The Iconic Set Design Behind Hulu’s ‘The Great’
What makes modern set design iconic when it comes to recreating period pieces is finding fluidity between the classical components of the era and innovation. This requires set designers to step into the shoes of a designer that lived in 18th-century Russia and think creatively in this mindset to create evolutionary designs that could have very well been part of that place and time.
Hulu’s dramedy “The Great,” starring Elle Fanning as Catherine the Great, has amazed audiences with its whizzingly robust set that merges this period piece with mainstream culture. The lavishly intricate set design and extravagant quarters of the royals have placed this period piece among the best modern-classical productions made this century.
Understanding “The Great”
To truly comprehend the challenge that Production Designer, Francesca Mottola was up against in designing the set for “The Great,” one must understand 18th-century Russia and Catherine the Great herself. Early imperial Russia was static at the time, and was a partially westernized empire on the cusp of transformation. Until this point, there was no secular literature in Russia, but the 18th-century brought a wide array of secular poets and writers that flooded society with never before heard or seen avant-garde art, literature, music, and poetry.
The German-born princess (born Sophie Friederike Auguste) turned Russian empress of all traveled a difficult road before holding onto a 34-year reign, which was longer than all other female rulers that preceded her. Catherine was ambitious, smart, witty, charming, and embodied all of the needed qualities required to run an empire. Catherine’s love life was just as known as her passion for ruling, and it is believed that her husband was not the father of all her three children, including her heir.
Creating Unforgettable Sets
The story of Catherine the Great has the perfect set of ingredients ready and waiting to be churned into an epic visual journey, and Catherine’s actual story points remain highly relevant today. Bringing 18th-century Russia to life in the 20th century is a whole other challenge that requires in-depth knowledge of each character and a foundational understanding of Catherine the Great herself, Baroque art, Queen Anne and Georgian furniture, and the Tsarkoye Selo Palace in Russia.
It’s clear to see that making this epic masterpiece come to life required meticulous detail down to the very last table setting that dressed the extravagant dinner and celebration scenes in the show. The set is drenched in antiques and intricate gold leaf design that was done by hand.
The green marble walls in the corridor add a gorgeous backdrop to the long hall where much of the show’s drama unfolds. And the mad salon or “party room” is outfitted with long mirrored tables with oversized golden goblets that the wild party guests that frequent the palace indulge from.
The magnificence of this bold period piece comes to life because the vintage decor is folded superbly with modern-day raw glam fabrics, texture, and pure divine sizzle. The incredible production design allows for every room to tell a story and mimics the mood and essence of who Catherine and each character is at that time.
The live tree that lives in Leo’s (Sebastian De Souza) bedroom is not only astonishingly brilliant, it also illustrates incredible symbolism of the character’s journey, and is a natural art piece that blends well in a period setting. It’s also remarkable to witness that as Catherine the Great transforms, so do her surroundings, and the cycle of the set design is remarkably agile.
The fusion of vintage baroque and modern interior design in “The Great” helps audiences relate to this period piece in a new way, and makes the setting, and therefore the story, far more believable. Getting to the heart of style is what allows for this seamless unification, and the masses have been officially charmed into this revolutionary piece dedicated to one of the greatest historical rulers in history.