How ‘Severance’ Turned the Workplace Into a Demented Playground

There have been plenty of television shows set in workplaces, but there’s never been one that looks quite like “Severance.” The Apple TV Plus science fiction series is set in the headquarters of Lumon Industries, a mysterious, cult-like company that surgically alters the memories of select employees to split their consciousness in two: their work selves and their outside selves. These “severed” employees work on their own floor in the company building, and it’s a world in itself: a sprawling labyrinth of stark white halls that stretch into eternity, and massive, void-like office rooms with eye-catching green carpeting.

Production designer Jeremy Hindle drew from a wide array of sources when crafting the sets of the series, from the 1967 French film “Playground” to the aesthetics of pharmaceutical companies. His guiding principle for how Lumon should look was taken from the John Deere World Headquarters in Moline, Ill. , designed by the architects Eero Saarinen and Kevin Roche in the 1960s. While doing research into the building, he learned about how the offices are designed to be very classic, stunning work environments inspired from a time when people’s work lives and home lives were kept completely separate.

“All those companies in the 50s and 60s, they had so much style, they had the most beautiful spaces, and they were proud of what they were doing,” Hindle says. “They believed in it and their aesthetic was part of that. It was about power and control and commerce and everything rolled into one.”

For the exterior of the Lumon building, Hindle and his team traveled to New Jersey to scout the recently restored Bell Labs building, which was also designed by Saarinen. The massive complex, which occupies over 470 acres, has the same aesthetic of “work designed to do work,” as Hindle describes it, and its sheer size helps to communicate the themes of the series. Several times over the course of the show, the main character Mark (Adam Scott) is often framed as a tiny speck in the giant parking lot of the corporation he works for.

To construct the interior Lumon locations, Hindle initially had only two soundstages, and although they later got one extra, he jokes that they probably could have used five. On the first soundstage, his team built the major office spaces seen throughout the show, and then built a hallway around the entire perimeter of the stage, with each run measuring around 140 feet. To create the maze-like, seemingly endless corridors of the series, the designers would rearrange the hallways to represent different areas, and used some VFX work to stretch the spaces out. Every hallway was the same width, but on the third stage Hindle’s team built a series of wider hallway runs, representing the areas of Lumon the characters explore deeper into the series.

The main setting of the show, and the one set that Hindle considers to be the most important, is the Macrodata Refinement office that houses Mark and his team. The room is massive, measuring 80 by 40 feet, with low ceilings to create a feeling of being trapped. While designing the space, Hindle envisioned it as a playground of sorts, one where the newly severed employees are put and monitored after emerging from the “womb” –– the boardroom where they first awaken. To convey that, he gave the room a carpet with a grassy shade, resulting in the odd mix between sterile whites and deep greens that dominates the color palette of the series. Hindle also envisioned the color green as acting as a lifeline of sorts for the severed characters, who are locked deep within the walls of Lumon with no way to escape.

“Green is the most common color to your eye, like that’s the theory that it’s calming, it makes you feel calm,” Hindle says. “Some of the colors, the theories were kind of who they are as characters and what they needed to survive. I think green is something you need to survive.”

Hindle’s vision of the MDR office as a playground extended to the designs of the employees’ computers, which are used to sort through mysterious data for a purpose unexplained to the audience and the characters. While creating the office supplies, Hindle established rules for the show’s world, chief among them that all items would be manufactured internally by Lumon as opposed to being outsourced from other companies. He based the design of the computers on bulky, toylike early computers like iMacs, and built the screen using CRT glass with a touch screen glass. For the mouse, he created a trackball for the actors to operate, with the goal of making it feel anachronistic and slightly alien.

“If they explained this to somebody, they’d be like ‘that’s insane, there’s no such thing,’” Hindle says. “So it was something that had to be functional for them, functional for an actor to play that character, but it doesn’t make any sense to most people.”

As the MDR employees venture further into the depths of Lumon’s offices, they encounter more bizarre spaces, which Hindle describes as being based partially on the aesthetics of M.C. Esther. One of the most notable is the Perpetuity Wing, a dark void housing bizarre artifacts like a “Wall of Smiles,” with photos of employees flashing their teeth, and a full-size replica of the company’s founder Kier Eagan’s house. According to Hindle, most of the exhibitions in the wing came from the script by series creator Dan Erickson. For the house, Hindle designed a full-scale replica of a vintage, period house based on photographs he found at a museum in the Bronx.

To finalize the Lumon aesthetic, Hindle’s team also had graphic designer Tansy Michaud design the logo for the company. According to Hindle, Michaud took around two months and hundreds of drafts to arrive at the finished design, which shows the name “Lumon” in an artistic rendering of a global map, with a droplet forming the center of the “O.” Hindle explains they took inspiration from various pharmaceutical companies to form the design, and the idea for the droplet came as a way to indirectly reference the implant that the company puts inside the heads of its severed employees.

Although “Severance” is ostensibly set in a world where work lives and home lives are completely separate, in practice, the influence of Lumon extends beyond its workplace. The main character Mark lives in corporate housing provided to him by the company, which was shot in a neighborhood in Nyack, New York. Hindle scouted at least 60 locations before selecting the neighborhood, which is located on a hillside and consists of several different blue houses with the same basic design. According to Hindle, what made the location interesting is that although all of the houses visually look very similar, there are noticeable architectural differences that make it slightly off; Mark’s neighboring house, owned by his boss Cobel (Patricia Arquette), is roughly half the size of his own.

“It felt like the same thing that he’s processing, he’s so twisted and fragmented and broken and it felt like it needed the same kind of aesthetic,” Hindle says. “It’s cold. It’s also really comfortable like it’s beautiful. it really felt corporate but individualized in a really strange way, a really unsettling way.”

A frequent motif of the show is that a line will be placed in the center of the frame to represent the division between the two worlds. Mark and Cobel’s houses are often shown divided by plants, while inside the office, the divisions of desks are often placed at the center of the frame. Hindle, however, says that most of the shots aren’t truly symmetrical; the sets and shots have protruding walls or unequal divisions, which serve to disorient the viewer and remind them of the truly unequal division between the home and the workplace.

“It was trying to make things that were symmetrical, but it’s slightly wrong, because it’s the show,” Hindle says. “Everything’s just a little bit off, which is really uncomfortable.”

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