Director and cowriter Tom Dolby says he “unconsciously” wrote The Artist’s Wife to fit a modernist home with a white exterior once owned by friends of his in East Hampton, New York. “When we looked for the perfect white modern house [to film], my mind exploded when we saw it,” he tells AD. The 1970s-era dwelling had been painted black since he’d last been there. “I had a come-to-Jesus moment and realized maybe it was supposed to be black all along. We looked at over 50 houses with modernist architecture and there was a lot of junk, and this house had such an elegant design to it,” he says. Filmed against a striking white snowfall in the dead of winter, it provided the perfect setting for the home of the fictional celebrated abstract artist Richard Smythson (played by Bruce Dern) and his wife Claire (Lena Olin).
The drama (available on iTunes, Amazon Prime Video, and Laemmle Virtual Cinema now) tells the tale of an eccentric artist in the twilight of his career facing the early stages of dementia. His faithful wife and muse, who gave up a successful career as an artist to become the proverbial woman behind the man, begins to look for her own identity after years of staying in the shadows. It’s a story that hits close to home for Dolby. “My father had been diagnosed with dementia right around the time I started writing a story about the unsung heroine,” he says. “I had seen so many creative relationships, such as Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner, where the wife was so supportive. Hitchcock would not have been Hitchcock without his wife, and she never got the credit she deserves.”
The house provides subtle details in this character study filled with metaphors and idiosyncrasies. One peek into Claire’s well-ordered Sub-Zero gives us a glimpse of anal-retentiveness at its finest. It is where she finds a semblance of control among the chaos. “Claire was anal and highly regimented, so it’s a simple look at how her mind worked at that time, as her creativity needed some way to come out,” says production designer John El Manahi. “I had to find these little ways to portray things like this.” The house pays homage to Richard’s work and that of contemporary artists. His studio is messy, cluttered, and as the designer notes, “a metaphor for the state of his mind” as he repeatedly paints a canvas white. Conversely, Claire’s soothing barn studio becomes a “womb” where she retreats and paints against a color palette of warm browns, burnt sienna, and ochre.
Works inspired by artists such as Richard Serra, Mark Rothko, Robert Motherwell, and Franz Kline represent the couple’s years as avid art collectors. Since obtaining permission rights for artwork is a Herculean challenge, El Manahi did double duty as an artist, creating a collection in record time. The designer, who spent three years at the Accademia di Belle Arti in Florence, notes, “I recreated all those paintings in the style of those artists [for Richard’s work] and did 18 large-scale paintings. I also created a few reproductions in the style of Motherwell and Rothko.”
The interiors reflect the couple’s love of midcentury furniture curated over the years. “We wanted to establish contrasts between the different environments that Claire and Richard inhabit that were reflective of their characters and journey,” explains Dolby. Working with set decorator Tricia Peck, he and El Mahani provided a laundry list of iconic 20th-century pieces such as Marcel Breuer’s Wassily Chair and Arne Jacobsen’s Egg Chair. “They say the best way to make something real is to use something that is fake—in this case we needed to use real and rented pedigree vintage furnishings from dealers from the Hamptons and New York City.” The color palette is very clean, with a mix of black, white, and gray with pops of red and yellow that allow the artwork to speak for itself. Claire’s Swedish heritage and love of Scandinavian design is reflected in the Marimekko dinnerware.
For Claire’s visit to the vestiges of her former life in Manhattan, El Manahi created an art gallery at the New Museum. He enlisted Manhattan performance and video artist Rob Roth to create the vibrant and colorful “Retro-Respective” installation, which is the work of Claire’s larger-than-life colleague Ada Risi (played by Stefanie Powers) in the film. The scene represents a stark contrast to her quiet world with Richard in the Hamptons, as well as the road not taken.
Originally Appeared on Architectural Digest