‘Behind the Candelabra’ explores ‘70s home design, Liberace-style

For all the razzle-dazzle of costumes worn by Michael Douglas in his uncanny incarnation as Liberace in the HBO film “Behind the Candelabra” — the crystals! the sequins! the furs! — the revelation for design fans will be lavish sets that sparkle with late ’70s and early ’80s style.

It’s a look that, for better or for worse, is experiencing a revival among contemporary designers just in time for the movie’s premiere Sunday.

“There was a lot of glamour in the ‘70s that really has not been repeated since,” Los Angeles designer Kelly Wearstler said, citing Pierre Cardin interiors as particularly noteworthy during that transitional era.

PHOTOS: The over-the-top homes of “Behind the Candelabra”

Wearstler, who was not involved in “Behind the Candelabra,” gave many reasons why elements of the look are coming back. “An air of excess, for sure, but tempered with a sense of optimism and modernity that looked towards the future,” she said. “Color was much more adventurous, and casual elegance ruled.”


Of course, “casual elegance” might seem incongruous when talking about Liberace. An inveterate shopper, he ranged from tasteful to tacky.

“He’d buy an expensive antique and put it right next to a trashy thrift shop piece,” said “Behind the Candelabra” production designer Howard Cummings, who has worked with director Steven Soderbergh on several films, including the recent “Side Effects” and “Magic Mike.”

Shot in Los Angeles, Palm Springs and Las Vegas, where Liberace’s homes adhered to that aesthetic, the movie plays with a dichotomy of design.

“He could have bought a very expensive property,” said Cummings, who had just six weeks of prep time and a made-for-cable budget. “He was one of the highest-paid performers of his time, but instead he purchased three lower-end houses, put a big mansard roof over all of them and called it Hollywood Regency. Then he just put in tons of marble, chandeliers and mirrors.”

The apartment of Liberace’s lover, Scott Thorson (Matt Damon), was re-created in a Beverly Boulevard penthouse that Liberace once owned. Standing in for Liberace’s Vegas home is Zsa Zsa Gabor’s 1955 Bel-Air mansion, formerly inhabited by Howard Hughes and still occupied by the ailing 96-year-old actress. Her husband, Frederic Prinz von Anhalt, allowed the production to take over several rooms and redecorate, inside and out.

“We had to drill holes in the ceilings to hang 800-pound chandeliers,” said Cummings, who also got permission to drain the pool, paint piano keys on the sides and add a big “L” on the bottom — just like Liberace’s original.

The production designer had tons of research at his disposal, including catalogs of the entertainer’s estate sales and videos of his TV specials from the ‘70s. (“His Valentine’s Day special was my favorite,” Cummings said. “Lola Falana and Sandy Duncan were guests, and it included a tour of the house, so I got to see everything!”)

Producer Jerry Weintraub convinced the Liberace Foundation to lend pianos, but prop houses supplied much of the rest, including chandeliers.

“Lincoln” was shooting at the same time as we were, but we’d grabbed all the old chandeliers in L.A. and they were freaking out,” Cummings said with a laugh.

For the adventurous, does the movie provide some design takeaways? “You can absolutely Liberacisize your apartment,” Cummings said. “Hang some chandeliers — everyone looks better in that lighting anyway — mirror everything, buy furniture in pairs and remember: More is always better.”

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