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The Gilded Age: how HBO recreated the grand interiors of 1880s New York

Set decorator Lisa Scoppa tells Effect Magazine how she and production designer Bob Shaw recreated late-19th-century Manhattan for HBO’s The Gilded Age, which returns for its second season

When it comes to period dramas, nobody does it better than Julian Fellowes of Downton Abbey fame. Returning for its second season, Fellowes’ New York-set The Gilded Age tells the story of a pair of old-money sisters Agnes van Rhijn (Christine Baranski) and Ada Brook (Cynthia Nixon), and nouveau riche neighbours Bertha and her railroad tycoon husband George Russell (Carrie Coons and Morgan Spector), where social climbing and position is the name of the game.

Set in 1880s New York, the Gilded Age was a period of massive economic change where fortunes were made and lost. Defined by extravagance and grandeur, the period spanned the late 19th century to the early 20th century, and was characterised by opulent mansions filled with sweeping staircases, grand ballrooms, and gilt, gilt, and more gilt.

The Russell's home in HBO's The Gilded Age - Effect Magazine - Effetto
Extravagance and grandeur: the Russell residence in HBO’s The Gilded Age, built on a soundstage in Glendale, New York

Production designer Bob Shaw and set decorator Lisa Scoppa created the multi-layered worlds from New York soundstages to Newport’s historic Marble House and numerous other waterfront mansions. As with all excellent period series, the interiors set the stage for the drama’s narrative, defining the vast differences in the style of the two families.

As Scoppa says, “The Russell house was about new money coming into New York during an era where the van Rhijn’s represented old New York. The way they displayed their worth was contained; they made their money fast, and it was a complete change of perspective and very showy.” This resulted in a colour palette of pink, yellow, and turquoise with French-influenced ballrooms, his-and-her bedrooms, a gentlemen’s drawing room, painted ceilings, ornate fabrics, Aubusson rugs, fauteuil chairs and furnishings and lots of crystal and frosted glass filled chandeliers and murals.

One of the more standout rooms is Bertha’s salmon pink-toned bedroom, an ode to her idol Mrs. Vanderbilt and a contrast to George’s bold red master suite. The room also features another symbol of wealth, a Giovanni Boldini-inspired portrait of the mistress of the house.

Bertha Russell's salmon pink-toned bedroom in HBO's The Gilded Age - Effect Magazine
Bertha Russell’s salmon pink-toned bedroom in HBO’s The Gilded Age, built on a soundstage in Glendale, New York

Located across the street on East 61st, the van Rhijn House (built on a set at Gold Coast Studios in Bethpage, New York) is dark, dimly lit, and conservatively furnished. “The best way to describe the van Rhijn interiors is they are old fashioned with English, Victorian, and stuffy sets, and their palette is darker, traditional colours such as forest greens and wood tones and a lot of warmth with red burgundies and darker blues,” notes the set decorator. Inspired by Grammercy Park brownstones of the time, the Victorian feel was also achieved through the architecture, carved wood furnishings with damask, velvet, and silks. The parlour, featuring American Empire furniture with matching chairs, is a perfect spot for the many afternoon tea shots.

George Russell's office in HBO's The Gilded Age, built on a soundstage in Glendale, New York - Effect Magazine
George Russell’s office in HBO’s The Gilded Age, built on a soundstage in Glendale, New York

The wealth of research from that period was a plus in designing the accuracy of the interiors. “We looked at all of the families of the time as the Gilded Age was very well documented,” details Scoppa. Bob would always say ‘Wait until we get the research,’ and then after looking carefully, we would pull back a little bit, as it’s so intensely decorated. It was all about showing their objects and how rich they were. They would use layers and layers of rugs and vases and would stack paintings on the wall (three and four feet high). We tried several times to do this, and it was so busy and would not work.”

She also faced the challenge of locating the period-perfect pieces, noting, “I knew how many settings there would be and wondered how I was going to find 25 different Victorian platters?” Her search led her everywhere from the south (Virginia, North Carolina, and Savannah) to Los Angeles, Pennsylvania, and New York for just the proper French, Italian and Victorian antiques.

Ballroom scene in The Gilded Age on HBO, shot at The Breakers – a Renaissance-style mansion built by Cornelius Vanderbilt II and designed by architect Richard Morris Hunt  - Effect Magazine
This ballroom scene in The Gilded Age was shot at The Breakers – a Renaissance-style mansion built by Cornelius Vanderbilt II and designed by architect Richard Morris Hunt

As contemporary interiors evolve, the Gilded Age remains a major landmark on the collective design imagination. Its rococo, Victorian-max aesthetic directly informed the more streamlined, modish Art Deco and subsequent Modernism, which were both to varying extents counterbalances to its excess. And while it continues to influence design trends such as Maximalism, it’s as a unique era in American history that the Gilded Age exerts such a nostalgic hold on us.

The Gilded Age is currently airing on HBO and streaming on Max in the US and Now TV in the UK.

Read more: Interior Designers | Interiors | Design | Production Design | New York