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Tuesday, March 25, 2014
WHAT I LOVE | DEREK MCLANE
A Scenic Designer’s West Village Home
By JOANNE KAUFMAN
Published: September 12, 2013
There is nothing remotely funny about Derek McLane’s West Village apartment. Still, the first time Mr. McLane’s three children walked into his elegant living room, they burst out laughing.
Hey, what’s the joke, Dad wanted to know.
“And they said, ‘it looks like one of your sets,’ ” recalled Mr. McLane, 55, a scenic designer whose résumé includes the Broadway shows “Nice Work If You Can Get It,” “I Am My Own Wife” as well as “The Heiress,” “Anything Goes,” “Gore Vidal’s the Best Man,” “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying” and “Follies.”
“It looks like one of your sets” was also the reaction of a number of Mr. McLane’s director friends to the large assemblage of vintage industrial lamps arranged in compartments around the fireplace and to the vintage typewriters lined up on a counter in the kitchen.
“I have a real fascination with repeating objects,” Mr. McLane said.
When he and his wife split up two and a half years ago and Mr. McLane moved out of the family’s Gramercy Park apartment, he looked at dozens of rentals, all with one thing in common: they were depressing. Stumbling on the brownstone, he was immediately captivated by the high ceilings, the well-laid-out kitchen, the beautifully proportioned rooms and the tall elegant windows overlooking the street.
The bookshelves that flanked the living room fireplace? Actually, those he could have done without.
“I didn’t have any books with me, and I’m not particularly fond of books as a main design feature in a living room unless you happen to have an extraordinarily beautiful collection of gorgeous-looking books,” said Mr. McLane, who’s up for an Emmy — the broadcast is Sept. 22 — thanks to his set design for this year’s Oscars ceremony. Suffice it to say lots of repeating objects were involved.
“I thought, ‘you know what? Forget it. I’m not going to put any books up. Why don’t I do something from some sets I designed that I really like?’ ” A major inspiration was “33 Variations,” a play that unfolds in the Beethoven archives in Bonn. Mr. McLane conjured a Tony Award-winning mise-en-scène that featured masses of cardboard boxes in varying shades of gray.
“They were in very neat little stacks — it was Germany, after all,” he said with a laugh. “Then we put a tiny lamp under each grouping and were able to light them in different ways. I looked at the shelves in my living room and thought I would love it if I could make them a light source, too.
“I had a couple of kind of cool old task lamps, factory lamps that they put on sewing machines and architecture tables,” Mr. McLane said. “Some were just office lamps, but they all had goosenecks or articulated arms. And I found a bunch more on eBay to sort of fill in the collection.”
He took out most of the shelving, fashioned discrete chambers backed with antiqued mirrors, then arranged the lamps within, all facing the same direction. “They’re on a dimmer switch,” he added, “so they can be lit at this incredibly low level and they provide this warm kind of romantic glow.”
The change in his domestic circumstances, and the move downtown with barely a stick of furniture have forced Mr. McLane into a role he’s never played before: designer of his own space. No proscenium involved and no curtain, unless you want to count the white gauze ones that frame the trio of windows in the living room and pool around the oak floor.
“Twenty years ago, I was concerned with other things — my young children,” he said. “I thought ‘now I’m going to create a set for my new life.’ ”
But offstage as well as on, certain facts require facing, chief among them the sketchbook has to make nice with the checkbook. “The work that I did on the apartment was minimal because I didn’t want to waste money doing structural things, even repainting,” said Mr. McLane, who originally signed a two-year lease, then a two-year extension. “I geared the stuff that I did toward things that were portable or dismantle-able.”
So he has wallpaper that would fit nicely into a production of “Gaslight” and can be easily peeled away, no need for a paint touch-up. The portable category includes a pair of wingback chairs. Mr. McLane bought the frames at a furniture store and had them covered in gray and vibrant pink damask.
“They were so deep and so giant, but I loved the ridiculous size of the wing,” he said. “Rather than get smaller chairs, I had the guy who upholstered them cut them down and splice them back together.”
The modestly priced (a pedestal table from Ethan Allen) comfortably shares quarters with items that were costly but irresistible (a steel coffee table with laser cutouts). The industrial (a 19th-century factory cart) nicely coexists with the refined — a white orchid. Mr. McLane’s present (represented by a quartet of framed posters for the rock group Jane’s Addiction, a gift from his girlfriend) meets his past halfway (a wooden carved head of Ganesh that Mr. McLane picked up on a trip to India more than three decades ago).
“After I bought it, I didn’t have enough money left to pay the departure tax and get to the airport, so I took to the streets of Old Delhi to sell my clothes,” he recalled. “I made enough to pay the tax and to buy a drink on the plane.”
Mr. McLane, who was born in London and grew up in Evanston, Ill., designed his first set for a production of “Guys and Dolls” during his sophomore year at Harvard. “At that point I became completely obsessed,” said Mr. McLane, who received an M.F.A. from the Yale School of Drama, then moved to New York, where he at first worked as an assistant to established scenic designers. This season he’ll be doing the set design for “Beautiful,” a Broadway bio of the singer-songwriter Carole King, and a live television production of “The Sound of Music.”
Bringing his work home has been a pleasure. “I feel like my apartment is really connected to my design aesthetic,” Mr. McLane said. “What I’m proud about is that I’ve put together a bunch of disparate objects, a lot of them suggesting the end of the 19th century or the beginning of the 20th. I think the combination feels modern, but also warm and romantic. And I think it’s as richly textured as I’m able to do in a rental.”
Friday, March 14, 2014
Join me and Sean Mathias at Opera America/The National Opera Center for a free conversation about our careers. We will be discussing the relationship between director and designer, our approaches to projects, and our creative processes.
Monday, March 24, 6:30pm – 8:00pm
Opera America/The National Opera Center
330 Seventh Avenue
New York, NY 10001
RSVP to Conversations@SDCweb.org
About the participants:
Sean Mathias has received global acclaim from Northern Ireland to New Zealand, from the West End to Broadway. He has earned an Edinburgh Fringe First Award, a Prix de la Jeunesse at the Cannes Film Festival, a London Critics’ Circle Award, and an Evening Standard Award, as well as nominations for Olivier and Tony Awards. He was artistic director of the Theatre Royal Haymarket in 2009–10 where he staged Waiting for Godot starring Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart, and the debut production of Breakfast at Tiffany’s.
Derek McLane's Scenic Design credits include: Broadway: Beautiful, The Heiress, Nice Work If You Can Get It, The Best Man, Follies, Anything Goes, How to Succeed in Business…, Bengal Tiger in the Baghdad Zoo…., Million Dollar Quartet, Ragtime, 33 Variations (Tony Award, Best Scenic Design), Grease, Little Women, The Pajama Game, I Am My Own Wife, The Women, Present Laughter. Off-Bway: Ruined, Lie of the Mind, Marie and Bruce, Starry Messenger, The Voysey Inheritance, Two Trains Running, Macbeth (Shakespeare in the Park), Hurlyburly, Abigail's Party, Aunt Dan and Lemon. Recently designed the 2013 and 2014 Oscars, as well as NBC’s Sound of Music, Live. Opera and theatre designs in London, Paris, Dublin, Glasgow, Moscow, Krakow, Sydney, and Warsaw. AWARDS: Winner of 1997, 2004 OBIE Awards, 2004, 2005, 2007 Lucille Lortel Awards; 2009 Tony Award, 2011 Drama Desk Award, 2013 Emmy Nomination. He is member of the board of directors of the New Group and a mentor with TDF’s Open Doors program.