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How Brave New World designed its 'curvaceous' and 'American trash' dystopia

By James Grebey
brave new world

New London, the main setting of Brave New World, looks perfect, elegant, and, well, empty. For the people responsible for bringing Aldous Huxley’s vision of a futuristic society numbed by pleasure to life in the recently released Peacock television series, that was the point.

“We quite quickly agreed that it’s not a sci-fi, Blade Runner, Matrix environment we were trying to convey,” production designer David Lee tells SYFY WIRE. “It’s utopia.” 

New London, a sleek but high-tech city built over the “rotting carcass” of the London we know, is full of pure white spaces, long curves, and no clutter. Lee says he and showrunner David Wiener “wanted to find a way to convey something that was bold, iconic, and sculptural.”

It quickly became apparent that Modernism — a clean and minimalistic architectural style which, it so happens, was becoming prominent in the 1930s when Huxley’s book first came out — would be the main source of inspiration for New London. Lee cites famed architect Oscar Niemeyer’s planned city of Brasília, perhaps the closest real-life thing we have to New London on an aesthetic level, as their starting point. Lee says they also looked at Soviet monumental architecture, and “tried to synthesize that into sculptural, sympathetic utopia.”

Modernism, Lee says, has a “curvaceous, elegant quality that humans respond to.” It feels at once both futuristic and, somehow, timeless. That’s good for Peacock’s Brave New World, which is a 2020 imagining of the future based on a vision from the '30s. Lee says the design has nods to the “retro” nature of the source material, while costume designer Susie Coulthard bridged the gap between these two versions of the future, separated by nearly a century, in the clothing New Londoners wear, too.

“Let’s not forget the novel was written 90 years ago. I wanted to give a nod to this by looking at the fashion of the '30s when the novel was written,” she tells SYFY WIRE via email, calling the decade a “super-stylish and fashion-forward era.” To that end, she incorporated somewhat dated styles, like pleating, into the New London wardrobe. 

New London looks great, but the not-so-secret darkness at the heart of Brave New World is that it’s all empty. The mood-leveling drugs, orgies, and stability all mask the fact that New Londoners really have no say in their lives or any real semblance of choice. The city’s hallways reflect that emptiness, although as Lee notes, there was a practical reason for that in addition to the thematic one. 

“The citizens have an optic interface that artificial intelligence generates, like a heads-up display,” he says of the high-tech contacts New Londoners wear. “So we needed quite soft backgrounds so you were able to read and interact with each other’s heads-up.”

brave new world

For viewers, New London seems cold despite all the natural light that Lee says they deliberately emphasized in the designs, rather than more conventional LED-filled halls. The lack of personality, art, and most tangible objects of any sort is certainly jarring to John the Savage (Alden Ehrenreich) when he comes to New London from the Savage Lands — themselves a whole other design challenge which Lee describes as “juxtaposing American trash.” In New London, we see John attempt to refashion the simple objects around him into speakers and other things that allow him to customize his plush-but-spartan apartment. “It was really fun to work out how he would use elements of this world and adapt them to his world,” Lee says.

Perhaps no part of New London captures the strange split between utopian and dystopian as much as The Bureau of Stability. Lee says it’s “a contradiction of terms in a utopia where nobody has anything to do. 

“We built a town hall where people could pretend to go to work,” he continues. “It had to have a vast, majestic quality. That was a real challenge and very rewarding. I think it has a uniqueness about it and a majesty about it. It has a splendor despite it being an office block.”

However much you might miss going to your office, you can’t deny that the idea of a “splendid office block” inspires just a little bit of despair in you. 

All episodes of Brave New World are now streaming on Peacock. 

SYFY WIRE and Peacock are both owned and operated by NBCUniversal.