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Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water illustrates how wallpaper can create an entire world

Sally Hawkins in Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water.

Bradbury & Bradbury

Awash with faded opulence, Guillermo del Toro's adult fairy tale The Shape of Water is a Cold War-era love story between a lab cleaner and the unusual water creature housed at the Baltimore lab where she works.

Filmed in Toronto in the fall of 2016 (and opening in Toronto on Dec. 8), Shape includes locations such as Elgin Theatre and Massey Hall, where the exterior stands in for a turn-of-the-century theatre-turned-movie-palace called the Orpheum, where both Sally Hawkins's and Richard Jenkins's characters live. Their neighbouring apartments (built on a set) each share half the once-grand arched window.

Creating the film's functional wet environment, including an entire set submersible in a tank of water, was its own technical feat, but the film's overall production design is also a staggering aesthetic achievement. The film's Canadian production designer, Paul Austerberry (X-Men, Pompeii), says it was, in many ways, a dream project.

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The research-facility labs are a subterranean world of rusty pipes, teals and creamy spearmint-green tile housed in a concrete Brutalist building (Austerberry studied architecture at Carleton University before entering the film industry). The creature's low-stepped holding pool architecture is reminiscent of a ziggurat, with the pipes radiating in a semi-circular fashion, like the sun of a god temple.

Both Austerberry and costume designer Luis Sequeira's teams worked from the same 100 initial colours (picked on day one of production from six hefty Benjamin Moore chip decks), so that palettes of where the characters live and what they wear are seamless visually. "Eliza's apartment would be in cyan, blues and aqua colours, while [neighbour and best friend] Giles is into mustards and golds and wood browns with much more warmth, essentially," Austerberry says.

Above three thick artfully aged layers of crimson, green and yellow peeling paint, for example, the Orpheum corridor features a hand-printed Louis Sullivan-inspired frieze called Chicago. And throughout Eliza's apartment, there is the Anglo-Japanese style of wallpaper (think Japanese meets high Victorian Gothic) in a repeating curved grid pattern of scales called Eastlake. Both pick up on the fictional building's backstory (of a theatre retrofitted some time in the late 1920s) and on the watery nature of the romantic plot.

The production department's set decorator Shane Vieau sourced the apartment wallpapers from Bradbury & Bradbury, a small California firm that crafts historic wallpapers using the same hand silkscreen technique and inks used wallpaper's original Victorian heyday. Before he spoke with me, the firm's artistic director, Stephen Bauer, watched the movie's trailer and was thrilled to spot several of their papers suitably aged and distressed to suggest time and wear.

Bauer explains that Bradbury's design was adapted from an original 1877 wallpaper remnant in the Cooper Hewitt design museum collection, and that the Anglo-Japanese style that was popular in the 1880s would have made its way to Maryland when British decorative arts were being promoted by Oscar Wilde on his cross-country American tour. And gleaming reproduction period wallpapers such as theirs are experiencing a revival. "The appeal, to me, is in a way being able to create a time machine with something that's from the past and walk around in it," Bauer says. Of Bradbury prints with shades of metallic inks, he explains: "It's not the same kind of gold you see in foil or offset printing. It's the same in its basic ingredients they were using in the 19th century, which is not ink but bronze powder – aluminum, tin and bronze, heat-treated to create colours. It's actual metal flakes that you're printing in a transparent medium."

"I chose it because there's a detail trim of it like the fish scales from Japanese woodcuts at the time," Austerberry says, "though we did so much distress on it! Guillermo loves his aging. It sounds cheesy to say," he adds, "but there are so many things in that set shaped by dripping water, we imagined there had once been a fire that was put out." Other narrative themes recur as decorative motifs throughout Eliza's apartment. "We found some vintage 1930s linoleum in her kitchen, which you barely notice, like the surface of water," he says.

"Other small subtle story points are also in the walls or in the backgrounds," he adds, describing a faint shadow built in plaster and then painted and distressed above Eliza's entryway that's based on Hokusai's Great Wave. "Guillermo is such a visual writer, he even wrote that through the warped cracks in the hardwood floor you would see light from the movie playing below. It was supposed to be reminiscent of caustic light when sunlight refracts underwater. This magical world, that was all written into the script."

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"It's like magic to be able to resurrect something from the past, whether it's mid-century or the 1920s or the 1880s, that feeling," Bauer agrees.

"Wallpaper is so powerful that way," he adds. "In a lot of rooms you're covering five planes in the room and you can create such an impact, such a world evocative of a history. With walls. You can't do that so much with a rug or with furniture. But with wallpaper you can surround yourself with this iconic past."

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Video: Sally Hawkins on falling in love with ‘The Shape of Water’ monster (The Canadian Press)
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Nathalie More

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