On page 196 of his 2009 Warren Beatty biography Star, Peter Biskind describes the work aesthetic of fabled production designer Richard Sylbert: “Sylbert had a method, which consisted of distilling the movie’s theme, choosing visual metaphors reflective of that theme, and then making each and every design element a slave to those metaphors.”
Sylbert’s stark black-and-white interiors in The Graduate (’67), a likely allusion to choice, ethics and morality, was one example; ditto the jungle flora and zebra-skin design of the Robinson’s den, and the preference for cheetah- and zebra-skin slips, bras and bathing suits worn by Mr. Robinson as well as Benjamin Braddock’s mom, which had something to do with unruly libidos and predatory behavior.
In short, Sylbert never focused solely on design elements — he was a kind of co-director (in his mind, certainly) who always focused on the big overall.
Sylbert designed The Manchurian Candidate (’62), Long Day’s Journey Into Night (’62), Lilith (’64), The Pawnbroker (’64), Grand Prix (’66), Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (’66), The Graduate (’67), Rosemary’s Baby (’68), Catch-22 (’70), Carnal Knowledge (’71), Chinatown (’74), Shampoo (’75), Reds (’81), The Cotton Club (’84) and Dick Tracy (’90).
I’m not saying that other production designers don’t use the same theme-metaphor approach that Sylbert did. I’m saying that I can’t think of any off the top of my head. So I’m asking.
Here’s a 10.27.06 article I wrote about Sylbert, whom I knew somewhat and with whom I had several great discussions and off-the-record interviews. He died from cancer a little more than a decade ago — in March 2002.