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Designing a Home for a Wallflower


    Photo Tony winner Derek McLane, set designer for “The Heiress." Credit Robert Wright for The New York Times


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    If there was ever a show that makes the case that young adults should get their own place as soon as possible, it is “The Heiress,” the story of a shy young woman, Catherine Sloper, living with her belittling and domineering physician father in a town house on Washington Square. The play, adapted from a Henry James novel, is set in the mid-1800s, however, when moving out was not so easy. Also, as the latest Broadway revivalshows, the Sloper residence is a great place: the parlor has Corinthian pillars, elaborately painted cornice work and stately furnishings. The set designer of the show (scheduled to open Thursday at the Walter Kerr Theater) is the Tony winner Derek McLane, who will be creating the sets for this year’s Oscar awards and whose credits include “Follies” and “Anything Goes.” This reporter met him recently on the set to learn what’s involved in recreating a drawing room from the past.

    What was your biggest challenge in designing this set?

    There were a number of challenges, one of which is that this family is enormously wealthy and you have to feel the wealth when you look at the house. On the other hand, Dr. Sloper has an almost puritanical work ethic, and there is a kind of dryness about him and a lack of flamboyance that suggests that the house not be overly embroidered or ostentatious in any way.

    You did some of your research at the Merchant’s House, which is furnished in the period in which the play is set. What did you take away from that?

    Architecturally it is not so different from what you see onstage. But in terms of its décor, it is so severely plain that if you put it onstage it would mean nothing. There was an Empire sofa, upholstered in black horsehair, that was really severe.

    Did you go anywhere else to do research?

    The north side of Washington Square still has the faces of all those buildings, and we arranged with N.Y.U., which owns them, to go into them. Most have been turned into offices, but there was one old brownstone on the corner they actually left the whole parlor area intact. They had Corinthian columns pretty much identical to these. I was struck by the whiteness of the cornices. We saw one guy coming out of the building who had an apartment there who let us take a look. It turned out that when N.Y.U. bought these buildings, only the first 12 feet were landmark. So his living room for 12 feet was as it had been, a grand parlor room only 12 feet deep, then — it was the strangest thing — there was a wall. And when you opened the door in the wall, there were hallways with high ceilings and fluorescent lights that seemed to stretch the entire length of the block and all these little doors coming off these hallways. The most bizarre thing. They must have been dorm rooms or something.

    Where did the furniture in this set come from?

    A bunch of antique barns, mostly in New Jersey and some from upstate New York. We upholstered all of it to try to make them go together and stained a couple of things.

    What’s your own place like?


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    I have a rental in the Village. My wife and I are separated. It’s a three-bedroom, so my kids can stay there. It has some 19th-century furniture upholstered in a contemporary way. Like there is sort of a Victorian wingback chair upholstered in very, very bright pink damask. When I moved in, there was a great big set of bookshelves surrounding the fireplace, and I didn’t have any books because I had just moved out. Actually I find books on bookshelves sort of boring anyway. So I took most of the shelves out and got about 30 different industrial lamps and had my assistant strip the backs off mirrors and antique them and put them in back of the shelves. And I put up temp paper, which is like contact paper, as wallpaper so I wouldn’t have to pay to pull it down. Theoretically you can peel it off.

    I think of guys getting a divorce as buying a huge couch, a big TV and a bed in one swoop, and that’s it.

    The sofa is not huge, it looks sort of Victorian, but it is upholstered in gray linen so it feels more modern. I did spend a fair amount of energy to turn it into something I loved and would be proud of, partly because I wanted my kids to have a space they would feel comfortable in that would be a home.

    As a set designer you try to create a mood. What mood did you want to create in your new place?

    Part of it is me responding to the space. The apartment felt very New York, very Greenwich Village, with nice tall windows in the living room. I wanted to celebrate the period of the building, which I think was built around 1840, and I also wanted it to feel a little modern-eclectic with found objects. Some of my favorite set dressings have been found objects.

    What is the story you wanted to tell about yourself?

    The story is, I guess, that it looks beautifully designed and has a little sense of whimsy and some romance. What I like most about my wall of lights is, if you were to look at one of those individual lamps, you would say it is just a hideous gray enameled lamp from 1940. But because all the arms are facing in one direction and they all have sort of beautiful old-fashioned incandescent bulbs with the coiled filament, when they are dimmed against the antique mirror, they create a very warm romantic light. What I like is these sort of ordinary industrial objects create a kind of beautiful romantic environment for the room.

    You’ve used the word “romantic” a least a half-dozen times. Do you mean it as a view of the universe or are you speaking of romantic love?

    It’s a view of the universe, a kind of idealistic idea about smiles and things working out in life and that there can be happy endings to things. And certainly romantic love for sure. 


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