A Set Designer on Recreating Frida Kahlo’s Home

A recreation of Frida Kahlo’s Casa Azul desk in ‘Frida Kahlo: Art, Garden, Life’ at the New York Botanical Garden (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

The New York Botanical Garden’s Frida Kahlo: Art, Garden, Life recreates Mexico City’s famous Casa Azul, now a museum, where Frida Kahlo was born and where she later lived with her husband, Diego Rivera, from 1929–1954. The exhibit — which culminates in two weekends’ worth of Día de los Muertos celebrations, from October 24–25 and October 31–November 1 — has officially broken the Botanical Garden’s attendance record with an estimated 500,000 visitors streaming in since it opened in May. In response to the demand, the garden will extend its hours to remain open until 8 pm on Saturdays.

The last exhibit at the Botanical Garden to break such a record was 2012’s Monet’s Garden, a recreation of the Giverny garden that inspired the impressionist’s art. So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that both spectacles bear the fingerprints of Scott Pask, a Tony-award-winning set designer who oversaw the scenic layout of those shows as well as the Garden’s 2011 orchid show, entitled The Orchid Show: On Broadway.

Pask grew up in Yuma, Arizona. As a child, he loved to draw houses. “I knew I wanted to train as an architect,” he says. “And then I discovered what I liked about space was emotional contact, and how that could affect how a viewer felt when they were in the space.” Pask received a bachelor’s degree in architecture from the University of Arizona and a master’s degree at the Yale School of Drama, and from there he was Broadway bound. He earned his first Tony award for scenic design for his work on the 2003 Martin McDonagh play The Pillowman, at the National Theater in London. His Broadway credits include Les Liaisons Dangereuses (2008), HAIR (2009), A Beheading in Spokane (2010), Promises, Promises (2010), and The Book of Mormon (2011), for which he earned his third Tony award.

For Frida Kahlo: Art, Garden, Life, Pask had to work within the Botanic Garden gallery’s irregular spaces — one long corridor ends in a wider, taller room that contains a replica of the pyramid that sits in the courtyard of the real Casa Azul, which Diego Rivera built to house his collection of pre-Colombian artifacts. The Botanic Garden’s version is instead filled with cactus plants and other succulents native to Mexico.

I spoke to Pask about creating drama through scenic design, the power of simplicity, and shades of blue.

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A replica of the pyramid that originally housed pre-Colombian artifacts, here displayed with native plants

Lara Zarum: You made your first visit to the real Casa Azul in Mexico City to research this exhibit. What did you take away from that visit? 

Scott Pask: That’s the home she grew up in with her family, and that’s the home she returned to at the end of her life. It was a wonderful oasis of all things Mexican: color, nature, food — the market is around the corner. There’s a vitality about the space.

LZ: This exhibit required you to recreate an already existing structure — and one that is fairly recognizable, at least to those familiar with Kahlo and her work. Did you find that hindered your creativity at all, having to reconstruct something rather than start from scratch?

SP: I don’t think of it as a constraint, because that’s the task I’m given. I can choose not to take it if I don’t find it interesting. But to me, I find it completely compelling. You can’t literally take that existing piece of architecture and plop it in the gallery; it’s a vastly different scale. Even the pyramid, it’s scaled down. So it’s already going through the filter of my perception — what’s the best scale for this room, because we cannot do a duplicate. It will just overwhelm the space. I trained as an architect and as a theater designer, so the world of architecture is something that informs every day of my work.

LZ: How did you give the space a sense of drama?

SP: For me the pyramid is kind of like the vista that you see through the entire length of the gallery when you approach it from either direction. So vista for me becomes about drama, and making sure there’s a clear view from the end of the long gallery all the way to the terminus, which is where that pyramid is. You’re always seeing that pyramid in relief against the blue walls — that to me is drama, and it’s a drama of color.

blue wall
A blue wall in the main gallery space

LZ: Was it difficult to find that exact shade of blue?

SP: It was very difficult, I will tell you that! There’s a sort of recipe from Mexico. It’s a color that changes in light very, very quickly, whether you’re in the shade of an overcast day or in direct sunlight. It was a process to get the right shade. Ultimately, you’re kind of relying on a sense of what feels right. We started with that recipe and we ended up adding a little age so it looks like it’s got a life as well. But yes, the colors are very much based on reality.

LZ: Where did the recipe come from?

SP: The museum [Casa Azul] provided it. They gave us specific instructions. It has to be interpreted by scenic artists here. So it was a process, because it was the most important visual — I mean, it’s literally called the Blue House. We can’t make it the Lavender House.

LZ: Are you happy with how the exhibit turned out? Do you feel you managed to evoke a sense of the real Casa Azul?

SP: I think it’s fantastic, and I also think everybody at the garden is just brilliant. The pyramid doesn’t look like that today — it was originally built to house [Frida and Diego’s] pre-Colombian artifacts. So they were stacked all along there. Having succulents [instead], very specific and special specimens, I loved that. I thought that was a real leap.

Of the three exhibitions I’ve done [at the Botanical Garden], the orchid show was quite lush, and Monet’s Givenchy was again a very lush installation, and this one is more — people always take “austere” to mean a bad word, but I think it’s a great word. It’s probably not the right word I’m looking for, but it’s a bit more … stark? I love that it has this sort of brutalism about it. These are all very strong words that I think are a bit too rough for what I’m trying to say.

casa azul
“Casa Azul” sign at the entrance of ‘Frida Kahlo: Art, Garden, Life’ at the New York Botanical Garden

LZ: No, I get what you’re saying — it’s a little sparser.

SP: There’s strength and there’s power in its simplicity. The Salk Institute in La Jolla is probably one of the most beautiful places in the world, and it’s one of the most austere. There’s a single line of water that runs down the middle, and it’s so powerful.

LZ: Maybe you’re also responding to a similarity between the landscape of Mexico and the landscape in which you grew up. 

SP: Exactly. Succulents by nature respond to a tougher climate — they’re storing their own water. I respond to the more austere things in my personal life because it’s something I grew up with and it’s very close to my heart, and that’s why the Frida show is something I was so excited to be a part of.

Frida Kahlo: Art, Garden, Life continues at the New York Botanical Garden (2900 Southern Boulevard, The Bronx) through November 1.

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