The houses of ‘Gatsby’: Q&A with production designer Catherine Martin

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The 21st century soundtrack to Baz Luhrmann’s splashy remake of “The Great Gatsby” may be a head-scratcher, but design fans can’t quibble with the period sets created by production designer Catherine Martin.

“The phone has been ringing off the hook,” said Frank Pollaro, a custom furniture maker renowned for reproductions of Jazz Age designs. “People are falling in love with Art Deco again.”

Pollaro, who wasn’t involved in the film’s production, isn’t the only one noting how much excitement the film’s period design has managed to generate. The look of the film’s set is rooted in Martin’s extensive historical research, which took her through old Long Island mansions and beyond, not to mention the pages of the 1925 novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald.


PHOTO GALLERY: Inside the homes of “The Great Gatsby”

Martin, who won two Oscars for the production design and costume design of “Moulin Rouge,” talked with L.A. at Home about the homes in “Gatsby”: what was real, what was imagined and where she got those fabulous furnishings and floral arrangements.

Gatsby’s place looks like a Disneyland castle. What’s the story?

It’s actually St. Patrick’s, an old seminary in Sydney [Australia]. We put faux ivory on the first two stories and digitally enhanced the turrets. There were palm trees in front that had to be taken out and replanted, and we built a fountain.

The interiors certainly have a money-is-no-object glamour.

I looked at a lot of early 20th century mansions on the north shore of Long Island for inspiration. We installed a grand staircase that was based on the one in La Selva, an Italian villa built in the teens. And we made and milled all of the floors including a marquetry Gatsby monogram in different wood veneers. In the dining room of the Buchanan house, we had custom paper made from DeGournay. It was hand painted on silk dupioni and took three weeks to create. If you go to old houses on Long Island you will see painted Chinese wallpaper, which was big in the 18th century. Throughout history, notable, established families have always tried to link to the 18th century.


The film has not only antique rugs but also Art Deco rugs that seem enormous. Were they custom?

Absolutely. I created a Deco collection for Designer Rugs in Australia, and luckily for me, they were able to make very large versions in a very short time. The oval ones in the Buchanan dining room and salon, inspired by Chinese phoenix motifs and pearl jewelry, were 290 square feet each. They can also be ordered in standard and custom sizes and shipped around the world.

How did you arrive at Gatsby’s two-story master bedroom design?

The rest of the house has old-money furniture with new-money Art Deco touches. This room is totally of-the-moment modern. The references for the furniture are Emile Jacques Ruhlmann, who pioneered Art Deco in France. The walls are a nod to Philippe Starck’s lobby design at the Delano Hotel in Miami.

What was the inspiration for those outrageous floral sprays in Gatsby’s house?

I looked at interiors done by Elsie de Wolfe, but the main influence was Constance Spry, probably the most famous florist in London in the 1930s and a favorite of the duchess of Windsor. For her time, she was extremely wild and surrealist, adding cabbage leaves and unexpected country garden things to arrangements. We chose to put a ludicrous number of flowers, particularly orchids, because that would’ve required hothouses and would represent Gatsby’s extraordinary wealth. Constance Spry was one of the first people to put flowers in urns and ceramic swans and other unusual containers, but her arrangements tended to be a little less full. I chose to override her style a little bit and fill the arrangements out. The modern eye wouldn’t understand such a deliberate period look.


The Harlem apartment of Tom Buchanan’s mistress also has a giddy gaudiness. How did you achieve that?

I worked with Karman Grech, who has original wallpaper sample books from the 1920s and had a floral with lots of red and pink reproduced. In the Fitzgerald book it says the couch is upholstered in something that looked like the 18th century painting of a girl in a swing by Fragonard. So we had that digitally printed onto the upholstery fabric. That was a hard one to describe to Baz, but when he saw the fabric and wallpaper, he said, “I’m totally on board.”

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