The Craft of Illusion

The Craft of Illusion

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Tribute in Light memorial sketch, Sept. 13, 2001. An annual light installation first realized in 2002.

Production designer Julian LaVerdiere creates imagined worlds that only seem real.

After visiting the New York City studio of production designer Julian LaVerdiere, I may never see another commercial without being aware of the elaborately collaborative and warp-speed process that goes into it. The Cooper Union- and Yale-trained former sculptor has locked into a world where his passions, talent and discipline converge to create images as ephemeral as the last shampoo ad you muted on tv or as memorable as Tribute in Light, a 9/11 memorial.

As a child, LaVerdiere learned to throw pots under the guidance of his father, the ceramic sculptor Bruno LaVerdiere. Later, as a teenager accompanying his father when he taught workshops at the Penland and Haystack craft schools, Julian took jewelry making and metalwork. He had already been introduced to metal and sculpture by his grandfather, an inventor, aviation mechanic and a master fly-tier. Although today he feels that his aesthetic and material interests couldn't be more different from his father's, he says, "If it weren't for my father, I don't think I'd have gone into the arts." Years later, using a metal lathe in an advanced physics class at Yale, he remembered how similar it felt to throwing a pot on a wheel.

LaVerdiere's entry into production design work is the result of following his nature; most of his colleagues come from art or architectural backgrounds and chose it as the most direct medium in which to realize visions. It became clear to LaVerdiere, after apprenticing in several scenic shops, that he wanted to control the design.

Now, beginning with delicately detailed drawings that have a life of their own, LaVerdiere creates entire sets or key figures in an imagined world, often in fractional scale to the finished image. A rocket device the size of a car appears on film to dwarf a house; a vast sandwich factory springs from props and mirrors in a four-foot cube. In this last set, even after the line between reality and reflection was disclosed, the illusion persisted with a stubborn veracity.

Though LaVerdiere possesses the hand/eye skills to make many of the fantastical objects himself that he's able to conceive and draw, he now contracts scenic shops to fabricate his designs and can direct them to achieve the exacting detail required. In these sets he combines found objects, kitchen accessories and industrial and construction supplies in a seamless concoction that may not exist in the real world but still seems recognizable. For one client, a cosmetics company, he created from existing hard-ware, electronics and custom-machined parts the facade of a hidden safe that looks so real you wonder what it contains.

LaVerdiere's perhaps best-known work is Tribute In Light, what has become an annual memorial to those who perished in the 9/11 attacks. Designed with Paul Myoda as an image for the cover of the New York Times Magazine, Sept. 23, 2001, in response to a request for artists' reactions to the attacks, the image of the twin beams of light ghosting the downed Twin Towers also appeared on the cover of Art in America that November. Realized in March 2002 as an installation consisting of 88 searchlights placed next to the World Trade Center site, Tribute in Light was produced by the public art organization Creative Time and the Municipal Art Society, working with city agencies and backed by Mayor Mike Bloomberg.

Following that public work, LaVerdiere received a grant from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs Percent for Art Program to create twin lanterns commemorating the valor of all firemen for a newly completed firehouse in the Bushwick section of Brooklyn. Although the first design centered on the concept of an eternal flame with actual ignited gas, this idea proved logistically too difficult. LaVer-diere's solution, Sentinel Lanterns, 2007 , flanking the entrance, reveals, embedded in 4-foot-by-14-inch billets of cast acrylic, a fireman's ax and Halligan bar (a forcible entry tool) in one, and a high-pressure water cannon in the other. With lamps focused through the column from above and below, columns of light reminiscent of the Twin Towers guard the firehouse while the objects speak to the spirits of the lost firemen.

Lying seductively on LaVerdiere's desk as I concluded my interview was an ultraviolet-ray machine (an early-20th-century medical cure-all) that he was in the process of combining with 1950s vacuum tubes and more recent electronic parts to become a brainwashing machine in a forthcoming Matt Damon film, The Adjustment Bureau . We are supplied with enough visual cues to ground us but left clueless as to what's going on inside the device; thus the trap is set for the suspension of disbelief. With his uncanny eye, LaVerdiere resides comfortably in this dichotomy, preferring to engage the almost real, the barely plausible and the totally imagined in a single frame.

Jeremy Lebensohn owns a sculptural and architectural metal fabrication studio in Brooklyn.