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DESIGN IN THE MOVIES : Babies & Bauhaus Don't Mix : That's the Not-So-Subtle Message in Film Designer Jeffrey Howard's 'Baby Boom'

November 01, 1987|BETTY GOODWIN | Betty Goodwin is a writer specializing in fashion and entertainment

THE NEW YORK apartment is enviably tasteful, an amalgam of Bauhaus furniture, modern art and carefully conceived collections of contemporary glass and African tribal masks.

As Jeffrey Howard, who designed the interiors, proudly tours the rooms, he glances approvingly at the few well-chosen antiques--a pair of fruitwood 19th-Century chairs here, an Amish quilt there. In the kitchen, he runs a hand over the cold granite countertops and pops open the state-of-the-art oven.

Finally, settling into a black leather Le Corbusier couch in the living room, Howard discusses the apartment owner's appreciation for "not just things that look good, but that have historical value."

If only it were true. Howard's "client," if you will, is a Hollywood production company and the apartment is found inside Stage 10 at 20th Century Fox, where Diane Keaton and Sam Shepard made the United Artists comedy "Baby Boom."

Creating stylized environments is nothing new to Howard, the film's production designer. His Emmy Award-winning art direction for two seasons on "Miami Vice" was unlike anything before seen on television. " 'Miami Vice' was a reaction against the cloying preponderance of earth tones of the '70s," Howard says. "It also sprang out of the climate itself. We took colors right out of the environment, cool colors--lavender skies, turquoise oceans, minty green police station," and also used Art Deco locations, modernism, lots of neon, a high-style courtroom and murals. The look was unique to the series so that "if you were flipping through the channels, you always knew you were at 'Miami Vice,' " he says.

"Baby Boom" called for a similarly meticulous approach to design. Working with the film's producer, Nancy Meyers, and director Charles Shyer, Howard saw the importance of using high style as a dramatic counterpoint to the story. As the comedy unfolds, J. C. Wiatt (Keaton)--a successful, unmarried New York executive and owner of an exquisite co-op apartment--inherits a baby from a deceased relative and rejects her one-track life style in favor of motherhood.

Believing that "things have a coded language" of their own, Howard designed J. C.'s home as a place filled with objects that not only would reflect her education, sophistication and six-figure income but would also "set up" the radical change in her life style when she abandons her job and moves with the child to a house in Vermont.

As he did for "Miami Vice," Howard relied heavily on color. To show the evolution of Keaton's character, he conceived the apartment in monochromatic grays and blacks, and set decorator Lisa Fischer searched for art--mainly 20th-Century hard-edged graphics by Frank Stella and Roy Lichtenstein--and furniture inspired by the Industrial Age: linear, cold and shiny. In other words, the least likely place in which to find a baby.

Howard found the 19th-Century farmhouse to use for J. C.'s new home in Peru, Vt. It was everything that the New York environment was not: homey, colorful and warm. Exterior shots as well as a bedroom interior were made in Vermont, and the rest of the house was rendered on the studio back lot.

While sets were constructed with aged, knotty wood floors and sagging beams, Fischer turned up wallpapers based on colonial patterns, faded chintzes for curtains and slipcovers, country antiques and outdated kitchen appliances. "We had a line in the script," says Nancy Meyers: " 'This is the kind of house that makes you want to wear an apron.' "

To the 36-year-old, pony-tailed Howard, who was a painter before he studied stage design at Brandeis University and worked his way through the ranks of Hollywood as assistant art director on films such as "Altered States" and "Private Benjamin," the sensibility he brings to each project goes beyond the merely decorative and becomes an academic exercise that tests all his senses.

"Research is the main skill of an art director," Howard maintains. For "Miami Vice," that included pouring through back issues of Interview magazine; for "Baby Boom," reading a book of Vermont poets.

Howard foresees a move away from the "slavish devotion to reality--getting out of the studio and into the streets" that epitomized art direction in the '60s and '70s. He believes that a trend is under way for a return to the glory days of set design when moguls such as Cecil B. DeMille and Louis B. Mayer sent their production designers around the world to view the latest furniture exhibits and museum expos in order to bring new looks to the screen.

"The TV age has made us all much more aware of signs and symbols and the visual aspects of our culture," Howard says, "and I think 'Miami Vice' helped convince producers that art direction can make an enormous difference."

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