Through interiors, Severance reveals the gruesome nature of office work

The outstanding production design of the series plays a central role in shaping its main theme while contributing to a strong critique of office cliches, mid-century work ethics, and corporate fanaticism.

At Lumon Industries, employees can volunteer to undergo a surgical procedure called severance to divide their memories between work and their personal lives outside the company. Their memories are forever severed thanks to a special brain chip, creating two separate personas. The “innies” only live inside the company, while the “outies” are the ones in charge of the shared body, living its life outside of work, blissfully ignoring what happens at Lumon during office hours.

That’s the main idea behind Severance, a new Apple TV+ show created by Dan Erickson and produced and directed by Ben Stiller. The plot starting point is an elegantly minimal yet original stroke of genius. The writers expand it in multiple directions, crafting a thrilling and entertaining mystery show.

What really sets Severance apart from many other good TV shows is the importance of its production design in defining and setting the tone and furthering the narrative through aesthetic devices. Production Designer Jeremy Hindle took inspiration from the dystopic architecture of the 1967 Jaques Tati movie Playtime, mixing it with Eero Saarinen and Kevin Roche elements. In fact, the exterior of the Lumon corporate building in the show is the recently restored Bell Labs complex in New Jersey, which Saarinen also designed.

The Bell Labs main building by Eero Saarinen

The architectural elements, often used in the show to contrast the vast and inhumane size of the corporation and the small life of Lumon employees, blend perfectly with the aesthetics of the interiors. Hindle took inspiration for the sets and all the materials from pharmaceutical companies. His team designed a comprehensive Corporate Identity for the fictional corporation, including a logo, instructional materials, office furniture, disposables, wall paintings, computers with improbable touch screen CRT monitors, and more. 

The way the show authors conceived Lumon reminds broadly of Aperture Science, the fictional scientific corporation from the Portal videogame franchise, down to the portraits of the revered founder, Kier Egan for Lumon, Cave Johnson for Aperture. Elements like the computer and the interface used by the characters mix a soft mid-century look with technologies of a different era. This way, the entire show is hard to place either in the present, the past, or the future.

Severance. Courtesy Apple TV+
Severance. Courtesy Apple TV+

Moreover, the set and production design blend with masterful lighting and camera work to create an uninterrupted feeling of discomfort that contributes to the mystery and thrill of the story. This is achieved by throwing off the set’s artificial symmetry and character placement in almost every shot, with a painstaking work of scene framing that’s rarely found in a streaming series. “It was trying to make things that were symmetrical, but it’s slightly wrong, because it’s the show”, said production designer Jeremy Hindle. “Everything’s just a little bit off, which is really uncomfortable.”

The result of this blend between production design and cinematography is a show that perfectly depicts the gruesome reality of corporate work through hyperbole and, of course, satire. The underground “severed floor”, where the innies of the severed employees of Lumon are kept prisoners (both by the company and their unknowing “outies”), is an unnatural place designed to increase productivity and just do “meaningful work”. The workers are invited, if not forced, to blindly accept their duty without questioning it or trying to understand what it is that they’re doing. If that sounds uncannily similar to a white-collar corporate job, it’s because it is.

And that’s precisely where the show’s central question stems from: wouldn’t it be nice to be able to separate your boring work time and your outdoor personal life, dividing the job you are supposed to appreciate and be grateful for and the personal life you really want to live?

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