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How an L.A. designer set the stage for unity at the Democratic convention

There were moments during the opening hours of the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, as the boos rained down, when it seemed as if the party’s progressive and moderate wings were being held together with paper clips and baling wire.

The mood was less volatile during the roll-call vote that officially gave Hillary Clinton the nomination Tuesday, even as some Bernie Sanders supporters marched outside Wells Fargo Center. But uncertainty remained. How much of the noise, the background rumble of unease, would come back?

The stage on which this shaky détente was reached, designed by Bruce Rodgers of the firm Tribe Inc., seemed almost to anticipate the acrimony. The set is unfussy, even workmanlike, not far in spirit from one of Sanders’ off-the-rack charcoal suits. A broad-shouldered podium, a dozen steps up from the convention floor, is set atop a squat, circular base and within a ring of white stars on a wide blue carpet.

Each of these details is minor and forgettable in isolation, but neither party takes any of them for granted. This is about winning a national election, and together, the design decisions create a visual message that is obsessively considered, tweaked and worried over.

Unlike the set at last week’s Republican National Convention, which was sleeker and more imposing, the Democrats’ stage is meant to be approachable. Not quite blue-collar, but stripped of airs. Trying to look economical without looking cheap. Certainly distinct from the futuristic glow we saw in Cleveland.

If the GOP went for consistently dark and angry speechmaking on a streamlined set, the Democrats have turned that relationship inside out. The stage by Rodgers — in collaboration with the convention’s executive producer, Ricky Kirshner, and its chief executive, Leah Daughtry —  is blunt and direct, and the rhetoric both onstage and on the convention floor somewhere between wide-ranging and cacophonous. (Credits for Rodgers’ firm, which has offices in Connecticut and Marina del Rey, include the 2012 Democratic convention in Charlotte, N.C., and a number of Super Bowl halftime shows.)

More meaningful in terms of the struggle for togetherness in Philadelphia has been the imagery spilling across the huge digital video boards set up behind and above the podium, particularly the woven, wicker-like design that has emerged, oddly enough, as this convention’s dominant visual symbol.

Though its precise shade has shifted from speaker to speaker — sometimes navy blue, others a sensible gray — the basket-weave pattern provided a consistent unspoken message: The goal this week is not so much to quash the rebellious pro-Bernie contingent as to knit it into the fabric of party unity.

Let the shouters shout. The set design aimed to look one step ahead, ready to turn arguments seemingly at cross purposes into a picture of diverse cooperation.

That’s the most optimistic spin, anyway. There were moments when the trompe l'oeil backdrop looked more like a ham-handed attempt to introduce a hint of domesticity without looking soft or (God forbid!) overtly feminine, a homespun scene run through a toughness filter and given a faint metallic sheen. A kitchen tableau with a color scheme borrowed from the Army-Navy game.

On Twitter, the arts writer Tyler Green likened the pattern to a curiosity of Midwestern architecture: the former headquarters of the Longaberger Co.  in Newark, Ohio, which is designed as a seven-story replica of one the baskets made by the company.

Using digital effects to suggest texture and craft is also something of a contradiction in terms — and all the more noticeable in a convention nominating a divisive figure like Clinton, whose Achilles heel has been her reputation for a lack of authenticity.

At midweek, with a sense that the Democrats had managed to keep a lid on the proceedings, if only barely, the hopefulness of the woven pattern could at least be spun as earnest and a little bit hokey instead of ridiculous.

It might have been touch-and-go there for a while, but the warp and weft have held.

Live coverage of the Democratic convention »

At both conventions, the dominance of digital screens has suggested how stage design is increasingly as much a pixelated as three-dimensional art form.

The kind of fluid, ever-changeable architecture we’ve been waiting to see in significant form in our cityscapes — digital screens wrapping whole blocks, Times Square slowly taking over the skyline — is emerging most dramatically, it turns out, in the realm of televised spectacle.

As with the Republicans, whose Apple-style set grew more martial-looking and less subtle as the week went on, with Trump giving his speech beneath letters that practically matched the Hollywood sign in scale as they spelled out his name, the stage design in Philadelphia may evolve and even morph a bit. There are always bells and whistles held in reserve for Thursday night. And already, perhaps in response to online criticism, more American flags have appeared on the stage. 

In at least one sense the discord, even the anger of the Sanders die-hards, has been useful fodder. The line of the week so far belongs to Michelle Obama, who said about criticism of her husband and doubts about his citizenship and religion, “When they go low, we go high.”

If you’re going to give speeches that make a point of rising above the fray, it helps if you’ve got a fray right there at your feet, at the base of your podium, to rise above.

christopher.hawthorne@latimes.com

On Twitter: @HawthorneLAT

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