How Where’d You Go, Bernadette’s Production Designer Created the Film’s Stunning Fictional Architecture

Feb 19, 2020 9:08PM

Architectural Digest, by Rachel Wallace, August 12,2019

(BoxHeart artist Kyle Ethan Fischer, Production Lead Sculptor. Artwork on set by Seth Clark, Kuzana Ogg, and John McLaughlin.) Photo: Wilson

You might not have heard of the architect Bernadette Fox, but in the fictional world of Maria Semple’s 2012 novel, Where’d You Go, Bernadette—and now in director Richard Linklater’s film adaptation of the story, out August 16—she is kind of a big deal. After studying at Princeton and working under legends like Frank Gehry, Bernadette (played by Cate Blanchett) received a MacArthur “genius grant.” She completed two projects that, in the story, remain iconic within the architecture community. Then she quit.

Now Bernadette is somewhat reclusive and quirky, to say the least. She lives with her tech-genius husband and their daughter in Seattle, which she loathes. Teenage Bee (Emma Nelson) is the light of her life; interacting with her seems to be the only thing that brings Bernadette any joy. So when Bee asks if they can take a family trip to Antarctica as a reward for her perfect report card, Bernadette says yes, even though she is terrified at the thought. In the weeks leading up to the vacation, flashbacks reveal more about Bernadette’s past as an architect, and the painful reason she left her career behind. At the same time, she seems to have reached a breaking point, and eventually she goes missing right as the family is supposed to be heading toward the South Pole.

Blanchett imbues Bernadette with the perfect mix of paranoia, vitriol, and cynicism, but as is the case with many architects, Bernadette’s work is just as much a part of her character as her mannerisms are. Which meant it was important to the film’s art department to create a cohesive aesthetic for her current home and her past projects. “Our style became Bernadette’s style. We had to create her,” the film’s production designer, Bruce Curtis, tells Architectural Digest. Two things provided a starting point for Curtis and his team. First, “she was on the forefront of really upcycling and being green,” he says. Second was her penchant for knitting. “I hate the word folky, but she has a piece in the folk medium,” says Curtis. “We looked at all the modernist furniture makers, woodworking, even down to folk art and treatments. We pulled from the entire art world.” To tie it all together, the team took cues from Eileen Gray, Zaha Hadid, Denise Brown, and Neri Oxman. “I believe she was a modernist at heart,” explains Curtis.

Early in the film, Bernadette’s home hints at her distaste for waste and her crafty style. She and her family live in a decrepit former school atop a large hill, with plenty of areas left unfinished (plants regularly poke through the floorboards, and Bernadette lovingly cuts holes in the carpet to give them more room to sprout), though a few choice rooms are decorated with style. It took three separate locations to create Strait Gate School for Girls for the film—a Pittsburgh studio for the kitchen, a Waldorf school for the hallways and Bee’s room, and for the rest of the home, a condemned Second Empire–Italianate house built in 1870 called the Hays Mansion.

“I had unearthed it through a book of landmark architecture of Allegheny County, Pennsylvania,” says Curtis. “I got that chill that I get as a designer when I saw it through the weeds.” After spending thousands of dollars and two months just to ensure that the house was safe for a crew to stand in, Curtis’s team dressed the home in jewel tones. “The wallpaper in the great room was a custom wallpaper from the 1900s. It was an original pattern, and we changed and altered the colors to join our palette,” says Curtis. “The blue that I had picked for most all the other rooms was a small chip that we found in the original and was a very popular color in the 1800s—a very utilitarian sort of steel gray that sort of fell in my jewel-tone range that I saw.”

The Beeber Bifocal house, built by artist Kyle Ethan Fischer, is adorned with art made from recycled eyeglasses. “Bernadette worked with what she had,” says Curtis. “She was very into upcycling.” Photo: Wilson Webb

The 20 Mile House is Bernadette’s crowning glory—a modern abode she constructed in Los Angeles using only materials found within a 20-mile radius from the site. And though Curtis and his team didn’t actually get to build it, they imposed the same parameters on themselves when creating the computerized renderings and plans shown in the movie. “We had a lot picked out off of Mulholland, and we were very mindful of the geography and the topography of how to lay this design in there, where it would, you know, be, and what your view would be,” he says.

In the end, Bernadette Fox’s fictional works are a fascinating amalgamation of all of the best real architects and artists of our time. Says Curtis, “We followed a great many things to arrive at her style.”

Architectural Digest

by Rachel Wallace

August 12, 2019