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Casa Interview: Grey Gardens Set Designer Kalina Ivanov

In a Love It or Hate It poll, I asked for your opinion on the sets of the HBO movie Grey Gardens. You overwhelmingly loved them, just as I did. The film, which focuses on "Big Edie" (played by Jessica Lange) and "Little Edie" Bouvier Beale (played by Drew Barrymore), and their home, Grey Gardens, is currently playing on HBO, and the DVD will be available in July. The film's beautiful look is courtesy of designer Kalina Ivanov. Recently, I had the opportunity to chat with Kalina about how she crafted the set of Grey Gardens, and how the designs developed.


CasaSugar: You had to imagine much of the original look of Grey Gardens. What was the most challenging part of this re-imagining?

Kalina Ivanov: Grey Gardens is one of the most intriguing and challenging projects of my career. There is a large fan base of the original documentary and Little Edie is a true icon in the gay community. I had a huge responsibility of getting the look right. The house needed to be both authentic and poetic. The director, Michael Suscy, spent three years researching the project, and he had a treasure trove of images, articles, and architectural drawings. However, we didn’t have images of what the interiors looked like in the 1930s, only the exteriors. We did have a verbal description Little Edie wrote many years later, but . . . as you know she isn’t a very reliable source. That left Michael and I with much room for interpretation. My main goal was to create an environment that captured the Edies' spirit perfectly.

CasaSugar: The original pre-decrepit Grey Gardens set has a very bohemian feel to it; were you inspired by any art, movies, or cultural happenings from that time?

Kalina Ivanov: On my interview, I brought Michael an image of a purple French Art Deco room. He immediately fell in love with it and this image became the base for our design concept. I felt strongly that since Big Edie was a Bouvier by birth, her taste would be influenced by European design. American Art Deco style is much more masculine and geometric; European Art Deco is fluid and organic.

I also wanted to introduce the idea of a garden inside the house, which is why we painted Big Edie’s bedroom with trees and birds. An astute viewer would notice that the colors of that room are yellow and pale turquoise. These colors show up later as the famous yellow bedroom and turquoise staircase in the documentary.

For the rest of the interview, read more.

CasaSugar: I love the use of Chinoiserie in the set. Tell me about how you decided to use it.

Kalina Ivanov: Good question — it was the one element Michael and I kept from Little Edie’s description of her home. Chinoiserie was very popular in the 1930s, and according to Edie, they had many Chinese antiques around the house.

CasaSugar: On the set, there's a plant inside a bird cage; was this inspired by the light bulb inside the birdcage that was from the original house?

Kalina Ivanov: Actually, Michael and I wanted to do something unexpected to show the non-conformist spirit of Big Edie. We thought putting a plant inside the cage is whimsical and not exactly what a proper society woman would do.


CasaSugar: What furniture and décor sources did you use for the set?

Kalina Ivanov: Most of the furniture was antique; all the paintings were from the period or earlier. We did buy some Chinese pieces of furniture and aged them to look older. We used different vendors from Toronto (the film was shot here) and Montreal. For the wallpaper, we used sources like Second Hand Rose in New York. We also made some of the furniture — the beds in the yellow room are so well known from the documentary, they had to be re-created.

CasaSugar: What's your favorite room in the house?

Kalina Ivanov: Short answer — all of them. Long answer — Big Edie’s bedroom because I created it from scratch. There was no photographic evidence of what it had looked like or a verbal description. People seem to love the purple room too; I’ve received many calls and emails asking me what color we used. I guess we started a trend of purple rooms across America.

CasaSugar: What was the most challenging part about deconstructing/aging the house?

Kalina Ivanov: Making it look real and not too theatrical. I wanted the audience to feel the authenticity of the decay, to be able to smell the cat piss and the raccoon stench.

CasaSugar: What era do you consider your greatest inspiration or interest in terms of interior decorating?

Kalina Ivanov: It depends on the nature of the film. I love Art Deco and Art Nouveau. At the same time I also love minimalist design. I think of myself as a storyteller, so for each film, I choose a design style that tells the best story. That’s how I arrived at European Art Deco as the inspiration for Grey Gardens.

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