Paul Sylbert, an Oscar-winning production designer who created the look of films as various as Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Wrong Man,” Robert Benton’s “Kramer vs. Kramer” and Warren Beatty’s “Heaven Can Wait,” died on Nov. 19 at his home in Jenkintown, Pa., near Philadelphia. He was 88.
The death was confirmed by his wife, Jeannette Sylbert.
Mr. Sylbert — the twin brother of Richard Sylbert, the even more noted production designer of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” and “Chinatown” — was known for his obsessive attention to detail and clever solutions to difficult filming problems. Working with top directors like Hitchcock, Elia Kazan and Milos Forman, he went to enormous lengths to create a look that served the director’s vision and conveyed a sense of authenticity.
For John Singleton’s “Rosewood” (1997), about a black settlement in Florida that was burned to the ground by a racist mob in 1923, he spent untold hours interviewing survivors and scouring local archives and census records to build an accurate picture of Rosewood and a nearby town whose sawmill employed many of the residents.
“We built two and a half miles of road to one place, and a mile and a half to the other place, and built both towns from scratch,” Mr. Sylbert told the journal TCI: Theater Crafts International in 1997.
For the gritty “Rush” (1991), with Jason Patric and Jennifer Jason Leigh as undercover narcotics officers in Houston, he visited local wallpaper warehouses to find the right 1970s patterns and studied a local jail to make sure the film’s cell had the same sloppy paint work and bits of faded graffiti. His job, he told Smithsonian magazine in 1992, was “to create hell metaphorically.”
The film critic Vincent Canby, in an essay on production design for The New York Times in 1981, noted Mr. Sylbert’s chameleonlike ability to summon up entirely different visual worlds even within similar genres. For Brian De Palma’s suspense film “Blow Out,” he evoked Philadelphia in realistic terms, but the New York in the horror thriller “Wolfen,” released on the same day as “Blow Out” in 1981, was, Mr. Canby wrote, something entirely different.
“Mr. Sylbert’s Manhattan is a fantasy island under siege by some sort of superwolves,” he wrote. “Its South Bronx is dominated by the shell of a church that seems to have been blitzed during months of air raids.”
In his review of the film, Mr. Canby praised its “otherworldly look” and wrote, “Not since Nicholas Roeg’s “Don’t Look Back’ has there been such a beautifully mounted and designed scare movie.”
Mr. Sylbert received an Academy Award for his work on “Heaven Can Wait” and was nominated for a second Oscar for Barbra Streisand’s 1991 film “The Prince of Tides.” In 2009, the Art Directors Guild presented him with a lifetime achievement award.
Paul Sylbert was born on April 16, 1928, in Brooklyn, and grew up in the Flatbush neighborhood. His father, Sam, was a cutter and later a foreman for a manufacturer of formal gowns. His mother, the former Lily Lazelle, ran a millinery shop.
After graduating from Erasmus Hall High School in 1946, he served in the same Army unit in Korea as his brother. The brothers later studied at the Tyler School of Art in Philadelphia.
Mr. Sylbert started out painting backdrops at the Metropolitan Opera but, encouraged by his brother, who worked at NBC, moved to television. He found work at CBS, where he designed sets and scenery on the variety show “Premiere” and the series “Suspense” before being accused of Communist sympathies and blacklisted.
“In those days I was redder than a lobster, no joke,” Daniel Kremer, who directed Mr. Sylbert’s last film, “A Trip to Swadades” (2008), recalled his saying, in an article for the blog Confluence Film.
Mr. Sylbert returned to the Met and worked on Off Broadway stage productions before being hired by Hitchcock as art director for “The Wrong Man,” released in 1957. Kazan hired the two Sylberts as art directors for his Southern Gothic film “Baby Doll.” For that movie the brothers scouted a fading antebellum mansion and, on sets in Brooklyn, created a series of creepy, moldering interiors.
A year later, the brothers collaborated on another Kazan film, “A Face in the Crowd,” with Andy Griffith as a charismatic but unscrupulous television star.
Mr. Sylbert’s many other film credits include “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” (1975), “The Drowning Pool” (1975), “Gorky Park” (1983), “The Pope of Greenwich Village” (1984), “Biloxi Blues” (1988) and “Conspiracy Theory” (1997).
He designed several productions for the New York City Opera in the late 1950s and directed one film, “The Steagle” (1971), a road comedy with Richard Benjamin and Cloris Leachman. His battles with the producers were so traumatic that he wrote a book to help him recover, “Final Cut: The Making and Breaking of a Film” (1974).
Mr. Sylbert’s first two marriages ended in divorce. In addition to his wife, he is survived by a son, Christian, and a daughter, Olivia Sylbert.
In 2004 he began teaching in the film and media arts department at Temple University’s Ambler campus.
An earlier version of this obituary referred incorrectly to the year an article appeared in Smithsonian magazine. It was 1992, not 1922.