Any television series about beloved chef Julia Child absolutely has to get one thing right: her kitchen.
To do so, the creative team behind HBO Max’s Julia looked to Oscar-winning production designer Patrizia von Brandenstein (Amadeus) to re-create not only Child’s at-home kitchen but also the WGBH studio where Child first filmed The French Chef. That might seem like a daunting task for any production designer, but von Brandenstein tackled it with her signature grace and confidence, although with series co-designer Stephen Cooper.
“I thought we did very well. We had tremendous cooperation from what remains of Julia’s family and friends, and there’s excellent research on her,” von Brandenstein shared. “Julia and Paul gave all of their personal papers to the Schlesinger library, personal letters, their account books, the receipts that they paid for their first television set. That contributed a great deal.”
von Brandenstein and team were fortunate to also have the Child’s original renovation plans and color samples for her home kitchen. Since Child loved color, her original kitchen contained bold color choices: a bright golden yellow, a blue-green, a bright pink. Child’s kitchen was later installed in the Smithsonian Museum as a testament to her contribution and impact on American cuisine, but that kitchen reflected a later stage in Child’s kitchen renovations where she settled on single colors.
The kitchen set, however, couldn’t rely on recreation aesthetics alone. It, of course, had to be a working set that looked like Julia’s kitchen but could also fit actors and crew navigating the scenes filmed therein. Plus, the kitchen hides a secret about Sarah Lancashire, who brilliantly plays Julia in the series.
“You need a little more room and you need things to appear a little bit higher, but you can’t give away the fact that your actress is not as tall as Julia. Her real kitchen really was three inches higher than most kitchens with the cabinetry, the shelving, and so forth. It was easier for Julia because she had a bad back. Her husband decided to put everything a little bit higher to take the ease off her,” von Brandenstein said. “But for our actor, that would have been very difficult. So the way it was photographed, and I consulted very much with our cinematographer [Eric Moynier and Dan Stoloff], I think we were almost always successful.”
Any Julia Child kitchen wouldn’t be complete without ample amounts of the copper cooking ware Child favored. von Brandenstein faithfully recreated the peg-board wall Paul Child built for Julia to proudly display her wares.
Other sets involved in Julia included various apartments and homes for its supporting cast members, but the largest set — and second most critical following the Child kitchen — became WGBH itself. There, Child filmed The French Chef as documented over Julia‘s first season.
“That is a built location. That is to say we created an office set. It’s an old high school, and we created it in Framingham, Massachusetts. The painted tile and the big work table were all things that were taken from Julia from her experience,” von Brandenstein remarked. “Paul did much of the design of this set, but they worked on it together. She was thrilled to death to have someplace that had running water and gas and all the things that she needed. We made the little dining area that is adjacent to The French Chef set because it was Paul’s idea that she should go and taste what she ate.”
Julia streams exclusively on HBO Max.