“Wow, this is a bold lady for 1961!,” thought “Julia” production designer Patrizia von Brandenstein when she saw the vibrant colors culinary icon Julia Child chose for her home kitchen. She was tasked with recreating Julia and husband Paul Child’s Cambridge, MA house for the HBO Max series, whose first season shows the beloved cook developing and shooting the early episodes of her series “The French Chef.” Watch our exclusive video interview above.
To bring Julia’s kitchen to life, von Brandenstein drew on papers and documents that the Childs gifted to Harvard’s Schlesinger Library. “They left their papers including their plans for the kitchen… the original renovation of the house, photographs, and there are detailed descriptions,” notes the production designer of what resources she had to guide her work. Those materials gave her a glimpse into Julia’s style. She observes that the star cook “believed in strong color just like she believed in strong flavor,” pointing out that Julia combined “lime green and pink and yellow and the basic blue-green all in the same kitchen.”
WATCH our exclusive video interview with ‘Julia’ creator and showrunner Daniel Goldfarb and Chris Keyser
Child made “The French Chef” for public station WGBH, and von Brandenstein brought the television studio to life. Since this streaming series focuses on the making of a TV series, the production designer needed to procure period-accurate television cameras, which she tracked down from the “wonderful motion picture museum in Rhode Island.” She notes that series crew member Robert Schleining actually worked at the old WGBH back in those days and helped her elevate the show’s authenticity. The Oscar-winning designer, who took home the award for “Amadeus” in 1985, also had the opportunity to resurrect the defunct department store Jordan Marsh in the first episode, which she did in part by studying “old newspapers” from the period, noting, “I think we took good care to observe her life and her world.”
For a series centering on Julia Child, food has a pivotal role in the set decoration. “The food in the show is as much a character as our actors,” stresses von Brandenstein, who adds, “We knew it had to be absolutely safe and absolutely delicious.” She credits the series’ food stylist Christine Tobin for ensuring the food always looked incredible, no matter how many hours they were shooting in a particular day. “The sauces glisten, the vegetables almost crunch when you look at them!,” shares the designer says with gusto.
In the second half of the season, Julia often travels to cities including San Francisco and New York as “The French Chef” grows in popularity. The production designer describes how Boston and its surrounding towns served as stand-ins for these vastly different locales. For one outdoor scene that takes place on a foggy San Francisco pier, von Brandenstein notes with a laugh, “Boston has fog, too.” The episode in New York takes the audience into a ballroom in the Waldorf Astoria and a suite in the Pierre Hotel, famous places that the designer says she crafted “with care.” For the exterior shots, she notes that it certainly helped that “the foliage is essentially the same” between New York and Massachusetts.
“Julia” has been renewed for a second season. Although von Brandenstein could not divulge any specific details, she did offer a small tease, sharing, “We know we have to vary our scenery and we have to vary the cities, because Julia traveled a great deal and she had a beloved place in France that she adored, and perhaps we’ll see it.”
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