Using second-hand finds to create “clinical but tasteful” spaces reflective of protagonist Marianne Sheridan’s family life drove the set design of hit series Normal People, says production designer Lucy van Lonkhuyzen.
Van Lonkhuyzen aimed to create a sense of realism when designing the show, which is set in the small, fictional town of Carricklea in Sligo, Ireland and later in Dublin.
Making the sets look “lived-in” was one of Van Lonkhuyzen’s main objectives in production design, which she achieved by sourcing all props and details second-hand, from online marketplace Gumtree as well as charity, antique and vintage shops.
“Finding these things is completely down to chance,” the designer told Dezeen. “That’s why I hoard!”
“I hate to work with anything new,” she continued. “So I didn’t want to go to any big, major furniture places. I don’t do it and I never will.”
“I wanted every set to be unique, and for the viewer to see that character in that set. I wanted everything on screen to look the best it possibly could be without looking like a set.”
The 12-part production, which first aired in the UK in April 2020, is an adaptation of the best-selling book Normal People by Sally Rooney.
Along with finding the right props from second-hand sources, the main challenge for Van Lonkhuyzen was forming the sets from the limited visual prompts in Rooney’s original narrative.
“From a location perspective, Sally Rooney isn’t very descriptive in her books – she lets you kind of do the thinking on it. So it was really tricky,” she said.
Cold colour palettes emulate Marianne’s family life
The drama series follows the turbulent relationship between Marianne Sheridan and Connell Waldron – played by Daisy Edgar-Jones and Paul Mescal – as they grow from teenagers to adults.
Both the novel and TV series centre around Marianne’s complicated home life. Her father, who is deceased, is revealed to have been a domestic abuser, while her brother Alan is portrayed to carry many of the same traits, and is abusive to Marianne throughout the series.
Van Lonkhuyzen wanted the sets to feed into this difficult dynamic. The Sheridan household is a large country-style estate featuring a “sedatory” interior colour palette of muted blue and grey tones.
“I wanted the character of Marianne’s mother to be reflected in her [family] house,” Van Lonkhuyzen told Dezeen. “[Denise] is a solicitor who was born in Dublin but now lives in Sligo. She’s not a nice character, but she has taste.”
“So, inherently, I wanted the Sheridan household to be quite cold, but yet there’s still little pockets of taste in there,” she continued.
“By doing that, we literally didn’t buy anything new; everything was from auctions or from Gumtree. I didn’t want the house to look like anything else.”
“If people notice that [the set] was designed… I haven’t done my job”
The subdued colour palette provides the backdrop for tasteful pieces of art and furniture that Van Lonkhuyzen imagines to have been inherited from parents and grandparents, which she used to convey a sense of controlled sophistication.
“It’s even in the way the house is laid out – she’d be quite progressive putting the kitchen in the front room, but yet she still has her traditional dining room across the hallway,” said the designer.
According to Van Lonkhuyzen, it was important to contrast Marianne’s cold, and at times dark, upbringing to the love-filled relationship that fellow protagonist Connell has with his mother, Lorraine, who works as a cleaner for the wealthy Sheridan family.
The two characters live in a terraced house in the suburbs, which features warm tones and walls covered with worn wallpaper that is dotted with framed photographs of the mother and son.
“Lorraine, even though she’s a single mom and money is tight, she has pride in her house,” said Van Lonkhuyzen. “So I wanted to give her a bit of design as well – the kind that didn’t jump out at you, but where everything just blended in.”
“I’m not talking about colours or palettes here, I’m talking about look,” she continued. “Because, for me, if people notice that it was designed… well then I haven’t done my job.”
“With shoots like Normal People, your first instinct needs to be right”
The process of creating realistic sets was made easier by working with the location manager Eoin Holohan, who also happens to be Van Lonkhuyzen’s husband.
“Locations are so important in anything like this. But also it was mainly just intuition. As soon as you step into place, you think, yeah, this is right,” she said.
“With shoots like Normal People you don’t really have time to think; your first instinct needs to be right, and if it’s not then you’re in trouble,” she continued.
“I was lucky in that, instinctively, myself and my team got it correct eight or nine times out of 10. Once the Sheridan house was nailed, it made everything a lot easier because you had a basis to work from.”
Later in the series, Marianne and Connell leave Sligo to attend university at Trinity College Dublin.
For Marianne’s university accommodation, which is located on Wellington Road, Van Lonkhuyzen wanted to bring in some of the same design elements seen in her mother’s home, but with a more vibrant and less constrained touch.
Marianne’s university flat reflects her freedom from hometown
While the set conveys her new-found independence and freedom that was granted by moving out of her family home, it still shows that she hasn’t quite been able to let go of the style that formed her, said the designer.
“She’s come from such a cold and clinical, but tasteful, environment, so I wanted to bring a sense of warmth and security into Wellington road.”
This was formed with the help of colourful, “bourgeois-style” furniture and “much looser” artworks than was seen in the Sheridan home, which hang on pistachio green walls alongside shelves full of random objects and trinkets.
While Marianne’s family home and Wellington road flat were filmed in-situ, other settings were built from scratch in a studio to better host some of the show’s more intimate sex scenes. This included Connell’s bedroom at his family home in Sligo.
“Connell’s [family] house was tiny, and the bedroom was even smaller. So because of the nature of the scenes, it made complete sense to put it into a studio,” explained van Lonkhuyzen.
“We built it so we could have a slightly bigger space that was better for camera angles and lighting and privacy, in order to get the right atmosphere for the scene that they needed to get.”
This room was one that Van Lonkhuyzen worried about the most, she explained, as it was important to make it effortlessly seem like any other ordinary bedroom belonging to a boy in his late-teens.
The room is characterised by its messy, mismatched bedding and posters taped to the wall, which Van Lonkhuyzen confesses she “hates for various reasons”. However, she still managed to get one of her favourite pieces in – a simple yellow and red lamp from the 1980s, found in a nearby charity shop.
“I was petrified of getting it wrong,” she said. “But then two women with sons in their late teens visited the set one day, and said ‘oh my god this looks exactly like my boy’s bedroom!’, so it turned out perfect.”
Normal People was first released in the UK online on BBC Three on 26 April 2020, before premiering on RTÉ One in Ireland on 28 April and in the US on Hulu on 29 April. The full series is available to watch on BBC iPlayer.
Images courtesy of Suzie Lavelle and Lucy van Lonkhuyzen.