Production designer Ian Whittaker, who died of prostate cancer aged 94, won an Oscar (shared with his longtime collaborator, production designer Luciana Arrighi) for the 1992 film version of Howards End d ‘EM Forster. It was among the best in a series of literary adaptations directed by James Ivory, produced by Ismail Merchant, and scripted by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala. Whittaker was up for another Oscar for the film by the same team, Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day (1993), although his career was not limited to costume drama. “Council houses, stately homes, spaceships, I’ve done them all,” he said.
His first nomination was for Ridley Scott’s intergalactic horror hit Alien (1979). To build the futuristic interior of the Nostromo spaceship, where most of the action takes place, he assembled pieces of old washing machines: “We just glued them to the wall and sprayed them white.”
He described his art as “like creating an iceberg. Only 10% of what you do is actually seen and 90% is hidden, but it’s important to create atmosphere for the actors. Ten percent might sometimes be too optimistic. For a 1990 TV adaptation of Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea starring Anthony Quinn, private jets flew equipment from Puerto Rico to the Virgin Islands, though none of the sets Whittaker decorated ended up on the scene. ‘screen.
He was born in London to Hugh Whittaker, a stage manager who later became actor George Arliss’ personal assistant, and Hettie (née Wilson), a musical theater performer. When World War II broke out, the family moved to Hayling Island in Hampshire, where they had a holiday home. Ian was educated at Portsmouth High School before another evacuation took him 50 miles to Bournemouth.
With ambitions to be an actor, he enrolled at Rada in London, where his classmates included Roger Moore, Miriam Karlin and Yootha Joyce. He made his stage debut as an extra in the Old Vic company at the New Theater in London. In the famous 1945 production of Oedipus Rex, starring Laurence Olivier in the title role and Ralph Richardson as Tiresias, it was Whittaker who led Olivier on stage each night after Oedipus was blinded.
He was drafted into the army at the age of 18 and assigned to Trieste after requesting a transfer to the forces’ broadcasting services. Upon his return to civilian life, his youthful appearance allowed him to play juvenile roles for many years. He starred in the London theatrical production of Cosh Boy and was also in Lewis Gilbert’s 1953 film version. The director cast him as an uneasy nurse in The Sea Shall Not Have Them (1954). In The Silent Enemy (1958), a thriller about submarine commando Lionel “Buster” Crabb (Laurence Harvey), Whittaker played the only member of Crabb’s team who could not swim.
Small parts followed on TV and in film, including uncredited appearances on Sink the Bismarck! (1960) and Billy Budd (1962). After supplementing his acting work with painting and decorating, Whittaker sought employment in the art department and found himself on Catch Us If You Can (1965), John Boorman’s film starring the Dave Clark Five. His tasks included transforming a disused church in east London into the group’s living quarters.
From that moment on, he never stopped working as a decorator, art director or set designer. Assignments at the old post included A Countess from Hong Kong (1967) by Charlie Chaplin – Chaplin, he said, “didn’t know how to use the extensive sets he was given”. [and] just hid in a corner” – as well as The Charge of the Light Brigade (1968) and The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975).
Among his 13 collaborations with director Ken Russell was The Devils (1971), with sets by aspiring director Derek Jarman. For Russell’s rock opera Tommy (1975), in which actor Ann-Margret writhes in baked beans and chocolate, it was Whittaker’s idea to hang white curtains that could easily be replaced when the decor was inevitably splattered with goo. On Walt Disney’s live-action ghost story The Watcher in the Woods (1980), he worked closely with its star, Bette Davis, familiarizing her with her character’s cottage and props. “She wasn’t big enough not to let me help her get it right,” he noted.
He teamed up with Boorman on The Emerald Forest (1985), for which he spent six months in Brazil locating props. He was set designer on the musical Prince Under the Cherry Moon and the fantasy adventure Highlander (both 1986) and on Oscar-winning Ang Lee’s Sense and Sensibility (1995). Anna and the King (1999), a version of The King and I starring Jodie Foster, had Whittaker build palaces on Malaysian golf courses.
His last work, which also marked his 15th collaboration with Arrighi, was on From Time to Time (2009), set in an enchanted mansion and directed by Julian Fellowes.
Whittaker is survived by his partner Michael Hickman, whom he met in 1999 and entered into a civil partnership with 10 years later, as well as seven nieces and nephews.
• Ian Roy Whittaker, set designer, born July 13, 1928; died on October 16, 2022