In an interview with Awards Daily, Grace Yun, the production designer behind Netflix’s hit limited series Beef, discusses the series’s distinctive locations and what they reflect in its characters. She also discusses the idea of art and how it is valued by the characters. Finally, she reveals how the combination of Beef and Past Lives reflected on her Korean American heritage while simultaneously touching on the universality of the stories.
Awards Daily: Well, the first thing I wanted to start with was Amy’s house immediately stood out for me. It’s fancy and yet it’s got those dark shadows everywhere. Also the characters are constantly talking about it, with Amy mentioning that she designed it and her mother-in-law continually saying she doesn’t like it. Immediately setting up not just the place but also the personalities of these two characters. How much of them as characters went into the thought process of designing the house?
Grace Yun: Good question. Sonny (Lee Sung Jin) and I talked about where Amy’s character is coming from. We thought about her age, we thought about what her influences might be, and he mentioned something like she probably has a BFA in fine arts and BA in business and how she’s influenced by the LA millennial minimalist aesthetic and she’s attracted to those types of aesthetics. But Fumi’s personal aesthetic background is the greater art world that is plugged into more of the fine art history that’s happening. There also is an international influence of Japanese design as well and all the decades before it. I think Fumi’s personal aesthetic is much broader. Even in her clothes she’s wearing a lot of Japanese fashion designer-influenced shapes like Issey Miyake and more sculptural forms. I think Amy is more influenced by what is trending currently so it’s like Wabi Sabi’s very soft minimalist aesthetic and also the influence of mid-century architecture that you see a lot in LA. A soft desert color palette–something that feels desaturated, unbaked–and Wabi Sabi finishes too, which is also something you can see trending. So those were the main influences we were drawing from when I was talking to Sonny about her aesthetic style.
Awards Daily: Amy’s business is almost the exact opposite of her home. The space you immediately notice is more light. Was that done purposely as a contrast?
Grace Yun: Yes, I think for her KoyoHaus we deliberately wanted it to lean into a more welcoming arena for her clients. That’s a version of Amy where she is her most presentational self. We lean into the whiteness of the walls, the softer light wood texture brings a brightness to it and brings in a more desert palette theme, which still ties into her home space but we wanted to feel airy and sunnier and more welcoming for customers.
Awards Daily: I read that Denny’s apartment was based on Sonny’s original first apartment. What made him want to use that as the inspiration?
Grace Yun: I think the first conversation I had with Sonny was about Danny’s apartment and the concept first came from this idea that Danny’s character was living in a very cluttered transitional space and that he would be faced with daily obstructions, and that was a concept that Sonny really liked. Then he told me that it was reminding him of the first apartment that he had in LA. The layout of the space was so odd that he would stub his toe on his desk every morning because it didn’t fit the furniture he had. So that being like a visual metaphor of what Danny’s actually going through psychologically.
Awards Daily: So of course one of the big designs in the show is the Tamago chair. What was behind that design, and making it such an important part of the storyline?
Grace Yun: Sonny already had the Tamago written in the script and he came to me with this reference to Isamu Noguchi Burden chair. He loved the idea of it being a three legged chair and the unique quality of it. We talked about this theme for Amy of George’s father kind of looming over them as this other character that you know but you don’t necessarily see or interact with. But this idea of legacy and this idea of her never measuring up to Fumi’s standard of what an artistic life is, or Amy actually working very hard to do with her own business and her creating these products for people. It’s interesting because for Amy, she thinks of it as something that can be part of a business transaction to help her family find security in life. Whereas symbolically for George and Fumi it’s the only lasting memory that they have of George’s father. It’s also an object that plays with the contention between George and Amy as well with Amy and Fumi, and then with Amy and Jordan. It’s a very loaded piece of art that is being used as a commodity as well. Art objects as commodities is also a theme in the series.
Awards Daily: When you were designing Jordan’s mansion it’s showing off her large space but eventually it’s also a scene of major conflict. How did that kind of plot point play into the design?
Grace Yun: One of the aesthetic markers that I wanted to use as touchstones like Danny’s apartment, Amy’s house, and then Jordan’s mansion, as getting the scale of social economics of all these characters and how they interact with each other and how they also view themselves and view each other. For Jordan it’s almost like an otherworldly space, and we wanted to establish Jordan’s style by collecting these exclusive objects that you can’t really buy at a box store or off the shelf. It’s like you have to go through some special curator or galley. Running with the theme that she’s creating her own private exhibition space at home so she likes to collect exclusive things and, along with that, collecting and absorbing businesses like Amy’s. So that was a running theme that we wanted to convey.
For the second question, we talked about how we can make this vast space suddenly feel eerie and then have a sense of threat and insecurity.
The furniture choices were meant to look as if they were not comfortable. Like it’s almost a question whether you can actually sit on something, or whether it’s comfortable to sit on it based on the material or the shape of it. Then the introduction later on for the panic room scenes of having a lighting cue with the red lights and all the fog, so this idea that you’re in this cavernous space but you can’t see where you’re going at all, and you don’t know where the threat is in this mist. So that was a theme that we started to play with and bring into the space.
Awards Daily: You also have Past Lives coming out, so you have a hit movie and a hit TV show with your production design this year. Is there anything about that that you want to talk about?
Grace Yun: I’m excited and thrilled about Past Lives and Beef. They’re both personal stories to me. I feel like my personal background in my being Korean American I gravitated towards the scripts and these creators, Celine Song and Sonny. I am extremely grateful and have been excited to work on stories that are about Asian American characters. What I love about Past Lives and Beef is that it goes beyond the fact that it’s specific to Korean American or Asian American characters and that it has more to do with different timelines, and there is a generational story that happens in each. With Past Lives it’s more of a spiritual story as well with the concept of inyeon, and I just loved the idea that the connections you have with people are not random. I think that’s the way I felt about these two projects, working with these two wonderful creators, and I feel grateful to have contributed to both of these projects.
Awards Daily: Final thoughts?
Grace Yun: I’m grateful for the opportunity to talk about the process and I think I’m good. Thank you so much.