How 'Severance' Made Its Office Prison Look so Inviting
The production designer spills the secrets of Lumon's labyrinth.
This post contains mild Severance spoilers.
We all know what an office looks like. Even if we've never worked in one, we already have in our heads a picture of what a cubicle is, how the desks are arranged, how frequently the fluorescent lights that dot the ceiling hum. The office, in its most traditional iteration (so, not the open-plan, greenery-filled vaulted ceilings of a WeWork) is anonymous and low on distractions, encouraging its employees to spend their eight hours inside paying attention to what's on their screens instead of what's around them.
The office world seen in the Apple TV+ thriller series Severance (and it is a world—creator Dan Erickson apparently has a map that goes on for miles) takes all of these expectations and twists them just a little bit to create a liminal space out of something so familiar. The "Macrodata Refinement" room that Mark (Adam Scott), Helly (Britt Lower), Irving (John Turturro), and Dylan (Zach Cherry) toil within is carpeted in deep green, walled in white, and contains just one set of four cubicles right in the center, which house blocky computer consoles and a few personal tchotchkes belonging to each employee. "It felt like it had to be really particularly stylized," production designer Jeremy Hindle explains. "You're going to be in there for three hours of the show. How is this photographically interesting to watch? It's only four people in the room. It had to be really, really beautiful and interesting."
The four are employees of Lumon Industries who have undergone a surgical procedure to separate their work memories from their home memories in order to lock away the company's secrets. Inside their office, which is deep underground in the basement of Lumon, there are absolutely no clues about what the company really does—mainly because everything inside is manufactured by Lumon itself. "They don't ship things in so that people can see what they're doing downstairs," Hindle says. "So, they fabricate all their own stuff. Everything has their label, everything has their packaging, and it's not like a sticker. It's theirs. They own all of this."
Mark and his coworkers sit on Lumon-made chairs at Lumon-made desks, typing on Lumon-built ergonomic keyboards with strange spherical trackballs connected to delightfully analog Lumon-made computers outfitted with touchscreens, a combination of retro and futuristic. "A lot of it is based on pharmaceutical reality," Hindle says. "They have so much money. These are massive budgets. It was so fun to think of what an Elon Musk character could do with something like this, or, you know, the billionaires of today, what they can do that we would never know."
Hindle cites everything from The Office to Fargo to Charlie Kaufman to Life magazines from the '60s and the endless corporate expanses of Jacques Tati's Playtime as inspiration for the show's distinctive look, down to the equipment all the characters use: "Every desk in the '60s, '70s, up to the '80s, everything was pristine: You had a pen, you had a phone, you just went to work. And then it all got fucked up. You brought your home life to work, and now everybody's a mess." It's fitting, then, that the conceit of Severance is a notion of work-life balance taken to extremes.
The very first image of the show is striking: a woman, unconscious, lying in the middle of a long desk. As she wakes up, we (and she) learn that her name is Helly and that she has no recollection of her life before this moment, when the severance process is explained to her. But slicing off a large portion of a person's memories has the unintended consequence of creating an entirely new persona. Hindle has some insight into how deeply Erickson has been considering every aspect of the show: "Why is she lying on a desk? And [Erickson] said, 'It's the birthplace of the office. It's the womb. They are new into this world.'"
For the "innies"—that is, the Lumon employees' severed personalities—the isolated floor is their entire world. In the third episode, we begin to see the near-infinite expanse of that world as the MDR employees journey away from their cubicles into the Perpetuity Wing, the museumlike ode to Lumon's founder Keir Eagan (Marc Geller), who left behind a number of near-religious doctrines for his employees to follow, and the Break Room, where naughty innies are psychologically tortured if they violate any rules.
The Perpetuity Wing, which contains a replica of Eagan's house, was simply too big to build from scratch. "We ended up finding this museum in the Bronx. And I remember seeing the exterior and Ben [Stiller, who directed most of the episodes] and I were like, 'That could be underground.' It has this beautiful brutalist building attached to it, and then a pristine house." It's these unexpected moments of scale that give the show its feeling of an ever-expanding labyrinth navigated through endless white hallways.
And what better way to find your way through a labyrinth than by drawing a map? According to Hindle, Erickson has a blueprint of Lumon that extends far beyond what we see in this season: "We knew we needed a lot of hallways, a lot of hallways. We just kept building the hallways around everywhere possible. But eventually, when he said three miles or five miles, whatever it was, I needed to know. And he drew this map. And he brought it up to me on a Monday and I've never laughed harder in my life. I gave it back to him, and I said, 'You have to sign this and keep this as a souvenir.'"
The design extends to the exteriors of the building as well, for which Hindle took particular inspiration from the swooping lines and large-scale geometries of Finnish American modernist architect Eero Saarinen, whose buildings look like something out of 2001: A Space Odyssey. "Every office had these stunning ceilings," he says. "It was all powerful lighting, powerful desks, powerful spaces where you felt like these were high-stylized working environments to really make it professional. It wasn't about happiness. It was about work, work ethic. And that feels like that's what Severance would be like. You're down there just to work." Hindle had been imagining Saarinen's John Deere World Headquarters, located in Illinois, as his main inspiration. Later, when it came time to shoot, they happened to pick another Saarinen building, the Bell Labs Holmdel Complex in New Jersey, for Lumon's exterior shots.
"Bell Labs, they designed the phone, they designed the cell phone, they designed satellites, they designed almost everything we use, and it's massive in scale," Hindle said. "It's the same idea of Severance. It's amazing how it all came together. High style, high design, functionality, and also really beautiful to look at. You want to be there. You want to work there. You want to dress amazing. No one's going to go in, like, a T-shirt and jeans. It's so stunning. That's the whole show. Is it better? Or is it worse? And that's the paradox."