My first gasp occurred during Season 1, as Robert Childan, an obsequious antiques dealer, bows and scrapes his way into the home of his clients Paul and Betty Kasoura. Paul is a wealthy lawyer who collects pre-war American memorabilia, and the Kasouras’ home was a midcentury modernism enthusiast’s dream. The large windows; the sleek flat lines of the polished woodwork; the multi-level, open-plan living spaces; the cool insouciance of the owners in their finely detailed and spacious home filled with understated, iconic design gems.
I’m speaking, of course, of Amazon’s “The Man in the High Castle,” a dystopian streaming series based on—and wildly divergent from—Philip K. Dick’s 1963 novella of the same name. The series intertwines parallel realities in which characters navigate what is and could have been. Specifically, “The Man in the High Castle” imagines that the Axis powers won World War II, with the Japanese Empire occupying the West Coast and the Nazi Reich lording over the rest of the country, except for a neutral zone along the Rocky Mountains.
The premise provided the show’s production designer Andrew Boughton with both opportunity and challenge in creating a midcentury world that’s familiar, yet straddles a fine, disruptive line with the uncanny. The details are richly imagined: the ornate wallpaper and fin de siècle furnishings in the antiques dealer’s abode; the Japanese Trade Minister’s office with rice paper and wood sliding doors; the tightly rolled shirtsleeves of the resistance fighters in San Francisco; and the tight silk shirtwaist dresses of the hausfraus in New York City’s Reich. But for midcentury design enthusiasts, Boughton achieves an apotheosis in the apartment décor for the reluctant double agent Juliana Crain and in the stately home of John and Helen Smith, him being the high-ranking Obergruppenfuhrer Smith.
Both interiors are gloriously displayed in Episode 8, “Loose Lips.” After Juliana “defects” to the Reich in New York City, Obergruppenfuhrer Smith takes her under his wing, determined to learn what she knows about The Man in the High Castle (who mysteriously “makes” films projecting alternate outcomes to the war and apocalyptic futures.) The Smiths ensconce Juliana in a single-girl apartment that’s a midcentury enthusiast’s dream: teak double-level coffee table, a three-cushioned couch with teak frame, teak armoire, teak lamps with beige shades (matching the couch upholstery) and teak vanity with mirror with teak pulls. Take a look.
The Smith home, in contrast, features a kitchen with copper pendant lamps over an island housing an electric cooktop. Adjacent, and embedded in the wood-paneled walls, are a bubble-like oven with a bulging glass front (does the food rotate inside as it roasts?) and two curved glass-and-steel shelves that function as a see-through refrigerator. A curved banquette with vinyl upholstery functions as the breakfast nook for the Smith family, as well as for coffee klatches among the officers’ wives.
Moreover, the level of detail throughout the scenes—from Helen Smith’s costume jewelry, a floral pin whose petals cradle a swastika, to a church re-hung with Nazi banners, its a steel-and-glass window wall overlooking a concrete office building with disciplined rows of windows—is at once shudder-inducing and, from a design point of view, awe-inspiring. The show’s fictional storylines may feel too close for comfort in our political climate, at present. But for design enthusiasts, especially aficionados of mid-century modernism, “The Man in the High Castle” is a feast for the eyes.
by Camille LeFevre