Sunday, November 6, 2011

A Designing Man

Design inspiration comes from a variety of places and often one of the most overlooked venues is the stage (be it film or theatre). Many of the careers of production designers overlap the worlds of costume, design, and architecture and such was the case of Oliver Messel.

Considered one of the most celebrated designers of England, Messel began his career in l925 creating the backdrop for Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. Memorable set designs soon followed such as the ballet Sleeping Beauty and films Caesar and Cleopatra, The Thief of Bagdad and Suddenly Last Summer for which he was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Art Direction.

Katharine Hepburn and Montgomery Clift in Suddenly Last Summer

Set sketches for Suddenly Last Summer

Liz Taylor in Suddenly Last Summer

Messel's sketch for Samson costumes

Claude Rains and Vivien Leigh in Caesar and Cleopatra
Following his stage work, the talented designer entered the worlds of interior design and architecture where some of his best work could be found on the islands of Mustique and Barbados for the fashionable seventies and eighties jet set. The hallmark of a Messel interior was pure whimsy mixed with the unlikely elements of baroque, rococo, Surrealism and classicism.  
Fustic House in Barbados and one of Messel's favorite spots

Cockade House in Barbados was once a sugar plantation

A Messel designed bedroom for Cockade House
Written by his nephew and furniture designer Thomas, Oliver Messel: In the Theatre of Design (Rizzoli, October 2011) is a must for both design and film aficionados alike. Rizzoli sent me a copy of the book recently and it's one of my favorite design books of the season.

Oliver Messel influenced Dorchester Suite  -
supposedly one of Liz Taylor's favorite hotels in London
Photo Credits: Rizzoli, Columbia Pictures, United Artists


  1. I loved that elevator in "Suddenly Last Summer" and the asylum space, too. The Dorchester did have a space, I think it was a penthouse if I am remembering correctly, that still retained its actual Messel decoration; I hope it is still there. Although I am so fond of the concept behind the Caribbean houses, that is the one aspect of his work that could have been better. But in the big picture, he was brilliant.

  2. Yes I think it was the penthouse. Glad the book came out as Messel is finally getting his due.