HBO’s new series Lovecraft Country is a fantastical sci-fi drama full of history, timely cultural metaphors, symbolism, and detail-oriented period interiors. Based on Matt Ruff’s 2016 book of the same name, which in turn was inspired by the work of early 20th-century author H. P. Lovecraft, the tale begins with three Chicagoans embarking on a nightmarish road trip. There’s Korean War vet and pulp fiction fan Atticus Freeman (played by Jonathan Majors), photographer Leticia “Leti” Dandridge (Jurnee Smollett), and Atticus’s Uncle George (Courtney B. Vance), the publisher of the Safe Negro Travel Guide, a fictionalized version of the real-life Negro Motorist Green Book, a resource for Black Americans traveling during the Jim Crow era. The trio is in search of Freeman’s missing father, and viewers see them encounter numerous evils during their trip—both supernatural and very, very real.
Set in the 1950s, the 10-episode series features connecting stories highlighting the indignities of the racial caste system of the time. The characters face being chased out of whites-only restaurants, bigoted cops in “sundown towns,” and the occasional menacing land-burrowing monsters—an apt metaphor for racism, and as big a threat. In episode two, after their journey from Chicago to New England, the trio lands at Ardham Lodge, the Massachusetts estate of Samuel Braithwaite (played by Tony Goldwyn). As the head of security for the Aryan society “Sons of Adam,” the family patriarch turned scientist and occultist lures Freeman into a ceremony that will ensure societal order as well as immortal life for Braithwaite.
Production designer Kalina Ivanov’s first edict to the scouting crew was a tall order: a Biltmore-type estate outside of Atlanta, where the series is filmed. Since there are few architectural-styled estates of that period there that resemble eastern Massachusetts, Ivanov’s goal was to “marry Henry VIII Tudor with the ‘American baron’ style of the Biltmore.” The crew found this in an old mansion an hour outside of the city. Since the estate did not have the scale needed nor the requisite glass ceiling dome, they filmed the staircase and grounds on location, while the rest of the interiors were constructed on a soundstage.
Ivanov designed the interiors with a special eye to detail, offering clues about each of the characters. As the travelers arrive at the lodge, they gleefully find well-appointed rooms and fully stocked closets. “Each set was built for the character’s dream environment,” notes the designer. “For Leti, I wanted a 1930s movie star Hollywood set that was circular so we could shoot at a 360-degree angle as she dances around the room (to the tune of the Jeffersons television theme song ‘Movin’ On Up.)’” A French style gilt-accented wardrobe cabinet and a risqué stained glass design complete the interior, along with a hand-painted Tree of Life–style mural on the walls. And since space was at a minimum, the room was employed twice, once for Atticus’s simple needs and again for Uncle George’s antique-filled bedroom, with a dream library and fireplace.
Atlanta-based set decorator Summer Eubanks and her resourceful team of buyers scoured the city and its environs for period pieces. “Since there are no prop houses in Atlanta, Summer had to rely on the monthly market and antique fairs,” says Ivanov.
Controversial writer H.P. Lovecraft introduced protoplasmic beasts known as shoggoths in his ’30s sci-fi novels At the Mountains of Madness and Funghi From Yoggoth, and Ruff’s pouncing pit-bull-like monsters are far more terrifying. (Lovecraft’s racist beliefs are well documented, and Ruff’s modern book seeks to turn his world on its head, using monsters inspired by Lovecraft’s in a story that highlights the darkness of the Jim Crow South.)
Ivanov used these creatures symbolically in the interiors. “We had so much fun designing the corridors to make them feel menacing, and created arches that specifically resemble the teeth of the shoggoths,” she says. “The arches look masculine and gorgeous, and when you see their teeth, you feel a sense of danger.” The estate also boasts a stylish laboratory that doubles as a dining room and the setting for the “Order of the Sons” ceremony. She created an entire visual language of symbols for the design, with the hand-painted circular floor pattern reflecting the glass ceiling dome and the black-and-white designs serving as a symbol for racial struggle. “The patterns are very specific and related to the Order of the Sons and the magic of the ceremony,” notes the designer, who channeled the inventor Nikola Tesla for the scene’s electrical show. “The main symbol for the order is a half sun, which is painted on the floor. I wanted to create a very masculine graphic, as the order doesn’t allow women.” For inspiration, she went back in time to Babylonian, also known as Assyrian, script. “I love the letters’ sharp edges that are strong and almost modern, and wanted to have a sense of danger and menace as to continue the theme of sharp teeth,” she adds.
The laboratory/dining room’s handmade light fixtures are also of note, as the designer focuses on every last detail. “If you pay attention to the way the dome ends, there is a metal fixture with two snakes holding it; they are like little gold pieces, and every arch ends with a snake.” Filming the mansion scenes in candlelight added to the aesthetic. “Candlelight can be both seductive and frightening,” Ivanov explains. “It also reinforces the idea we are in a mythical place that only those who are ‘invited’ can find. For me, this episode was Frankenstein meets Eyes Wide Shut.”
There's tons to unpack in this series, so be sure to tune in with a sharp eye. Lovecraft Country airs Sunday nights on HBO at 9 p.m.
Lovecraft Country Is Packed With Supernatural Symbolism
Originally Appeared on Architectural Digest