Lucy van Lonkhuyzen is a set decorator, art director and production designer, having worked in the art departments of some astounding pieces of film and television.
From The Tudors, Vikings, Agora and Into the Badlands, to more contemporary pieces such as The Guard and the phenomenal Normal People, which recently stole people’s hearts over on the BBC, causing a ‘chain’ reaction over Connell’s necklace, Lucy’s work exudes a deep connection to the characters and emotional chords of each set she works on.
Here, Lucy shares her insights into the set worlds that perfectly enhance the stories being told.
How did you get into set design?
I had just returned from a year abroad in Australia (where I ventured off to after obtaining my degree from The National College of Art & Design, NCAD), when I spotted our national TV station, RTE, interviewing for trainee production designers. After three interviews, they finally let me in the door and I loved it! I experienced incredible training from people regarded as the top light entertainment designers in the industry and they became some of my closest friends. With three years under my belt, along with a car loan and a mortgage approval in hand, I left. My parents were devastated but I knew, without a doubt, I wanted to pursue a career in film.
I love when design blends seamlessly with the story that is being told.Lucy van Lonkhuyzen
What are some of your favourite films or series of television and how have they inspired your work?
I have loved loved Succession, it just exudes wealth and taste in every frame. You are never in any doubt that this is their world. Everything is just so perfect. Escape at Dannemora also really stands out, I adore the design and camerawork. Again the design is real, yet you know everything on camera was thought-through and considered. I love when design blends seamlessly with the story that is being told. It enhances without taking over.
What has been the biggest set project you’ve ever worked on?
Scale wise, I have to say, Vikings and Agora. Set decorating two seasons of AMC’s martial arts post apocalyptic drama Into the Badlands was also a biggy. Already a large-scale project, it doubled its size with two units shooting at the same time. To date, if you are talking about sheer global reach when you say ‘biggest’, it’s definitely Normal People.
How did you come to work on the set for Normal People?
Interviews were being held for production designers; I interviewed, got a call back, then was very lucky to be offered the job of a lifetime!
What were your first thoughts on the set upon reading the book and how did this evolve once you started conversations with the directors, writers and producers?
I loved LOVED the book. When you read the book you realise that the characters’ worlds are not really described in detail, this is left, for the most part, to the reader. This provoked a huge amount of conversation on what direction we would take. I’d have detailed discussions with the director, Lenny Abrahamson/ Hettie MacDonald and the producers on the tone, the colour palettes, the mood, what locations to look for and how best to convey and tell the story of these characters in these places. After we talked, a lot, these discussions then become mood boards or look books for every department in production to refer to. Locations were key (thank you Eoin Holohan!), and once Marianne’s version of Sligo was found the whole design process just flowed.
The contrast of ‘worlds’ between Marianne and Connell was so beautifully told through the visual medium, how did you go about exploring this?
I start early on by reading the scripts, researching the characters, their lives, their world and how they fit in it, or in some cases, how they do not fit into it. This all helps form ‘the look’. After plenty of research, I then collect a huge amount of visuals and references, which I will constantly draw from throughout the entire process. This could involve, depending on the era, period details, character bios, location notes and reference images. The usual suspects.
For Marianne and Connell I personally thought long and hard about how the environment becomes the most truthful reflection of their characters. Small details like the magazines they might buy, the papers they read, the books on their bedside table. They all give us a glimpse into the characters personality before they even say a word. I’m constantly trying to find those little bits of ‘living’ around their houses or what unique pieces of furniture they own. Where on earth did they buy it? What artwork is on their walls? What cars do they drive? On and on I go until the character you see on your screens at home becomes real.
I personally thought long and hard about how the environment becomes the most truthful reflection of their characters.Lucy van Lonkhuyzen
The devil really is in the detail! I honestly never expected so much scrutiny surrounding these sets. Literally every detail is picked up on. Like the tears in Connell’s bedroom wallpaper or the schoolboy cut-outs and stickers. A couple of people have even commented on the toilet roll on the desk beside his bed! I approach every job in the same way and to see people noticing minute details in these characters sets is surreal.
Which of the sets really stands out for you and why do you love it so much?
I love them all! If you were to say a favourite location, that would be their school. It was a gem and quite unique in Ireland’s educational landscape. Set wise, I loved Marianne’s Sligo home, the location was incredible, you know when karma just happens; right time, right place. The owners were fantastic, allowing us full access to the house, which we transformed from top to bottom in two weeks. Painted, carpeted, moved the kitchen. Put in approximately 50 practical lights all run off our own power. The house was also used as Gareth’s Trinity apartment. I could really put my stamp on the house and therefore set the tone for the show, so for any designer that is gold dust. Marianne’s Sligo house was also the big opening shot of the show.
Who would you love to work with in the future from the world of film and television?
Golly Gosh, I’d have to say working with the combination of Lenny and Hettie on a Sally Rooney novel is pretty much up there… I’m happy! Having said that my wishlist would be, before I retire; Wes Anderson, Wong Kar-Wei, Paul Thomas Anderson, Greta Gerwig, Deniz Gamze Erguven, Jane Campion, Dearbhle Walsh, Lesli Linka Glatter, Lynne Ramsay, Nessa Hardiman.
Now that I’ve started, I realise the list is actually endless.
What’s next for you?
The Pandemic has put a temporary halt to everything, but things are slowly beginning to start up again, so watch this space…
Normal People is available to watch on BBC iPlayer.