Designer Catherine Martin Teases the Decadence of Baz Luhrmann's 'The Great Gatsby'

“Gatsby’s house and parties were very ostentatious and there was no question of his wealth. As a result we used lots of opulence in the gilding of his mansion," the designer tells THR.
Catherine Martin
Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

This story first appeared in the May 3 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

Catherine Martin has created worlds as diverse as the Belle Époque of Moulin Rouge!, the sweeping outback of Australia and the urban mythical Verona Beach of Romeo + Juliet. Next up for the production and costume designer (and wife and collaborator of director Baz Luhrmann) is the long awaited film version of The Great Gatsby.

The fourth film remake of writer F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 literary classic of decadence, excess and love has all the tragedy of a Greek drama with the glamor of an upscale production. Set in the tony old and new moneyed worlds of Long Island Sound’s fictional East and West Egg via the designer/director duo’s homeland of Sydney, Martin literally channels the lavish lawn parties, bathtub gin and extravagant interiors of the period’s Jazz Age.

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Front and center is Jay Gatsby’s nouveau riche mansion where gold is the order of the day. “Gatsby’s house and parties were very ostentatious and there was no question of his wealth. As a result we used lots of opulence in the gilding of his mansion. We gilded everything from his customized Wurlitzer organ to the customized ceiling and put his monogramming on everything!” the two-time Academy and Tony Award winner explains. Describing the looks as establishment style meets deco, she notes,“I was very influenced by French decorator and furniture designer Ruhlmann. He was part of the inspiration of the modern columns in Gatsby’s grand hall and designs in his bedroom.” The standout sets included a two story Art Deco inspired master bedroom, magnificent ballroom and grand entrance hall along with lush pristine lawns fit for parties and polo.

Inspired by the style of Hollywood Regency, Daisy and Tom Buchanan’s manse provides a striking contrast in formality and taste. “The Buchanan house has more of a sense of real history in the mix of periods. I looked at the work of (British twenties interior designer) Syrie Maugham who played with the glamorization of antiques and had a total lack of regard of good and bad. Her designs were less snobby.” Less grand in scale was cousin and narrator Nick Caraway’s cozy cottage that received touches of Stickley furniture with an Arts and Crafts influence.

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A total of 42 sets were constructed on both location and sound stages in a mere 14 weeks.

Architecture and designs were based on iconic turn of the century houses on the Long Island Shore such as Beacon Towers for Gatsby’s home and Old Westbury Gardens that served as inspiration for the Buchanan’s estate.

Wearing both hats as a costume and production designer goes hand in hand when creating the visual look.  “You start (both processes) simultaneously because the way Baz works he is always asking you to research materials prior to any kind of draft on paper. He’ll want visual materials to help form a starting point. Baz is a visualist and we will bring pictures and a written description. He always starts with book itself and who people are, what costumes were, environment they live in both from a social and historical perspective. I have worked on three adaptations with him – La Boehme, Romeo and Juliet and Gatsby – and the art and wardrobe departments are very grounded in terms of the historical references,” the designer says.

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And historical references are key when portraying the story of one of the literary world’s most famous self-made men. Martin looked to the work of silent films from Sunrise (1927) and Speedy (1928) to the high gloss Art Déco infused Garbo classics. While she saw the Robert Redford-Mia Farrow 1974 version in high school, she chose not to view the film again.  Research was also conducted in the New York and Conde Nast libraries as well as the Metropolitan Museum.

Martin was also in charge of creating 1700 vintage designs for the cast that computed to roughly 500 outfits for day and night. To depict the aristocracy of the East Coast, Martin enlisted the help of designer Miuccia Prada who reinterpreted forty classic styles that were a mixture of European glamour and New York sophistication. (While secondary characters wore the majority of Prada’s designs, Daisy’s party dress was the only one chosen for the primary characters). For the actors’ Ivy League costumes, Martin collaborated with Brooks Brothers on more than 500 ensembles – a choice that was a natural as Fitzgerald referenced the men’s clothing institution (that originated in 1818) numerous times on the book.

Designing Gatsby also represented a chance for collaborations off screen as well. Part Edith Head part Martha Stewart, Martin worked with Brooks Brothers on a limited edition menswear line of both formal and daywear. The Catherine Martin Homewares brand featured three Deco-inspired carpet designs from the film along with the Moderne Rivoli collection of fabrics by Mokum (available in the US at Holly Hunt).

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