Travel back to the summer of 1968 in New York City, where a middle-aged man named Michael has been living in an old brownstone on the Upper East Side for about six years. He rents because he can’t afford to buy, and his chaotic and disheveled atmosphere matches his personality. A few of the knickknacks in his bedroom were inherited from his parents, but the decor in his living room is more artful because he often welcomes company. And on one rainy night, all these confluences come to fruition during a raucous-yet-soul-baring birthday party among eight of his friends.
Only a few of those details are mentioned in the Netflix movie The Boys in the Band (premiering Wednesday, September 30). But because the LGBTQ drama—which originated as a Broadway play in 1968—is almost exclusively set inside this apartment, production designer Judy Becker and set decorator Gene Serdena created their own dossier before getting to work. “It was a fun challenge because the apartment is a character in the film,” Becker, who juggled duties on the film and work on the newly released Ratched, tells Architectural Digest. (The human characters, by the way, are played by the likes of Jim Parsons, Matt Bomer, Andrew Rannells, and Zachary Quinto.) Seconds Serdena, “We really had to convey the historical evolution of Michael and expand on clues that were embedded in the play.”
Not only did Michael (Parsons) have a specific backstory, so did his well-worn residence. Though it was shot on a Netflix soundstage in Los Angeles, “I was determined that it not be a Hollywood version of New York City,” Becker says. A longtime Manhattan resident, she envisioned the building as a former ballroom converted into a multilevel apartment sometime in the 1950s—just like her aunt and uncle’s old place on the Upper West Side. “I found floor plans for New York City apartments from that era so we could measure every detail, like the ceiling height,” she says. “It’s always nice to ground something in reality.” She also reasoned that Michael replaced the original staircase with a more cosmopolitan spiral one. (Her team bought it from an architectural salvage place in NYC and shipped it west.) And due to his lease, the walls are painted neutral white in accordance with his landlord, and slightly shaded: “When you live in the city you collect a lot of dust and dirt.”
Michael’s decor? In a word, eclectic. “He has a protective nest and his obsessions with comfort and luxury are things he might be clinging to or pursuing to avoid existential questions addressed within the story,” Serdana explains. The rust-velvet Victorian armchairs and gold-beige sofa from Omega Cinema-Props in L.A.—with the stuffing removed so the pieces would appear misshapen—are countered with more modern pieces like the zebra-skin rug. He and his team also rummaged through prop houses to populate the apartment with an assortment of chandeliers, pendant lamps, lamps with opaque metal shades and warm linen shades as the story progressed from sunset to late evening. He’s especially proud of the upright dark-wood piano in the corner, which is a Lyric model with crackle patina and was found on the internet. “It made the set look more dynamic—and it’s a repository for art and photographs,” he says.
The art on the walls, meanwhile, are reproduced posters that the production team picked via researching retro magazines and books. “We wanted to use art that celebrated the male form, as though his apartment was a sanctuary,” Serdana says. One work is a painting by Czech illustrator and graphic artist Alphonse Mucha. Another is a poster for the 1968 Lyric Opera in Chicago designed by the Russian-born French artist Romain de Tirtoff, who went by the pseudonym Erté. Becker found the latter painting on eBay during the beginning of The Boys in the Band prep. “It was one of the first things we bought,” she says. “And it’s one of the more colorful pieces, so it stands out.”
Nonetheless, Becker admits it’s the dated technology that will likely stand out to the viewers. That includes a black-and-white TV stuffed into a closet, a wooden stereo complete with a record player, and a beige rotary land-line telephone (bought from the Hand Prop Room in L.A.) that nearly every character uses during the party to call a onetime love. “I love doing period projects because it’s complicated and it just looks different,” she says. “If this were a suburban house in 2020, that might not have been as much fun.”
Originally Appeared on Architectural Digest