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Feast Your Eyes on Design Details and Historic Locations From HBO's ‘The Gilded Age’

HGTV took a master class on Victorian interiors and trends from the designers bringing 19th-century New York City to life on HBO's ‘The Gilded Age.’ Ready for the most lavish behind-the-scenes tour we’ve ever done? Watch the interview and come on in.

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Photo: Courtesy of Max

Here’s How Designers Brought Victorian New York City to Opulent, Over-the-Top Life

The latest episode of HGTV’s behind-the-scenes YouTube series HGTV On Set With just might be its splashiest yet. We sat down with production designer Bob Shaw and set decorator Lisa Scoppa of HBO’s The Gilded Age — which launched into its all-new second season on Oct. 29 — to learn how they immerse audiences in the more-is-more spaces and historic design vocabulary of wealthy New York society in the 1800s. Their work includes everything from emptying and redecorating landmarked spaces to communicating via ultra-specific decor cues since, for the Victorians, flowers, fringes and even fork placement could speak volumes about the people that shared space with them. Those design elements showcase wealth and influence, hint at where it comes from and reveal what characters are trying to accomplish with it.

Working with that visual vocabulary doesn’t always mean replicating how well-heeled Victorians decorated their homes, mind you. “We have to give the impression of the period and not get in the way,” Bob explains. “I say that about wallpaper all the time: ‘It pops out too much, and you need to pull it back and always keep actors the main event.’” It does mean that Bob and Lisa are always trying to outdo themselves. “Generally the marching orders for Season Two were to top Season One,” he says. “Partially it makes sense because that’s what Bertha [Russell, a character whose family represents “new money”] would be doing. She got her foot in the door [of fashionable society] and now she has to make sure that people know that she’s a force to be reckoned with.”

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Photo: Alison Cohen Rosa / Courtesy of Max

For Season Two, Even More Is More

“I channeled my inner Bertha [pictured here in Season One] to try and figure out how I would impress people more,” Bob continues. “There was a T-shirt that [the Gilded Age crew] made that says 'STILL GILDING.' So if I had to come up with a word for Season Two — what’s the word for more gilding? Gildier?” Watch HGTV On Set With: The Gilded Age to see their work in action, and read on for a deep dive on the fabulous historic spaces they’re both referencing and creating.

Fair warning: We’ll be discussing plot points from the first season of the show and the beginning of its second season here. If you’re wary of spoilers, stream The Gilded Age on Max and join us here afterward!

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Photo: Brian Logan Photography / Shutterstock

Echoing Manhattan in Upstate New York

As you might imagine, shooting a period drama on the streets of modern-day Manhattan is something of a non-starter. To capture the look of old New York, the Gilded Age team (and location manager Lauri Pitkus, who works closely with Bob) turns to upstate destinations like the town of Troy. “We [took] Monument Square [above], which is a major part of the town of Troy, and covered the streets with dirt and put signage on all of the storefronts and then [did] storefront displays on most of them,” Bob recalls.

“The tremendous gift of Troy is that it's largely untouched. They were, you know, an economic powerhouse in the mid 1800s,” he continues. The architecture associated with that boom was never demolished to make way for a new round of development. “You can go to Washington Park in Troy and all around it is unbroken houses of the right period, starting from the 1830s, then maybe getting to around 1900. But for a squint, every house around that entire square is fine for us. And then we can walk from that square all the way to Monument Square, which is like maybe four or five blocks. And we could do a walk and talk that whole way and just have to remove air conditioners, [trash cans and] window treatments.”

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Photo: Alison Cohen Rosa / Courtesy of Max

The Brook-van Rhijn Family Is ‘Old’ New York

The Gilded Age is all about the conflict between established elites and the up-and-comers challenging their social dominance; the widowed matriarch Agnes van Rhijn (played by Christine Baranski) and her sister, Ada Brook (Cynthia Nixon) epitomize the former. “For Ada and Agnes, the important thing is that everything is done the same way — and it has to be the old way,” Lisa explains. “The whole thing of the Brook-van Rhijn family is that they’re resistant to change. That’s very much an old-money sort of thing,” Bob adds. They’re also very private and quite literally curtain themselves off from their neighbors. “I always say the difference between the Russells’ [house] and the Brooks’ [house] in New York is that it's very dark and moody in the Brook house and it's lighter and airier in the Russell house.”

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