It’s often said that life imitates art, but in the case of Squid Game—the thrilling Korean drama sensation that’s sweeping the globe—it’s more than just an imitation. For production designer Chae Kyoung-sun, who was the mastermind behind the surreal world in which the aforementioned game takes place, the artistic references to iconic works of art were very much intentional.
The series, which is currently exploring the possibility of a second season after the first broke Netflix records by attracting a whopping 111 million viewers, is an allegory on capitalism and greed in which the characters compete in deadly versions of various children’s games. The games, which take place on a remote island in an unmarked location, recruit participants who are drowning in debt to wager their lives for the possibility of a cash prize that is promised to whoever is the last one alive.
“I did extensive research for six months in the lead up to the production of Squid Game,” Chae tells AD over email, through a translator. She initially wanted to create a new world and visual language devoid of any artistic references, but found the work of certain artists too difficult to avoid, as they strongly spoke to the themes she wanted to convey.
M.C. Escher’s trompe l’oeil print, Relativity, from 1953, is one of the most prominent references, with its repetitive ups and downs and no discernible exit. In Squid Game, the players march up and down single file in a convoluted fashion on their way into the games. “My intention for the structure of the staircase that repeats itself with no exit was for it to be a form of bondage for the contestants,” Chae explains.
Practically, the staircase was the most difficult space to bring to life, as it involved creating a three-story maze where no two hallways looked the same. According to the production designer, the set was split into various sections that fit together almost like Lego bricks, and was built piece by piece through a series of trial and error. In Escher’s illustration, all of the figures climbing the staircases wear the same outfits with their faces covered, a theme that also translates into Squid Game, which sees the players outfitted in green track suits while the guards wear bubblegum pink hazmat-looking suits and face shields resembling fencing masks.
When working on the dinner scene with the last three remaining contestants, Chae knew she wanted to use a circle, triangle, and square—three shapes that reappear throughout the show—and she came up with an organic link to Judy Chicago’s groundbreaking installation The Dinner Party (1974–79). “Rather than looking into the practices of referenced artists to draw any themes from them, I first outlined the themes for the production design of Squid Game and then referred to influences, images, and impressions from the artworks to express those themes,” Chae says.
Though many have noticed the references mentioned above and others—nods to The Scream by Edvard Munch and The Empire of Light by René Magritte for example—perhaps the most important and intentional references in the show are ones many Americans may have missed. The cartoon-ish, vibrant pink and green hues that color the games were a nod to Korean school supplies and textbook illustrations from the ‘70s and ‘80s, the era when the titular squid game was popular among school children. Even the creepy, larger-than-life doll in the “Red Light, Green Light” episode was based on a character who appears in Korean textbooks called Young-hee. International audiences might not make the direct link to memories from childhood, but for Korean viewers, Chae relies on nostalgia to inform the audience.
“My hope was that the themes and philosophy behind the referenced works would be in harmony with the art of Squid Game to help deliver the message I wanted to convey,” Chae says. “All I hoped sincerely was that the spaces, structures in the game, and colors would reflect all of us who must survive endless competition, the realities of the world of inequality that everyone is born into, and the psyche and emotions of diverse characters.”
Originally Appeared on Architectural Digest