Barbie’s Dreamhouse is no place for the bashful. “There are no walls and no doors,” says Greta Gerwig via email. “Dreamhouses assume that you never have anything you wish was private—there is no place to hide.” That layered domestic metaphor has proved rich fodder for the filmmaker, whose live-action homage to the iconic Mattel doll hits theaters July 21.
To translate this panopticon play world to the screen, Gerwig enlisted production designer Sarah Greenwood and set decorator Katie Spencer, the London-based team behind such period realms as Pride & Prejudice and Anna Karenina. The two took inspiration from Palm Springs midcentury modernism, including Richard Neutra’s 1946 Kaufmann House and other icons photographed by Slim Aarons. “Everything about that era was spot-on,” says Greenwood, who strove “to make Barbie real through this unreal world.”
Neither she nor Spencer had ever owned a Barbie before, so they ordered a Dreamhouse off Amazon to study. “The scale was quite strange,” recalls Spencer, explaining how they adjusted its rooms’ quirky proportions to 23 percent smaller than human size for the set. Says Gerwig: “The ceiling is actually quite close to one’s head, and it only takes a few paces to cross the room. It has the odd effect of making the actors seem big in the space but small overall.”
Erected at the Warner Bros. Studios lot outside London, Barbie’s cinematic home reinterprets Neutra’s work as a three-story fuchsia fantasy, with a slide that coils into a kidney-shaped pool. “I wanted to capture what was so ridiculously fun about the Dreamhouses,” says Gerwig, alluding to past incarnations like the bohemian 1970s model (outfitted with trompe l’oeil Tiffany lamps) and
the 2000 Queen Anne Victorian manse, complete with Philippe Starck lounge chairs. “Why walk down stairs when you can slide into your pool? Why trudge up stairs when you take an elevator that matches your dress?” Her own references ranged from Pee-wee’s Big Adventure to Wayne Thiebaud’s paintings of pies to Gene Kelly’s tiny painter’s garret in An American in Paris.
For Barbie’s bedroom, the team paired a clamshell headboard upholstered in velvet with a sequined coverlet. Her closet, meanwhile, reveals coordinated outfits in toy-box vitrines. “It’s very definitely a house for a single woman,” says Greenwood, noting that when the first Dreamhouse (a cardboard foldout) was sold in 1962 it was rare for a woman to own her own home. Adds Spencer: “She is the ultimate feminist icon.”
In Barbie, as in previous films like Little Women and Lady Bird, Gerwig set out to realize a whole world. “We were literally creating the alternate universe of Barbie Land,” says the director, who aimed for “authentic artificiality” at every opportunity. As a case in point, she cites the use of a hand-painted backdrop rather than CGI to capture the sky and the San Jacinto Mountains. “Everything needed to be tactile, because toys are, above all, things you touch.”
Everything also needed to be pink. “Maintaining the ‘kid-ness’ was paramount,” Gerwig says. “I wanted the pinks to be very bright, and everything to be almost too much.” In other words, she continues, she didn’t want to “forget what made me love Barbie when I was a little girl.” Construction, Greenwood notes, caused an international run on the fluorescent shade of Rosco paint. “The world,” she laughs, “ran out of pink.”