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How Frank Lloyd Wright Inspired One of Game of Thrones’ Most Epic Palaces

Westeros owes a great debt to the towering architect. And a Lannister always pays his debts.

Barristan Selmy (Ian McElhinney) and Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) discuss strategy in Meereen Palace. Photo: Helen Sloan/HBO
Barristan Selmy (Ian McElhinney) and Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) discuss strategy in Meereen Palace.

Over the years, many set designers and art directors have been inspired by the work of Frank Lloyd Wright. Whether filmed on location in one of his structures, or subtly incorporated with signature Wrightian design elements, Wright’s influence can be seen in countless popular movies and TV shows. His timeless designs have fit into a variety of cinematic worlds, time periods and genres.

Deborah Riley has won awards for her work as an art director and production designer on a wide variety of well-known films and shows. Before her career in set design, she studied architecture for three years, where she was first introduced to Wright’s work. Today, you can find her designing ornate sets for HBO’s smash hit Game of Thrones, which will end its epic eight-season run with a series finale on Sunday.

When creating Meereen Palace in Game of Thrones, Riley found inspiration in Wright’s Ennis and Hollyhock Houses, located near one of the show’s filming locations in Los Angeles. We sat down with the designer to discuss the distinctively Wrightian elements of Meereen, from textile blocks to geometric stained glass.

As a production designer, how has architecture inspired you?

One of the great joys of working as a production designer is creating spaces that reference various periods and designs. Game of Thrones was a wonderfully rich learning experience where the basic principles of architecture were applied every day.

What led you to the work of Frank Lloyd Wright?

After I left architecture school, I was able to more deeply explore and appreciate the design principles of someone like Wrightperhaps more than I ever could have, had I continued into a career as an architect. It’s allowed me to shamelessly explore and experiment with what made his spaces work.

Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage) approaches Missandei (Nathalie Emmanuel) and Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) in the Meereen Palace Throne Room.

Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage) approaches Missandei (Nathalie Emmanuel) and Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) in the Meereen Palace Throne Room.  Photo: Helen Sloan/HBO

Did you learn more about Wright’s principles as you engaged with the architecture of the Ennis House and the Hollyhock House?

When creating spaces that are designed to be photographed, it’s important to bear in mind how the camera will see them. I always want to be able to provide something for the camera to “bite” into. I learned a lot about Wright’s textile block houses, which turned ugly, concrete blocks into something extraordinary. It’s important to give the camera light and shade and make seemingly boring expanses interesting to the eye. This worked for us in two ways in Meereen: The use of the blocks meant that we were able to give the space much more texture than it otherwise would have had, and, by punching through the block, we were also able to give the cinematographers an excuse to push the light through.

Why do you think Wright’s work continues to inspire TV and movies?

The continued relevance of Wright’s work is a testament to the boldness and courage of his vision, as well as the innovation of his designs. Good design is good design. It’s rare, but it also photographs well. As a production designer, it’s about knowing good design when you see it, and understanding how you can translate the principles of space to the story you are telling in a way that will photograph easily and beautifully. I’ve always used Wright’s work as a place to start.

The above excerpt from an article in the upcoming Spring 2019 issue of the Frank Lloyd Wright Quarterly magazine, “Timeless: Frank Lloyd Wright + Contemporary Pop Culture.”

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