5 Secret Symbols Hidden in the Interiors of 'The Handmaids' Tale'

The Handmaid's Tale

Hulu’s haunting hit series The Handmaid’s Tale may not immediately get you thinking about home design —it’s set in a dystopian near-future that looks more like the 1600s — but the interiors featured in the show, from Offred’s (Elisabeth Moss) Spartan attic bedroom to the eerily familiar grocery store, were all carefully decorated by production designer Julie Berhoff to hold clues about the characters and the world they live in. “Everything was very purposeful,” Berghoff tells archdigest.com. Here, five subtle decor moments you might have missed.

1. The Outline in Offred’s Room

As a handmaid in the fictional nation of Gilead, Offred is bound not only by treacherous laws, but also a repressive system of societal codes. Even her spare bedroom is a reminder of the rules: “We put a desk there, but she can’t write. So it’s almost like a remnant, a remembrance of ‘Oh, I was a writer, an editor. I can’t even sit and write anymore,’” Berghoff says. But what’s missing from the room is equally unsettling: the outline of a now-removed mirror. “They don’t want you to be vain anymore, so we basically put the shape of a mirror on the wall to make it feel like at one point there was a mirror there.”

The Handmaid's Tale

2. The Missing Locks

“The most distinctive thing about Offred’s bedroom,” according to Moss, “is that there are no locks on the doors and there’s nothing in there that you could hurt yourself with, so that’s a political message as far as women’s rights.”

3. The Symbols in the Grocery Store

Unlike the characters’ old-fashioned clothes, the grocery store where the handmaids shop is startlingly contemporary. “When they go shopping, it’s not in some old-timey-looking place,” says Samira Wiley, who plays the handmaid Moira. “It’s in a shopping center that looks like now. And I think those details make it a little scarier.” The store set is missing one familiar element, however: Writing. None of the products on the store’s shelves have any words printed on them because handmaids are forbidden to read. Instead, Berghoff’s team “designed hundreds and hundreds of labels” in a language of symbols created by the show’s graphics team.

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4. Serena Joy’s Stolen Art

Commander Waterford’s (Joseph Fiennes) wife, Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski), has an impressive collection of art in her home, a rare commodity in Gilead, but the collection has even more sinister roots for Berghoff: “We pretended like they went into the Boston Museum of Modern Art and stole all their favorite paintings,” she says. “Serena Joy is a watercolorist, and she loves nature, so she picked Monets.”

5. The Commander’s Ceiling

Berghoff admits she “had a lot of fun with the ceilings on this project.” In the Commander’s office, for example, there is a map of the United States plastered overhead, that symbolizes the ongoing battle for territory in the former United States of the show. Says Berghoff, “I felt like it was almost a dartboard for him, where he could sit in his chair and throw a dart up there and say, ‘Oh, we conquered Florida.'”

For more from the set designer of The Handmaid’s Tale, visit archdigest.com.

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