Behind the scenes of 'Billions': How production designer Michael Shaw built a home and office befitting a billionaire hedge fund manager for the show's main character

  • The Showtime hit "Billions" centers around the homes and offices of two characters: archnemeses Axe, a billionaire hedge fund manager, and US Attorney Chuck Rhoades.
  • Production designer Michael Shaw said each character's spaces were specifically designed to provide a contrast the other's.
  • Editor's note: This article contains spoilers.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

"Billions" is anchored by two key locations: The home and office of brilliant, billionaire hedge funder manager Bobby Axelrod, or Axe. But, per Michael Shaw, the production designer of the Showtime hit, there are two other pivotal locations in the show: The more modest home and office of Axe's nemesis, US Attorney Chuck Rhoades.

The show's initial conceit centered on Paul Giamatti's Rhoades, a government attorney in the SDNY who opts to swap out his days prosecuting minor crimes and try to snare Axe, the crooked hedge funder played by Damian Lewis. Axe also employs Rhoades' wife as a performance coach at his company. In the show's five seasons and counting, the plot has corkscrewed from there.

Michael Shaw recently told Business Insider these two pivotal settings — the leads' contrasting homes — are intended to help throw the distinct qualities of the New Rich Look into clear relief. "The whole design was really about the contrast it creates between Chuck and Axe," Shaw said. "It's the kind of thing we did a lot, which nobody would really notice unless you put them side by side."

Take Axe's and Rhoades' kitchens. Both live in homes with kitchen islands, which Shaw devised as a directive from the showrunners; both families, of course, congregate around them for the drama. The ordinariness of Chuck's warm, wooden kitchen island makes Axe's white kitchen, with its three-inch thick marble and pristine surfaces, seem even more lavish.

The toughest trick is trompe l'oeil trashing

The two men's offices are designed to provide a similar contrast. Chuck's workspace was inspired by a tour Shaw took of then-federal prosecutor Preet Bharara's workspace.

"It was beautifully chaotic, with a lot of scrambling around and cacophony, like on a trading floor in the old days," Shaw said. "But the world of Axe is very spare, clean and quiet – almost monastic." At least, it was, until the end of season one when — spoiler alertDamian Lewis' character tears it apart desperately looking for surveillance devices.

Since "Billions," like many shows, shoots scripts out of order, they had to temporarily destroy the space — a trompe l'oeil trashing.

"I had to make it look like an exploded piñata that you could still put back together," Shaw said. Translation: wires dangled from the ceiling, and there was a haze in the air to cloud the view. There were real holes in the walls, but those destroyed floorboards were only painted to look torn up. One thing they didn't damage? The art work festooning the walls.

How to make – and destroy – a $50 million replica

Art, of course, is pivotal to the New Rich Look: Hedge funders snap up canvases and sculptures today both as wealth trophies and as speculative investments. It also appeals to their alpha-male, ultra-competitive instincts.

"Most of the rest of us have a poster. These are $50 million paintings," Shaw laughed. "There's a certain feeding frenzy among them, who partly want it as an investment, and partly just to say, 'Yes, I have that much money, too.'" 1980s graffiti artist is a favorite of this crowd — and would be for Axe in particular, Shaw said. "They're both raw, bold experimenters."

A Jean-Michael Basquiat. "Billions" set not pictured.Leon Neal/Getty Images

Thanks to pricey clearances and complex copyrights, securing broadcast rights to blue-chip work like that is complicated and expensive. So instead, Shaw turned to Culture Corps, a facilitator set up by longtime art world insider Yvonne Force Villareal. It acts as an interface between galleries, estates or artists, and the movie world.

Shaw worked with Culture Corps to create a lookbook of art that would fit Axe's office: note the abstract nature of much of the work, intended to reflect the zigzagging graphs and charts of the monitors nearby. Culture Corps then secured the rights to reproduce those pieces and oversaw their destruction at season's end — a crucial guarantee that was part of the initial agreement.

One other element in Axe's office of which Shaw is particularly proud: the blue glass behind Axe. The wall is made of so-called slag glass.

"It's [a] beautiful thing, but it's an uncut gem, and that spoke to me about who he is," said Shaw. "My job is to make a silent movie that tells a story with words just through the design."

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