Friday, January 10, 2014

Functional Design is Elementary

Sherlock Holmes’s Eclectic D├ęcor Reflects a Mind in Motion

Sherlock Holmes may be a highly decorated detective, but he's not about to win any awards from Good Housekeeping.

Holmes is, after all, usually too busy solving crimes to clean up around the place – never mind to pore over the latest Pottery Barn catalog for the perfect throw pillow.  “Sherlock’s philosophy is one of function over form.  He lives to do what he does, and eating and sleeping are totally secondary,” explains Andrew Bernard, the production designer for CBS’ hit sophomore series, Elementary.  And so, it becomes Bernard’s job to make sure Holmes’s home reflects the great man’s passions – and lack thereof – all while still making it an attractive space where more than 12 million viewers want to spend an hour every Thursday night.

For Elementary’s pilot episode, producers picked a classic brownstone in New York’s Harlem as Holmes’s office and abode, and still use that location for scenes of the house’s exterior, supposedly in Brooklyn.  But when Holmes and his sober companion-turned-sidekick Joan Watson, played by Jonny Lee Miller and Lucy Liu, became permanent fixtures on the CBS schedule, Bernard and his team replicated the structure’s somewhat deteriorated interior on a Queens soundstage, with some enlargements and other concessions to allow for ease of camera movement and improved sight lines.

"Sunlight" streams through the windows
of Holmes and Watson's brownstone,
in reality inside a Queens soundstage.
Bernard explains that, having scouted many brownstones throughout his career, “I often find that the woodwork usually holds up, and it’s the plaster walls and wall treatments that have fallen away.”  So he and his team set out to replicate authentic  19th Century carvings, with fluted moldings and medallions they ordered from a nearby lumberyard experienced in catering to TV and film.  The team outfitted several rooms with built-in pocket shutters and transom windows which are not only authentic to the brownstone’s Victorian vintage, but also allow the show’s director of photography to get creative with patterns of sunlight and shadow to suit the mood of any scene.

Lacking a bed, Holmes sometimes sacks out
on this beat-up leather couch.  The show's
set designers imagined that this midcentury patterned
rug would have been left by previous tenants;
 it's actually new, but they stained and frayed it.
As Elementary has explained, Sherlock’s building is one of many owned by his wealthy father; and as Bernard and his team further surmised when setting out to decorate the space, many of Holmes’s pieces of furniture would actually be items left behind by previous occupants.  For these pieces, like a purple velvet couch for the living room or a turn-of-the-20th-century settee for under the stairs, they combed area thrift shops, as well as online sources such as ebay and craigslist.  For other items, they relied on reproductions of classic designs from throughout the last century, like a brown leather club chair from Restoration Hardware for the living room, and a space-age patterned rug – which they then stained and frayed.

Watson and Holmes around their
rococo "kitchen table."
As Bernard explains, he got some instruction on Holmes furnishings straight from the Elementary scripts; for example, the show’s creator and executive producer Rob Doherty insists that
Sherlock have no bed or formal bedroom, preferring instead to crash on a midcentury black leather-cushioned couch in what was originally the brownstone’s billiard room.  And still other items, Bernard adds, were chosen mostly for their shapes, from the sleekness of an aluminum desk to the rolling curves of the wooden rococo desk Holmes and Watson use as a kitchen table.

Holmes and Watson amid the distressed,
"unfinished" walls and built-in pocket
window shutters of their brownstone.
In all, before starting production, Bernard’s Elementary team had just four weeks to create a space that looks like it’s been standing for well over 100 years.  The overall aesthetic they strive for, he says, is a type of shabby-chic.  “In fashion, there’s a tradition of putting models in front of distressed, messy backdrops, of the beautiful and stylish versus decrepit walls and peeling paint,” the designer explains.  So when Holmes and Watson spontaneously spread out on the floor to create one of his physical crime scene models –with Miller and Liu, of course, providing the physical beauty – they’re leaning on a parquet pattern which is actually 1’-by-1’ self-stick tiles Bernard has aged by beating them with chains.

The team spent considerable time on the treatment of floors and walls, deliberately cracking their plaster and
creating effects like remnant wallpaper paste with mottled paint.  “The unfinished effect is certainly interesting, and it can be done with the right craftspeople.  It can look dirty but not be dirty,” Bernard explains.  “It’s all done with paint,” he notes, by people who, like Holmes, have spent years perfecting their craft.

Dusting For Clues:

To say something special, add your own character, Bernard advises. “Reflect your own interests, as opposed to hiring someone to decorate based on the latest style.”  Here is what Sherlock Holmes’s possessions reveal about their owner – along with tips on how to solve your own space.

"Red is one of our accent colors on the show," Bernard explains.  "We try to keep the color palette fairly muted, to let Holmes and Watson stand out -- but then we'll have a little accent, like in Holmes's tie or a particular piece of furniture.  Bernard found this particular turn-of-the-century mauve settee for under
Holmes' stairs on Craigslist.

“Christopher Reiter is a New York artist who makes these lamps out of paper.  We rented this one for the pilot, and then had to have it back for the series because it’s so distinctive,” Bernard says.  “It has an organic quality that matches Sherlock’s interest in nature – and we get many requests asking where it came from.”  ( phrenology skulls were popular in the Victorian era, and can still be found in many thrift shops. This one is plastic, its skull whacked in with a bat as part of one of Sherlock’s experiments.  He then named it Angus – “it’s become a kind of mascot for him,” Bernard explains.

Brown leather pouf.  “I like that this can be moved around,
 so that it suits whatever Holmes is up to,” Bernard explains.

Brown leather club chair from Restoration Hardware.  It comes already weathered –
 “but then we ‘scenic-ed’ it a bit more to show more wear.”

“Another theme of our show is the old versus the new, Sherlock with his Victorian roots being in present day,” Bernard explains. “So we mixed a lot of modern furniture into this 19th Century brownstone.”  Here, a white cloth midcentury Saarinen armchair from Brooklyn thrift store Two Jakes.
"This green lacquer cabinet provides another pop of color,”
 Bernard says of this Haller customizable media cabinet by USM

“We found an artist who makes these ballistics displays,” Bernard says,
 “and it was not only decorative, but perfect for Sherlock,
 who has to know about every type of bullet.”

This supposedly surviving blue and gold wallpaper looks ‘20s,
but it’s actually a modern reproduction from Astek in Los Angeles.
  “We liked the bit of reflection from its gold dots.
  The pattern’s not overwhelming, but yet it makes a statement,” Bernard explains.

Rob Doherty’s pilot script described this collage of locks of all shapes, sizes and origins, “which Sherlock uses almost as a meditative exercise,” Bernard explains.  “It’s a way to for him to gather his thoughts and practice his lock-picking skills.”  Now, as a piece of wall art, it’s become one of the show’s most famous visuals, and was requested for display along with other Elementary props at the "The International Exhibition of Sherlock Holmes." (That traveling show debuted at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry (OMSI) in Portland, OR in October, 2013 and will next be at COSI in Columbus, OH from Feb 6 to Sept. 8, 2014.)