symbolize racial segregation. My main objective was to examine the period through a modern lens, bringing a complex richness to the past, so that viewers feel perfectly transported to each world.
I also weaved the supernatural symbolism of the teeth of the Shoggoth into the design. You see them first manifesting in architectural detail in the hallways of Ardham Lodge, then in the half-sun motif in Samuel’s laboratories, and later in the sculpture of Titus in Episode 4, ” A history of violence ”. All of these designs have very sharp edges, bringing a sense of threat and danger to the world around our protagonists.
Where did Ardham Lodge and the Observatory Time Machine inspire you?
[In the series] Ardham Lodge is where an all-male cult led by Samuel Braithwhite seeks to harness magic and immortality. In the story, the lodge is a replica of the original from 1795, which burned down in 1832. I wanted to combine an architectural style of Tudor Henry VIII castle with the palaces of the American robber barons of the 1890s. I was trying to synthesize two generations of terrible rich men whose buildings reflected their giant egos, and somehow mix them into one magical, secret and imposing lodge. I called this architectural cocktail “Tudor Romanesque” and I had a lot of fun drawing it. We found a Tudor-style mansion an hour outside of Atlanta that was small in size, but thanks to VFX and the greens we turned it into our mysterious, imposing and unique Ardham Lodge.
The time machine was technically a prop, but I wanted to take a first look at how it looked to fit into the design language of the abandoned Kentucky Observatory. In our story, the machine was created by Hiram Epstein (owner of the haunted house Leti buys in Episode 3), so it had to represent his scientific mind. I wanted cables twisted like it was Hiram’s mental state.
[Showrunner] Misha [Green] Hiram’s backstory told us, that he had opened a portal, went into the future, and came back – so the time machine needed to have pieces of future technologies that he encountered. Also, in Episode 7 I was playing with the concept of spheres and circles as a touchstone for its design, which was inspired by the shape of the planets. All of these themes came together in my collaboration with JP Jones, our master of props, on the final look of the time machine, and we ended up incorporating the ornament into it.
Talk about the thinking behind the Boston Art Museum sequence in Episode 4, “A History of Violence,” specifically Titus Braithwhite’s Hidden Chambers.
The design of the Boston Museum was such a pleasure as one of my favorite places in New York City is the Museum of Natural History, where I spent many weekends with our son. I pitched to Misha Green the idea of a large statue of Titus as a portal to the hidden chambers (the original script called for a trap door in the floor). To me, Titus was like Columbus, a very bad man glorified as a hero. I wanted the statue to dominate the room, and I specifically designed the crocodiles with their bare teeth flanking it to mirror the mouths of the Shoggoths.
Once our protagonists enter the statue, they descend 6 meters into the chamber of Titus. I designed the chamber as if it had been hewn in stone as a bridge between the beautiful man-made architecture of the museum and the tunnels of organic earth. Much of my inspiration for the tunnels came from the Sudwala Caves in South Africa, which are over 240 million years old and have a very warm palette. Creating the tunnels and figuring out how to immerse them in a large water tank was a big technical challenge, and the whole art department seized the opportunity. We submerged a sample of the painted walls in water for a month to make sure it didn’t peel and create debris. The water in the tank had to be crystal clear so that the camera could shoot from above and below.
For the “puzzle” door, I turned to “Gates of Paradise” by Lorenzo Ghiberti as a source of inspiration. This was the starting point for our version of a Garden of Eden riddle. We’ve also made the sculpted panels convenient to push so actors can interact with them. I believe in the physical setting, so it feels authentic not only to the performers but to the crew as well; in this way, the sets become an immersive experience for all.
More importantly, was it a lot of fun working on this series and why?
Throughout my career, I have always tried to conceive of different genres and subjects. I think it goes back to my training as a theater designer studying operas, ballets, musicals, Shakespeare, contemporary, avant-garde plays, etc. So I was ready for any “Lovecraft Country” style required. Misha [Green] encouraged me to think big, and it was exhilarating – the creative process was pure joy. I felt like a Picasso woman, free to experiment with any style I wanted: realism one day, cubism the next. Ultimately, I was trying to capture the essence of the characters’ rich emotional lives and be true to their journeys, through color and architectural proportions. I connected deeply to their stories and was keenly aware that the worlds I designed had to reflect not only the political realities of being black in America, but also the richness and imagination of the culture. With each set I tried to evoke a specific emotion, and taking the audience on such a complex visual journey was a lot of fun.
As a political refugee [editor’s note: Ivanov’s family fled communist Bulgaria in 1979], the historical aspects of the show and the task of doing them justice with an unyielding eye sometimes kept me awake at night. The 14 months I spent working with Misha Green and the whole team have been a wonderful, stimulating and powerful experience. One line in the script says, “Some stories stab you in the heart,” and that fueled my passion and guided me through the process. You could say that this whole project was a magical gift, both fun and humbling.
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