In some ways, Patrick Howe plays the titular role on Hulu’s Emmy-winning comedy series Only Murders in the Building. As the series’ production designer, Howe is directly responsible for designing and bringing to life the stunningly specific, intricately decorated apartments found in “the Building” a.k.a the Arconia—the New York residence where Charles-Haden Savage (Steve Martin), Mabel Mora (Selena Gomez), and Oliver Putnam (2023 lead-actor Emmy nominee Martin Short) have been solving murders for the past three seasons. “My role as production designer is to interpret the scripted material to place the action into settings,” Howe tells VF over Zoom. “Then that gives me ideas to decide what is the most ideal kind of setting to best tell the story.”
Sometimes, Howe has very little story to go on. “The scripts are really quite general,” Howe says of Only Murders in the Building. “Most writers don’t describe much and they leave that to me.” He’ll have a brief chat with showrunner John Hoffman about what he has in mind, and mine the script for small details that give a window into what the world should look like. “It’s usually just a small description, and you really have to fill in the blanks and extract more from the action that’s written,” Howe says. “Like, ‘open on a serene park setting’ or ‘open on dark, creepy alley.’ Your mind goes to a certain place, but still there’s a lot to fill in.”
One apartment Howe literally had to fill in season three was Mabel’s. Gomez’s aspiring artist spent the first two seasons of OMITB living in her aunt’s mid-renovation construction zone of an apartment, complete with exposed beams, holes in the floor, and many, many safety hazards. “It was this gutted apartment,” Howe says. “And I think it was emblematic of Mabel herself being lost and needing to figure out what she was going to do in her life.” By season three, however, the renovation is complete and Mabel’s apartment is nearly unrecognizable, with the mural she painted in season two a distant memory.
“I loved the transition,” says Howe. “I really like before-and-after situations—how to still recognize that the space is the same space, but it has a whole new fresh look.”
To accomplish this, Howe decided to focus on making Mabel’s new apartment feel modern and attractive to potential buyers, yet bear little resemblance to the quirky, artistic Mabel we’ve come to know over the last two seasons. “I feel like it was sexy and yet not so extreme, because some people are put off by strong colors or extreme styles of furniture,” Howe says.
It’s not just Mabel’s apartment that gets a major makeover in season three. The Arconia’s penthouse apartment, which belonged to Sting in season one and Amy Schumer in season two, is (briefly) occupied by one Ben Glenroy (Paul Rudd), a famous Hollywood actor who stars in Oliver’s Broadway play, only to wind up dead in the elevator shaft on opening night. In Glenroy’s hands, the apartment becomes a veritable shrine to himself, covered head to toe in memorabilia from his starring role in the fictional action film franchise CoBro, where he plays a superhero zoologist that can turn into a giant cobra (a nod to Ant-Man? Perhaps). The script described the penthouse as having “a Hard Rock Cafe–worth of memorabilia to Ben Glenroy,” Howe recalls. “That told you right there how far to go.”
To create a Ben Glenroy–inspired Hard Rock Cafe, Howe enlisted the help of his decorator, Rich Murray, to fill every available space with some sort of CoBro tribute. “Rich came up with all these different styles of artists as if they’d all done portraits of him, and creating all these famous situations,” Howe says. “He really ran with it.” Snake imagery was also crucial to the aesthetic of the apartment, which included a giant cobra sculpture standing in the entryway of Glenroy’s penthouse. “You’re slammed with this enormous sculpture of a snake, and that would set the tone for the rest of the other two rooms,” says Howe.
Glenroy’s garish and opulent apartment stands in stark contrast to that of another actor on the series: Meryl Streep’s struggling actress Loretta Durkin. “Meryl’s playing a struggling, wannabe, has-yet-to-make-it actress who lives in very modest means, and did not live at the Arconia,” Howe says. The key to Durkin’s apartment was to convey that Durkin had “lived in the same apartment for 40 years.” Creating a believably modest, yet lived-in apartment was easier said than done for Howe. “It was a very small space, and anyone in television production knows that when you shoot in a really small space, they can never be as small as you want to imply,” says Howe. It was also important for Howe not to make Streep’s Durkin—the love interest for Short’s Oliver Putnam—and her apartment feel “grannyish.” “It just wasn’t right for the character at all.”
Not all of the action in Only Murders in the Building takes place in apartments. Season three finds the central true-crime trio making their way out of the Arconia and into the theater as Oliver directs the murder mystery Death Rattle. Howe, whose training was in stage design, was excited to return to the medium for OMITB—even if shooting on location at the United Palace theater in Washington Heights provided some unforeseen challenges.
Built in 1930 as a movie palace, the United Palace, which hosted this year’s Tony Awards, is one of the older theaters in New York, and hasn’t been extensively renovated or updated like many of the Broadway theaters. “The stage is very limited in terms of its stage equipment and technology. It doesn’t have turning doors. It has very limited fly space, very limited wing space, limited space to store sets,” says Howe. “So, the ways that you normally see scenery change from one setting to another between scenes—I couldn’t design things that way. Things couldn’t be automated and track on- and off-stage. All I could do is fly some things in and out, or hang some things from pipes above.”
To make things more complicated, OMITB didn’t have exclusive access to the United Palace. Thus, Howe had to design sets that could be easily shuttled in and out. “In a normal Broadway situation of loading in scenery to a house, it’s going to stay there and nothing else will be there,” says Howe. “Here, my scenery had to come and go because the location would be rented out for other purposes.”
But perhaps the most challenging aspect of the theater scenes was that Howe had to design the set of the play before seeing any of the material from the play itself.
Howe soldiered on, designing large theatrical sets for a musical without having any clue what that musical was about, placing his trust in the word of showrunner John Hoffman. “Fortunately, John and I have a really good communication flow,” he says. “The information that he can tell me verbally, I can rely on the fact that that’s accurate or that’s how it’s going to turn out.”
Still, Howe admits that it was odd to design a set for a show before the show existed. “Normally, certainly for a musical, you would have elements of a score to listen to,” he says. “You would have a title of a show. You would normally have some amount of a book to read. There would be text and music completed before you started the design…. But in this case, it was, like, John told me that the setting will take place in Nova Scotia and it should revolve around a lighthouse.”