As world leaders wake up to the prospect of a hemorrhagic fever pandemic, The Knick, a period medical drama from Cinemax (of all places), offers a glimpse into the grim medical practices of just over a century ago. Filmmaker Steven Soderbergh abandoned an implausible "retirement" to direct the series, reassembling the creative team from his 2011 film Contagion for the project. Production designer Howard Cummings created the faithful Gilded Age environments, aiming for an accurate portrayal of New York in 1900 but using some less-than-obvious methods to keep the visuals feeling contemporary. "I can make this modern by shutting down the color palette and making it pretty much like a black and white movie," explains Cummings.
The Knickerbocker facility itself conveys the plight of an aging grande dame, hopelessly crumbling, despite sympathetic but inadequate attempts to get with the times. Inside, the neutral backdrop—visible in the milk-glass light fixtures, white subway tile, painted beadboard wainscoting, and dusky stained wood—accentuates the exceptional amounts of blood released by patients lucky enough to end up on the operating table of chief surgeon John Thackery (played by the brooding Clive Owen), whose patient survival rate of about half is considered a great achievement. When his less fortunate patients expire, most often due to exsanguination, the evidence is splashed all over the white room like a Jackson Pollock canvas.
It was an earlier painter who inspired Cummings's design for the operating theater. In addition to research taken from photographic reports and the counsel of medical historian Dr. Stanley Burns, paintings by late 19th century scientific realist Thomas Eakins inspired the tone. "He did a couple of what were considered outrageously modern paintings at the time," says Cummings, referring to Eakin's clear-eyed and bloody depictions of surgery.
When looking for a location for the hospital's dispensary, a free public clinic for poor people requiring medical attention, Cummings found a space at a Greenpoint, Brooklyn church that worked perfectly. "What was shocking to me was that the doctors were just on the sides, in the open, treating patients," says Cummings. "A sense of medical privacy did not really exist." Architectural elements in the space such as columns, moldings, and window shapes informed details for the built sets required of the rest of the hospital.
Here's a few more shots from the world they created: