The political intrigue that fuels Netflix’s “House of Cards” bears an uncanny resemblance to today’s reality in Washington.
“People must think the writers have a crystal ball. Since we film well in advance, it’s amazing how on point they’ve been throughout the seasons,” says the show’s set decorator, Tiffany Zappulla.
Also on point: the sets Zappulla and her team craft for this Emmy Award-winning drama.
On a recent tour sponsored by the Washington chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, Zappulla offered a behind-the-scenes look at how the series’ dystopian world takes shape. When they’re not shooting on location around Baltimore, the 200-plus cast and crew members work 12- to 14-hour days on production and filming in cavernous warehouses north of the city. In the set decoration warehouse, antiques, lamps, mirrors, and props cram floor-to-ceiling shelves. Upholsterers, carpenters and seamstresses fashion sofas, chairs and draperies in open work areas. Reproductions of original artwork, hand-painted by scenic artists, hang in waiting for their moment on screen.
Behind a bare dividing wall, a labyrinth of spaces including the Situation Room, the Press Briefing Room, the Roosevelt Room and the Oval Office were primed for Season Six, which would begin filming in October.
“House of Cards” revolves around the roguery of President Francis Underwood and First Lady Claire Underwood (Kevin Spacey, Robin Wright), both driven to dominate Washington at any cost. They hide their scandalous ways behind a polished veneer of respectability—and tastefully conservative interiors that convey both power and restraint. “By the time Francis and Claire got to the White House, they were both pretty nefarious,” says Zappulla. “It was about de-saturating the colors and showing their dark sides.”
She and her staff base their work on painstaking online research and intelligence gathered on tours of the actual White House. “We are slaves to detail and meticulous about keeping the proportions correct,” says Zappulla, who has also designed sets for HBO’s “Veep.”
After “dressing” space, she photographs it to assess how well it reflects her subjects. “The sets are a very important supporting actor,” she explains. “You can create a beautiful space, but if it doesn’t make sense for the character, you’ve missed the target.
“There’s never anything in these rooms that are filler,” Zappulla adds. “It’s all very thought-out.” For instance, in a nod to Francis Underwood’s Southern heritage and affinity for the Civil War, his Oval Office displays miniature cannons, pineapple motifs and tobacco jars from his home state of South Carolina.
Channeling Claire’s character, Zappulla landed on birds, which grace the First Lady’s boudoir. “Birds look so delicate,” she reasons, “but they can fly. That’s Claire.”
A vast amount of what’s seen on set is produced by the show’s own artisans. Their creations range from upholstered sofas and 24-foot-long conference tables to sculpted busts, acanthus leaf and rosette moldings, faux-marble floors and “brass” torchieres. There’s even a working cooktop in the White House kitchen fabricated for a scene that called for Claire to fry an egg in full camera view.
What they can’t make Zappulla purchases on frequent shopping sprees around DC and Baltimore. “We take a lot of pride in this being a Maryland-based show and do as much as we can to purchase here,” says the Baltimore native. “When we’re filming, I inject close to $60,000 into the Maryland economy every 10 days.”
The decreased demand for antiques, also known as “brown furniture,” has been a plus for the show. “We’re so fortunate to be in this area and have benefitted quite a bit from that shift in design taste,” Zappulla says. Her go-to emporiums include Cornerstone and Clearing House, Ltd., near Baltimore and Goldsborough Glynn in Kensington.
Given the sinister plot twists on “House of Cards,” the designer benefits from another decorating trend: the rise of all things gray. “That palette is so popular now,” says Zappulla. “I have beautiful options at my disposal.”
She also frequents the Washington Design Center, where she recently splurged on Scalamandré fabric for a couple of entry-hall chairs. “The [real] White House is full of Scalamandré fabric, but my budget is not full of Scalamandré,” she laments. “But I’m a purist and had to be able to say we have Scalamandré in our White House too.”
Zappulla acknowledges that her department is one of many focused on nailing every “House of Cards” scene. “It takes the right lighting, the cameraman, everyone working in unison, to create what you see on TV and hopefully what you enjoy.”
Ultimately, the goal is to blur the lines between truth and fiction. “We want the audience to believe the cast is sitting on Air Force One or in the Oval Office,” Zappulla says. “If it starts to look like a set, then we haven’t done our job.”