Umbrella Academy Is Better Than Xavier's Mansion, Says Production Designer
Production designer Mark Worthington is the man directly responsible with bringing Reginald Hargreaves’ bizarre urban mansion to life in The Umbrella Academy, Netflix’s beloved superhero series. Worthington has since stepped away from the series, but he tells Inverse he’s hopeful Umbrella Academy’s unique style might be recognized at the 71st Primetime Emmy Awards.
In an exclusive interview, Worthington talked about designing the show’s many establishing sets — from the apocalyptic future to Griddy’s Donuts — and why he thinks the Netflix series captured the attention of so many people. (Within a week of its February release, Screen Rant reported that it was 21 times more popular than the average title.) He also took a shot at one of Umbrella Academy’s closest comparisons: X-Men.
“X-Men explores the psychological effect having powers have on people in a comic book way that’s a little broader and simpler,” Worthington says. “The Umbrella Academy explores the deeper psychological issues these people are having related to their powers. Powers are also a curse and we know that — it’s a trope — but here it’s in a specific, detailed, and domestic way with children that are siblings.”
In Umbrella Academy, an eccentric billionaire named Reginald Hargreaves adopts six children all born under miraculous circumstances (their mothers weren’t pregnant) at the same moment, believing them to be the key to saving the world. As they grow up, each child develops superpowers as they form a heroic team. The series picks up years later, after the group’s been disbanded following a tragedy. They reunite to investigate Hargreaves’ untimely death, and quickly learn that the apocalypse they were born to prevent is fast approaching.
With its monkey butler, robot maid, and a peculiar use of time travel, The Umbrella Academy is a weird alternative to the X-Men — and its production style reflects those eccentricities. The overall production design reflects the unique tone of the series, and when Season 2 travels into the past to create an alternate timeline after the apocalyptic Season 1 finale, the same mansion Worthington designed for the series will again serve as the main setting.
Here’s what Worthington had to say about establishing The Umbrella Academy’s retro-futuristic style, the unique architecture of the titular Umbrella Academy, and why the series offers a more interesting variation on the X-Mansion.
When designing the sets for The Umbrella Academy, what creative inspiration did you draw from? How does it relate to the source material?
There’s similarity in tone to the comic, with the quirkiness to it. Gerard Way and Gabriel Bá are younger millennials like the characters in this story. So their take on the comic novel or graphic novel is different. Steve Blackman the showrunner understood that you needed to change a few things translating from paper to screen, so he leaned into the quirkiness of it. In the novel, the Academy is a manor far outside of town, very similar to X-Men. He preferred an urban context in the city, so we get a big mansion like you see in the Upper East Side of Manhattan. We embedded that style of mansion into a tenement block similar to the East Village.
He wanted that quirky contrast. It helps express what the graphic novel is going for.
How would your characterize the architectural style of that building?
We’re in a city like New York — not explicitly New York, but like it. The mansions of the Upper East Side were built in the late 19th century up through the 1920s by classically trained architects. You get these big architectural expressions. You might have a Baroque room, a neoclassical room, and a Moorish room all in one house.
I was inspired by the Vanderbilt Mansion in particular. We had a room that was Moorish in style, meaning Arab/Islamic in inspiration. This kind of exoticism was popular in the 19th century, when people were interested in eclectic styles and traveling more. For the first time, rich people started traveling the world safely and became quasi-adventurers in a glamorous way.
Reginald Hargreave’s character sees himself in that mold, of the late Victorian who has a bunch of money and is interested in travel and science. He fancies himself a Renaissance man, so the different styles in his home come from that sensibility.
Is this style or architecture exclusive to New York or can we see that elsewhere?
England had it in an even more extreme way. I saw Haregreaves as a Victorian male who imagines himself as more powerful, smarter, and better than everyone else around him. That’s what male Victorians were like in the 19th century: the white men at the head of the largest and most powerful empire that ever existed on the planet. There’s a lot of ego that goes along with it, and it made a great template for him. Look at how he behaves on the show: He’s very serious and doesn’t care about the kids. He sees them as tools he can use for the ends he’s interested in.
How did the kids define the mansion in unique ways?
Because the group fell apart when they were still teenagers, their spaces in the Academy were largely as they were in their teenage years. They all got disillusioned and left. It was important to retain that image of their idealistic younger selves, so their rooms are frozen in time, even coming back as adults around 30.
It’s interesting to see them as full adults in spaces that were decorated when they were teenagers. It was a way to show them as emotionally arrested people. The journey is them coming back and having to from these psychological and emotional issues that were never addressed. Each of them were running away from that. The image of those teenage rooms bring that to the foreground.
Can you talk to me about the kids’ lounge space? I’ve read that it used to be a butcher shop that they took it over.
The Academy is built into a tenement block. The adjacent buildings would have had half-basement businesses in them like the West or East Village. The idea is that if you go down some steps, here’s an old butcher shop that’s been closed awhile.
The kids busted a wall out from the main Academy into this space and said, “Hey, this is cool. We’ll convert this into our own space away from dad. This is the one space where we can be free to be who we are.”
We talked about a number of what kind of business could it have been: Chinese restaurant or dry cleaner or whatever, things that were common in places like the East Village. But we settled on an old butcher shop.
Griddy’s Donuts is another prominent setting that you helped build. How did that come together?
Griddy’s Donuts was an actual business in a Toronto strip mall that had been gutted. It was some kind of cafe at one point, but we walked in to cement floors. We built a set inside that. We wanted a direct visual connection to the outside. We’ve also got the parking lot right there. It’s one of my favorite sets, doing that bougie modernist ‘70s architecture now fallen on hard times.
**There’s a lot of clashing styles that’s interesting, almost as if it’s retro-futuristic. In your mind, when and where does all of this take place?
I think of it as an alternate, adjacent world. You can recognize things and see the parts of history in both. The city isn’t identified. It’s kind of New York but not actually. The technology is tweaked. There are no cell phones. Things are a bit more analog, but other things are more advanced. You’re not supposed to really know.
Worthington helped establish the show’s tone and build several of the original sets, but he has since stepped away from the series. He swears he’s as in the dark about Season 2 as anybody, but like the rest of us, he can’t see what the new story does with the spaces he helped build. He did, however, confirm that the crew is fast at work on the new season.
The Umbrella Academy Season 2 is confirmed for Netflix with no definite release date.