“It’s so cool they let you move into a Cheesecake Factory.” This is what sullen young writer Ava (Hannah Einbinder) snaps to aging comedy legend Deborah Vance (Jean Smart) inside the sitting room of her palatial Las Vegas estate during a disastrous job interview—as seen in the first episode of the sharp new comedy Hacks (which premieres May 13 on HBO Max). Deborah retorts, “Is that where you wait tables? It seems like a better fit!” and the two continue to trade barbs until Deborah hires her. It’s the start of a tentative, albeit fulfilling, friendship.
Hacks production designer Jon Carlos (Westworld) can laugh about that punch line now. But he admits there were “many lengthy conversations” between himself and the show’s creators (Lucia Aniello, Paul W. Downs, and Jen Statsky) about what it represented. “There’s definitely a generational difference in that this 25-year-old is walking into an environment she’s never been akin to,” he says. “But I also wanted to make sure Deborah was never portrayed as tacky. There are loud and vibrant decor punches in the house, but we didn’t want any of the rooms to feel ostentatious or tasteless. It would take away from the gravity and some of the importance of why she is the way she is.”
Deborah Vance (Smart) interviews Ava (Hannah Einbinder) in her sitting room, which is “more formal with less comfortable traditional furniture pieces,” Dorros says. He calls it a “‘come for the party but don’t stay for too long’ moment.”
Instead, he envisioned that the suffer-no-fools character—a mash-up of Joan Rivers, Elaine May, Debbie Reynolds, and Lucille Ball—commissioned a high-end custom L.A. architectural firm such as the Landry Design Group to create her immaculately landscaped 30,000-square-foot French chateau–influenced estate in the Las Vegas desert (where she’s enjoyed a long casino residency). “It’s a hidden oasis with a lush garden in the middle of this tepid climate and barren landscape,” he explains, adding that a private residence in L.A.’s Bel Air neighborhood doubled as the exterior.
For the interiors (constructed on two soundstages in the Paramount Pictures studios), he surmises that Deborah hired a private company and spent five years planning the contemporary-meets-classic look. “But she probably clashed with them,” he says, “and redecorated 90% of it herself based on her multiple trips to Paris.” To wit, Carlos and his team studied the aesthetic inside the United States Embassy in France (designed by a New York architecture firm) for design inspiration. “We used that heavy ornateness of the furniture and curtains as a baseline and then pulled away in terms of material and softer colors,” he explains.