‘Where nobody speaks, everything speaks.’ The history of production design is far from hidden, or even overlooked – it’s right there in front of us, even if ‘good’ production design is frequently defined as that which does not call attention to itself. Misappropriated, is more like it – the very existence of the designer, and certainly the distinctions between their role and that of the director, are rarely acknowledged outside of the industry. The above quote, appropriated by Barnwell from Dietrich Neumann, refers specifically to the importance of visual design in the silent era but hints at the depths and subtleties that live on in the most thoughtfully designed, created or found physical worlds projected in front of our eyes today. So what do production designers actually do – and are they irked by their ongoing anonymity?
A production designer’s deep understanding not only of the script but of general trends in art, design and décor run in direct correlation with their level of success – as Barnwell notes, in the time it takes for a film to get from pre- to post-production, fashions come and go. Horrible traits like ‘taste’ and ‘discretion’ are a must if the look of a film is not to either overwhelm or exclude character and story and there’s a balance (another undesirable term) to be struck between capturing the zeitgeist and making a film timeless. Technological developments make it easy to place a film in its era; more conspicuous were the looks favoured by the different studios in the golden age: Universal was gothic, MGM was ‘grand bourgeois’, and Paramount favoured an art deco look.
The term Production Designer superceded ‘Art Director’ in 1939; 15 years earlier, a gang of them established the Cinemagundi Club, ‘the principal purpose of which was to let the world at large know the extent of their contributions’ (Kathleen Foley as quoted by Barnwell; the latter does not to see fit to expand on how they went about it – meticulously designed double-page ego spreads in the national press?). The role itself, aside from having as many precise definitions as there are movies, has also developed over the years, whether it be studio-based teams being replaced by freelancers (who, deprived of inhouse resources, would need to employ greater initiative and resourcefulness out in the real world) to Computer Aided Design.
There’s a lot of information in Architects Of The Screen (which, as part of Wallflower’s Shorts Cuts series, is intended as an overview or introduction to the subject) but it’s not always well organised or presented. Much of the book seems concerned with introducing what we are about to read, signposting what we will be able to read later, or reiterating what we may remember having read a few pages back. It’s often repetitive, often states the obvious, and is far from fulfilling; when Barnwell skims the surface of the meaning of surfaces, noting that in Amelie’s room ‘every book, poster and cushion adds to her appeal’ or that Norman Bates’ stuffed birds ‘indicate his disturbed mental state’, the reader is unlikely to find themselves levering their jaw from the carpet or snapping yet another smoking pencil tip against the page of their rapidly filling notebook. Quotations are awkwardly contextualised and integrated, although they can be enlightening and, along with a lengthy if undetailed bibliography, point to sources that would be beneficial for the more studious (or unsated) reader. The glossary is insufficient in range and depth, with at least one term missing despite being asterisked – and how’s this for a definition of Bauhaus: ‘a strong design style developed in Germany’.
This is strictly middle-of-the-road fare in intention and delivery, and perhaps that’s why it ultimately feels unsatisfying: it’s too general and brief to be of academic or training use, yet not anecdotal enough to be an entertaining read for the casual reader. Using a series of in-depth case studies as a jump off point for relevant digressions might have been more effective than the series of fleeting references to a multitude of films that it presents. Fair enough, Architects Of The Screen is not intended as a textbook and may well do what it sets out to, but that doesn’t make the self-set limits of the book any less frustrating.