7 Secrets Of The Handmaid's Tale Set That Send a Message

Production designer Julie Berghoff, Elisabeth Moss, and Samira Wiley tell AD the hidden details to be on the look-out for

By Elizabeth Stamp, Architectural Digest

In the first episode of The Handmaid’s Tale, Offred, played by Elisabeth Moss, says of her new home with Commander Waterford and his wife, Serena Joy, “In this house little things mean everything.” In fact, Offred’s observation is also an apt description of the production itself—hidden within the rooms of the Waterford home and the world of Gilead, a fictional totalitarian regime within the Northeast United States, are tiny details that add meaning and amplify the dystopian story. 

[post_ads]“Everything was very purposeful,” says the production designer Julie Berghoff, who created everything for Hulu's hit adaption of Margaret Atwood's book of the same name: from Offred’s austere quarters to the Red Centers (the indoctrination centers for potential breeders), which are housed in former schools. Berghoff, with a little help from the show's stars Elisabeth Moss and Samira Wiley, took us through the minutiae of the first season’s sets, revealing quite a few secrets that even eagle-eyed viewers may have missed.
Offred’s Room Is Filled with Reminders of Things She Can No Longer Have
Production designer Julie Berghoff dressed Offred’s room with the bare necessities—things that might have been left behind by the previous owner or found in the basement. But the team also added a nod to Offred's former life in which she was a book editor and an avid lover of the written word (something that is now forbidden). “We put a desk there, but she can't write. So it's almost like a remnant, a remembrance of ‘Oh, I was a writer, an editor.
I can't even sit and write anymore,’” Berghoff says. Here's another thing to look for in the upcoming episodes: They also added the outline and remaining fixtures of a now-removed mirror. “They don’t want you to be vain anymore, so we basically put the shape of a mirror on the wall to make it feel like at one point there was a mirror there." Moss says she noticed something else missing in the room: “The most distinctive thing about Offred's bedroom is that there are no locks on the doors and there's nothing in there that you could hurt yourself with, so that's a political message as far as women's rights," Moss says.

The Costumes Drove the Color Palette
Berghoff says she wanted to support costume designer Ane Crabtree’s period costumes, while keeping the feel of the present day. She chose tones that would complement both the character’s stories and their wardrobes, such as a stark white for Offred’s room, which gives it the feel of a sanitarium. Rich blues, on the other hand, are reserved for spaces of Serena Joy, who is played by Yvonne Strahovski. “It was an opportunity to work with these beautiful colors in the caste system,” Berghoff says. “I basically almost designed each room specifically for that character.”

The Art Department Created Everything on the Grocery Store Shelves
“The grocery store was probably one of our hardest sets because we fabricated every single label there,” says Berghoff. Since reading is outlawed in Gilead, the team created a language of symbols. “My graphics team painstakingly designed hundreds and hundreds of labels and then applied them to certain things,” she adds. 
That detail is perhaps what makes it the most unsettling, considering that, with the exception of the peculiar labels that lack words, the brightly lit grocery store would not seem out of place in modern day. "When they go shopping, it's not in some old-timey-looking place," Wiley, who plays the handmaid Moira, says. "It's in a shopping center that looks like now. And I think those details make it a little scarier; it's really in the world we are living in right now."

Serena Joy’s Art Is Stolen
As the wife of Commander Waterford, who is played by Joseph Fiennes, Serena Joy is able to fill her home with artwork—a rarity in Gilead. “We pretended like they went into the Boston Museum of Modern Art and stole all their favorite paintings,” Berghoff says. “Serena Joy is a watercolorist, and she loves nature, so she picked Monets.” Art is a scarcity in this world, as is any culture that may cross a woman's path, so Serena Joy having any form of it in her life shows one more level of her privilege.

Even the Ceilings Were Purposefully Designed

“I had a lot of fun with the ceilings on this project,” says Berghoff. “I usually don't pay so much attention to ceilings, but there's a whole scene in an episode where Offred is looking at the ceiling.” She researched Italian Renaissance ceilings for the intricate designs of the Waterford home’s private quarters and added a map of the United States on the ceiling of the Commander’s office. “I felt like it was almost a dartboard for him, where he could sit in his chair and throw a dart up there and say, "Oh, we conquered Florida." The use of maps, in general, reflects the society's rejection of technology.

Offred’s Room Was Designed with Texture, Pattern, and Even Sound in Mind
Since Offred is trapped in her room for 15 days, Berghoff and her team added tactile elements for her to encounter during her enclosure. “We decided to go with that Chantilly bedspread so that she can touch things,” she says. “I found an elliptical wallpaper that had a pattern all over it and I plastered it so that when she touches the walls you can see all this texture.” 
Berghoff even made the floor creak. “The way I put the floorboards in and spaced the floor was very purposeful so that it had movement.” Perhaps she's biased, but Moss says Offred's room is her favorite room on set for many of these exact things Berghoff achieved. "It's exactly what I dreamed it would be from the book, with the window sills and the bed, and it's very spare," Moss says. "Even the floors are treated to look very old."

The Commander's Office Is Off Limits for Many Reasons

The production team wanted Commander Waterford’s office to encompass everything forbidden to women. “Books, art, sexual art, alcohol. He pulls out Scrabble, and I'm sure if he smoked he would be smoking cigars with the commanders in there,” Berghoff says. “I also played up the fact that they’re returning to their roots—like the Puritan days,” she adds. Again, the representation of maps and a compass is used here, and while the amount of books leaves Offred, as a former book editor, wide-eyed, the room remarkably (especially for an "office") lacks technology.


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Lifestyle Magazine: 7 Secrets Of The Handmaid's Tale Set That Send a Message
7 Secrets Of The Handmaid's Tale Set That Send a Message
Production designer Julie Berghoff, Elisabeth Moss, and Samira Wiley tell AD the hidden details to be on the look-out for
Lifestyle Magazine
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