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The Handmaid’s Tale Gets A Haunting Architectural Tribute

The Pentagram-designed structure was designed to give away free copies of Margaret Atwood’s book—and echo its portrayal of oppression and resistance.

The new Hulu adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s searing 1985 novel The Handmaid’s Tale has been accompanied by a rather unorthodox, viral marketing campaign–the latest component of which is a Pentagram-designed art installation on New York City’s High Line, which appeared on Wednesday to mark the show’s premiere date.

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The accordion-shaped installation was primarily a mechanism to give away thousands of free copies of Atwood’s novel. One side of each of the structure’s folds features a blank-faced image of Elizabeth Moss, who plays the show’s main character Offred, in a fundamentalist Christian society called Gilead where fertile women, called “handmaids,” are forced to bear children for powerful men and their barren wives. On the other side are tall, narrow bookshelves that hold copies of the book; as they’re taken down, they reveal defiant backlit messages from the book, the letters of which form the back of each bookshelf. Bonnet-shaped lamps hang from the top of the structure, echoing one of the key costumes from the show.

“The way the bonnets were structured would show the regimentation of these women who were imprisoned,” says Pentagram designer Paula Scher, who designed the installation with Abbott Miller. “The bonnet is a symbol of oppression. When you pull a book out you begin to reveal this light.
Scher says the decision to keep the face of the handmaid blank stemmed from her desire to paint Elizabeth Moss’s character as the everywoman. The prominence of the color red is just as important: “There are all types of associations that the color red has with womanhood in general,” she says. “The scarlet letter. The idea of the woman in red being evil. Then there’s this notion of oppression and this shame, where your womanhood is taken away from you and you become an object.”

According to an interview with PBS NewsHour, Margaret Atwood chose red for the handmaids for a variety of reasons. “German prisoners of war held in Canada [in WWII] were given red outfits because they show up so well against the snow,” she told NewsHour. Red is the color often worn by Mary Magdalene, too. “On the other hand, red is the cross and red is blood,” Atwood said.

[Photo: Bryan Bedder/Getty Images for Hulu]
For Scher, the themes of female objectification and oppression in Atwood’s story have unmistakable resonance with today’s culture. “We’ve been through this election where you had seen comments made in the public sphere that I find just staggering in their backwardness and misogyny,” she says. “The idea of woman as object is really, really clear. Just think about your vice president, who’s afraid to have lunch with a woman who’s not his wife. What planet did he land on?”

Of course, the installation, which is on view at the High Line until April 30, is somewhat of an advertisement–however beautiful it might be. As part of its marketing campaign for the television show, Hulu has also sent scores of actresses dressed in the iconic red dresses and white bonnets to events like SXSW and the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books (which was so effective as a marketing tool that women wore similar clothing to protest the Texas legislature). The company has also partnered with the New York women’s social club The Wing for events and screenings, and with the fashion label Vaquera, which created clothing inspired by the story’s themes for New York Fashion Week in the fall.

Still, the timeliness of the adaptation is certainly part of the reason why the series is so highly anticipated (and it’s getting good reviews so far). “I’m old enough to have read the book when it first came out,” Scher says. And in terms of facing the challenge of working with such potent material? “To attack it now in these times? It seems unbelievably prescient.”

About the author

Katharine Schwab is an associate editor at Co.Design based in New York who covers technology, design, and culture.

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