Thursday, June 13, 2024

How a designer’s chairs made it onto the set of a Hollywood blockbuster


Midway through “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever,” Namor, the king of Talokan, strikes Lord M’Baku, sending him crashing into the center of an outdoor cafe. While most moviegoers focused on Lord M’Baku heaving for air after being launched feet away, Jomo Tariku, a furniture designer in Springfield, Va., homed in on another detail.
Tariku, who was watching the film in the theater with family, spotted something familiar in a corner of the frame: a cluster of seats he designed, inspired by furniture from Ghana, Ethiopia and Mali. He tapped his son, 17, and nephew, 14, to point out the Baltic birch stools, but they were unimpressed. “Okay, we saw it,” they said. “All right.”
“Since they were little, I’ve had the prototypes of these things all over the house, so they’re not extremely unique [to them],” Tariku says. But as a furniture designer, the opportunity to see his work in a feature film is anything but ordinary.
If asked, most longtime furniture makers would say their ultimate career goal would be to have their work displayed in a gallery or museum, says Tariku. “I really doubt any of us would say, ‘I want my stuff to be in a blockbuster.’ This was never on my radar.” But his work, including a chair selected for an exhibit curated by “Black Panther” production designer Hannah Beachler at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, was well-known enough that he caught the attention of Molly Ebner, an assistant set decorator and buyer for the film.
Part of the art department, the set decoration crew is one of the most important albeit sometimes overlooked teams on a movie production. “Our sets are typically 360 degrees every detail down to what’s written on a piece of paper, on a desk, to what’s in the trash can. Every single book that’s on a bookshelf is specifically thought out, even if you don’t see it,” Ebner says.
The art department is led by the production designer, who’s “kind of like the architect,” she says. They have a grand vision for the look of each scene, but they don’t source individual items such as furnishings and props. That’s where set decoration comes in.
“We’re kind of like the interior designers,” Ebner says. “Wakanda Forever” was a massive production; the team, which also includes leadmen, set dressers and fabricators, among others, accumulated 2,337 boxes of materials for set dressing.
“Where it’s fun to do something super crazy and out there if it’s really called for, some things you just want to be a beautiful backdrop to let the real art shine, which I think is usually the actors and the story and most of the time [the wardrobe],” says set decorator Lisa K. Sessions, who led the team of a few dozen people working on “Wakanda Forever.”
Sessions, who also was the set decorator for films such as “The Suicide Squad,” “Dolemite Is My Name” and “City of Lies,” begins each job by reading the script with an eye for what props each scene requires and comparing it to the production designer’s look book. From there, she creates a budget that she negotiates with the film’s producers.
Prep time could vary from a couple of weeks to several months. Typically, the bigger the budget, the more time the team has to plan, says Sessions, who worked on “Wakanda Forever” for 14 months with a $2.5 million budget. By comparison, she worked on “Dolemite Is My Name” for five months with $400,000 to spend.
Ebner was hired as one of two buyers about four months before shooting began. “The first thing I do is either go through my library or purchase more design books and research a ton,” she says.
No matter how specific a request, she tries to find just the right items. “It’s my job to scour the internet, call as many people as possible and try to figure out what is this thing, where does it come from and how can we get it as soon as possible,” she says. “I’m not always on set, but I’m out in the real world speaking with vendors, talking with people and creating these relationships.”
The number of independent furniture artists whose work makes it into a film also varies. About a quarter of the set pieces for “Wakanda Forever” were from small artisans like Tariku, while “Dolemite” featured none, says Sessions. Many small manufacturers can’t produce items quickly enough for a film’s timeline, so a lot of items for the “Black Panther” film were built on set, Ebner says.
Tariku, for instance, had just two weeks to build, pack and ship a dozen raw stools that the set decoration crew painted black on-site. At the time, he worked full-time as a data scientist and graphic designer at the World Bank. “It did not sound doable, but I wasn’t going to say no,” he says. He spent late nights and weekends cutting, gluing, sanding and assembling furniture. “I don’t think I’ve ever worked at that pace, but I got it to them on time it was pretty exciting.”
Sometimes, Ebner says, artisans miss the opportunity because they don’t think the request is real. “I didn’t think Jomo was going to respond because his furniture is in museums,” she says.
And he was, in fact, skeptical. “A pretty simple email showed up one day that said, ‘We want to use your work for a movie,’” he recalls. He showed the message to his family and his son picked up on an “MCU” reference. “‘That’s Marvel Cinematic Universe,’” he said. And that’s when it clicked for Tariku. “It’s got to be ‘Black Panther,’” he thought. “What else could it be?”
In addition to purchasing the stools, Ebner rented Tariku’s “Nyala chair,” inspired by antelope from the Bale Mountains of East Africa. It was featured in the character Aneka’s home toward the end of the movie.
To research Mayan culture for the Talokan people, Ebner visited a Mayan exhibit at the Fernbank Museum in Atlanta, where the film was shot. While it’s convenient to source materials from local vendors, Ebner favored authenticity. So when searching for a Mayan-inspired hammock for one of Namor’s sets, she called Angela Damman, a sustainable designer she knew from previous work.
Coincidentally, Damman’s husband recently discovered agave sisalana, a plant endemic to southern Mexico that was thought to be eradicated, in a junglelike area of their property in the Yucatán. “We started cultivating it, and at the time of Molly’s inquiry, we were ready to start harvesting it,” says Damman. She had three months and a team of 20 people to design and create the hammock using the fibers harvested from the rare plant.
“To our knowledge, no one has made anything with this fiber since the Mayans were around,” says Ebner.
For Tariku, answering Ebner’s email put him on a path he’d never dared to dream about. Ebner has already asked to use his Nyala chair in another blockbuster film, he says.
“I’ve stopped count of how many times I’ve been mentioned by name within the design world, being associated with Wakanda,” he says.

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