Meals at Madeline Martha Mackenzie’s house are often fraught with tension. In the first two episodes of HBO’s Big Little Lies, Madeline (Reese Witherspoon) uses these occasions to complain, antagonize her teenage daughter, and generally voice her frustration with the little indignities piling up around her. But damn if the servings don’t look splendid. Forgoing dining room tradition, the Mackenzie clan gathers around a large countertop for food that looks like it arrived directly from a local farmer’s market. For dinner, they have grains, green beans, and chicken, or bright cherry red tomatoes on pasta. For a weekday breakfast, there are two kinds of fruit salad and what we assume is freshly cooked bacon. Though the discussion is tense, the setting looks ready for Instagram.
Each character on Big Little Lies has a different aesthetic, but their environments for the most part are impeccably curated. These women—specifically Madeline, Celeste (Nicole Kidman), and Renata (Laura Dern)—exist in ideal spaces. Despite the messiness of their lives, their homes are pristine, but not sterile. They are lovely, comfortable, and ultimately enviable. Watching them can feel like combing through a Pinterest board. But pinned images are often empty; on Big Little Lies the perfect worlds are populated by deliciously imperfect people. This contrast isn’t a new one—rich and beautiful fictional characters have been misbehaving for eons—but social media has made it easier to covet what the likes of Madeline and Celeste have. That familiarity makes the show both more seductive and more sly.
You could say that the women’s lifestyles are ripped from the pages of an issue of Architectural Digest. But perhaps a more apt comparison is one of the hordes of websites-slash-brands that thrive online by telling their (mostly female) readers what to desire. These are the likes of Gwyneth Paltrow’s empire Goop, architecture and design publications like Dwell, and Joanna Goddard’s A Cup Of Jo, which has a “House Tours” feature where visitors can browse through distinct, but homogeneously attractive abodes from around the world. Vulture has already deemed Big Little Lies the “best real estate porn on television,” and these publications are basically porn for modern design addicts and those who pine for this elusive good life.
Production designer John Paino’s work was rooted in the small differentiations between these particular strivers, he tells The A.V. Club. “The inspiration is where they are in life and where they are going and where they sit in the pecking order of Monterey,” he says. “It’s more psychological; it’s not based on a fabric or things like that.” He made the mysterious Celeste’s style “a little opaque.” The ostentatious, professional Renata—sworn enemy of the others—goes for “big gestures,” like a large round couch. Madeline has a “feminine” vibe, he notes. She is also more likely to be up on the latest trend, in part thanks to her teen offspring. Her husband, Ed (Adam Scott), also appears to be the type of guy who is eager to acquire the latest gadget. (See, for instance, his standing desk in an upcoming episode.) “[Celeste] doesn’t really care about what the latest thing is; she’s a little bit more timeless, whereas Madeline is probably chasing trends a bit more,” Paino says.
That’s obvious from Celeste’s elegant and stately decor. Director Jean-Marc Vallée sets a violent scene in the second episode in her and her husband Perry’s (Alexander Skarsgård) walk-in closet. Her shoe collection is displayed as if it were in a museum, and bathed in light. Warm wood accents the room. As a whole, it’s serene in a way their abusive marriage certainly isn’t. But Paino snuck in more subtle symbolism. A small bonsai is visible on the dresser in the center of the room. That, he says, both an attempt to bring some of the Monterey greenery indoors, and represent the couple’s relationship. “Bonsai is about basically wrapping and hanging things off these little trees,” he explains. “It’s a control thing and [Celeste’s] husband is very controlling. Even though it’s a shared dressing room, it’s a nod to that.” The untrained eye might not pick up on that, but it can recognize the understated opulence before the abuse breaks out.
The one outlier in all of this is Shailene Woodley’s Jane, Monterey’s newcomer who is branded an immediate outcast. “[Celeste] and [Renata] are at the top so their mansions are the biggest and they have the best vistas,” Paino says. ”Madeline is in the middle; She’s got a beach outside. And then Jane is street level.” Her small house feels claustrophobic—she sleeps in the living room on a fold-out bed—but she has created a nest for her son in his bedroom, filled with lights and dangling planets. It’s built with love in a way that no part of Madeline, Celeste, or Renata’s places are.
Many of the interiors were created on sets, but even when Paino used real locations, as was the case with Madeline’s kitchen, he reimagined them for his purposes. In doing so, he helped build a world that is seductive. Because the point is not that Madeline, Jane, and Renata love their spaces. In fact, Paino even admits that they are “indifferent” to them; they are desensitized to the how gorgeous their days are because to them it’s routine—which isn’t to say they are uninterested in showing off. “They are kind of self-centered. They are on Facebook. They’re creatures of modern times,” Paino suggests. “Everyone has a digital life that only supports the kind of gossipy world that it is.”
Still, it’s easy to fall in love with these creature comforts, the same way it is easy to spend hours scrolling through images of dreamy homes, while knowing full well that nothing could ever be that perfect.