man standing in low-ceilinged office room

Building the Uncanny Corporate Modernism of Severance 

The new show from Apple TV+ takes place in a midcentury-inspired workplace with a message for today.  

In Severance, a new show from Apple TV+, a group of technology workers must undergo a procedure to ensure that they don’t take information home from work with them. When the employees of Lumon arrive on the “severed floor” for work each morning, they have no memory of who they are and recall nothing of their lives or the world outside of the office; when they clock out at 5 p.m., their memories of the workday evaporate just as quickly.  

The result is two selves, a work self and an outside self. Ostensibly a method of corporate information security, it’s a profound—and dark—commentary on work-life-balance. And it’s one that feels especially poignant right now, as employers weigh the pros and cons of a return to the office following two years during which most white-collar workers worked from home. 

a workstation with computer-like terminal
The workstations used by the characters in Severance resemble computers, but unlike any that exist in our world. With an integrated track ball and tube screen they evoke a mishmash of past and future. COURTESY APPLE TV+

The world the characters inhabit inside the Lumon office is defined by an austere design language: white walls, endless corridors, low ceilings, and odd computer-like machines. This uncanny modernism is the brainchild of the series’ production designer Jeremy Hindle, who tells Metropolis, “My job is to totally envision what the world is and create it.”  

For Hindle, midcentury references were key to developing an aesthetic for a fictional workplace where employees literally leave their personal lives (and memories) at the door. He explains that the clutter of personal lives that pervades the COVID-19-era office is everything the Lumon office—a high tech research center where no one is quite sure what they are working on or produce—is not.  

“I thought, well, if you were going to create the ultimate workplace, which is what [Lumon is] doing… you’d go back to that, the basics, which is ‘you’re just here to work.’ So, it should be sterile, and beautiful, and playful,” he says. 

An early piece of inspiration, he says, was the John Deere World Headquarters in Moline, Illinois, designed by Eero Saarinen and Kevin Roche (After Saarinen died in 1961, Roche completed the design. It opened in 1964.) “Those interiors blow me away…they’re powerful, they’re dominant, they’re architecturally stunning. But they’re also designed to impress you, to make you feel really powerful at work. So, you have a beautiful desk that’s custom made for this space. You have one phone, one pen.” 

woman entering elevator in lobby
In lobby of the “severed floor” where employees have no memory of the world outside of work, references to midcentury office design abound. COURTESY APPLE TV+
Man standing before a painting in a hallway
Production designer Jeremy Hindle was inspired by Saarinen’s John Deere HQ and Bell Labs complex, the latter of which serves as the exterior set for the Lumon workplace. COURTESY APPLE TV+

Enthusiasts of midcentury architecture will notice that when Mark Scout (played by Adam Scott) arrives to work each gray morning, he appears not at the John Deere HQ, but at another example of the Finnish architect’s titanic corporate headquarters: The Bell Labs Complex in Holmdel Township, New Jersey

The show’s interiors, however, were all Hindle, and his aim was to create a workplace whose design wouldn’t make sense to anyone on the outside if the characters were able to recall it. The four main characters sit at an odd workstation supported by a central pillar marooned in a gigantic low-ceilinged room and operate small computer terminals that are hardly recognizable as such. With a round glass monitor that’s somehow also a touch screen and a built-in trackball interface, they look like an archaic branch on the personal computer’s evolutionary tree.  

The effect is transportive, subtle enough to be of our reality, yet twisted in a way that suggests something perverse is at work in the Lumon corporation. “It’s not just about architecture,” says Hindle. “It’s about telling the story in a way that makes you feel uncomfortable, makes you feel comfortable, and makes you wonder: Why are they there? How are they there? And trying to tell the story visually.” 

white hallway
Miles and miles of white hallways characterize the space between locations inside the Lumon office space. COURTESY APPLE TV+
four desks with green panels on green carpet
The Macro Data Refinement department is the location of much of the show’s action, Hindle solved the challenge of making cubicles a dynamic set by allowing the divider walls to be pressed down by the actors. COURTESY APPLE TV+