Architectural Digest | These Top-Secret Vintage Stores Set the Scene for Guillermo del Toro's The Shape of Water

By Elizabeth Stamp, December 7, 2017

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Some horror movie directors could be accused of focusing too much on the creatures and not enough on the world in which they live—but not Guillermo del Toro. The director is known for his highly detailed films—from Pan’s Labyrinth to Crimson Peak—and his latest movie, The Shape of Water, is no exception. The film, which opens on December 8, is set in early-1960s America and tells the story of a mute cleaning woman, played by Sally Hawkins, who uncovers a highly classified experiment at the government laboratory where she works.

To create the Cold War–era surroundings, production designer Paul Denham Austerberry and set decorators Shane Vieau and Jeff Melvin sourced period pieces from the 1930s to the 1960s. Vieau scoured vintage stores from primarily Michigan, Toronto, and upstate New York to find everything from light fixtures to furniture—all within the correct color palette. “The really big thing about working with Guillermo is that you really don't start with furniture—you start with color,” Vieau says. “You really talk about what's gonna be the color palette for that set, first and foremost, before you get to anything else, and then you fill it in like a color-blocking.”

The apartments of Elisa (Hawkins) and her neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins) are decorated with older pieces from the '30s, '40s, and '50s in muted tones. The home of government agent Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon), on the other hand, is quintessentially '60s, with warm hues and plenty of midcentury-modern furnishings. Vieau started the shopping process about eight weeks before filming began. One major item he needed to find was 75 pairs of vintage shoes for the Elisa’s character's apartment. “I drove all the way down to New York City and I thought that I would be able to get those shoes there,” he recalls. “I thought if anyone had good vintage it would have been New York, but what I found was that most of the stores were actually cleaned out.” Eventually, he was able to find the shoes, as well as plenty of other gems along the way, including his favorite piece, an Italian Art Deco light fixture that appears in Strickland’s dining room.

The set decorator had the best luck searching outside what are considered the typical meccas of vintage shopping, such as New York, Los Angeles, or Miami. “Most of the really, really good shopping happens in Michigan and Buffalo,” he says. “In Michigan, there's a lot of people with a lot of old money there and a lot of old, big homes and stuff in the suburbs.” (Note to vintage-treasure hunters: Follow the old money.)

He also favors brick-and-mortar shops over online retailers. “The really big thing that I find with eBay, 1stdibs, and Etsy, is that the prices tend to be really, really high, so you have to do a lot of negotiations with them in order to get down to what I would call a legitimate price for what the product is,” he says. He found one of his favorite Michigan sources, Le Shoppe, on eBay, but headed down in person. The one online source he loves? Kijiji, which is the Canadian version of Craigslist. “It's mostly used for people that live outside the big cities,” he says. “A lot of people over the age of 60 use it to sort of clear things out of their home, and you'll always find really, really good deals on that site.”

But his true trick for picking gems over junk is finding shops with good reputations and knowledgeable owners. Vieau also sticks to shops off the beaten path, where the inventory isn’t as picked-over: ”When you get into the more popular stores on popular streets, most of the product is kind of piecemeal.” If you’re ready to hop in the car in search of midcentury treasures like the ones Vieau found for The Shape of Water, the set decorator has shared his favorite secret sources—but try not to tell too many people. (Prices are on a scale from one to four dollar signs.)

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