Problem solving: chrome on a budget

Many years ago, in Summer stock, I designed a set for Lanford Wilson’s The Hot l Baltimore, which takes place in the lobby of an old run-down hotel. We wanted to give the hotel an Art Deco feel, so I created a stylized, bas-relief train engine design that would become the main decorative piece in the lobby. But, because the show was being done in the round — inside a huge tent — we could not place it behind the counter; it had to go on the front of the counter.

Here’s a cell-phone photo of the model for the bas-relief:


That little stripe that looks white, near the top of the photo, was actually going to be chrome. When I presented the design at a production meeting, the technical director took one look at it, swallowed hard, mentioned the budget, and said he wasn’t sure if we could afford chrome trim. At which point I gave him my best dead-pan look and said, “Well, I don’t know where you guys get your chrome trim, but I get mine at the supermarket. It comes in a long skinny box that says Aluminum Foil.”

The resulting laugh was as much “relief” as it was “just laughing at a joke,” but my point was made: sometimes a simple solution can do wonders.

So, when we built the counter, we left a 3/4″ channel near the top, which was then filled with aluminum foil, carefully cut into strips, and applied with rubber cement. I wanted to use the “shiny” side of the foil in this case, but the other side — the “brushed chrome” side — can also be used, and it creates a different effect.

Here’s a terrible photo of the counter, the only one I can find from that long-ago Summer in South Hadley, Massachusetts. That little strip of chrome made a huge difference to the counter: it really made it pop.


The front of the counter was sponged to create a wood burl look, and the top was also sponged to simulate old leather. They were both then spattered with several shades of brown and rubbed with wet newspapers to give them some age and grit, especially around the edges and corners.

Aluminum foil can be a wonderful fill-in for chrome, but you want to be careful and use it in small amounts to avoid having it call attention to itself.