Vanity Fair went to a talk by Caroline Perzan, the set designer for Fox’s huge hit Empire, at Art Basel. Contemporary art plays a central role in the music mogul main character’s “lifestyle,” as well as that of co-creator and director Lee Daniels’s own life. Works by Kehinde Wiley, Mickalene Thomas, and Barkley L. Hendricks, as well as classics by Van Gogh and Monet have all been featured.
At the panel, Perzan explained how art functions in show’s creative process:
“The art does pop off the walls,” she continued. “On some films that I’ve decorated you want it to be subtle so it doesn’t take away from the story, but the story line for Empire is so splashy, glitzy . . . that a lot of the art pops, like the characters pop, like the wardrobe pops. It’s just this whole culture that he wanted to create.”
Daniels, a collector himself, charged Perzan with incoporating the works from the start. It was, she said, a tall task when filming the pilot with a small budget and not much by way of reputation to sell galleries and museums on. Early on, Daniels’s friendship with Wiley secured several of his works (mostly, Perzan and her department license the rights to the works on the show, then print replicas and stretch them themselves). The ratings last year kept the ball rolling. Though gallerists are a little quicker to entertain her calls now, Perzan said that she is still researching lesser-known and emerging artists to give the show range.