To that end, I am compelled to predict that Catherine Martin stands the best shot at winning for her ostentatious depiction of the Roaring 20s in The Great Gatsby. With both the BAFTA and the ADG award for Period Production Design in hand (which she also won before claiming an Oscar in 2002 for Moulin Rouge!), Martin and her set decorator Beverley Dunn look in good shape despite Gatsby being the only nominee not also up for Best Picture. Nevertheless, last year's surprise victory of Lincoln over Anna Karenina still gives me pause. Gatsby appears to be first in line to collect the Costume Design prize as well, as did Anna Karenina before it, and the Academy clearly didn't love that film enough to hand it two Oscars. So will AMPAS opt to spread the wealth in the design categories to a more low-key but more prestigious contender?
If that's the case, then maybe it's a good sign for 12 Years a Slave, which could follow in Lincoln's footsteps of winning for grounded, authentic, thoroughly researched recreations of slavery-era America. Adam Stockhausen (who should have been nominated last year for Moonrise Kingdom) and set decorator Alice Baker set the stage for Steve McQueen's harrowing drama with an eye for historical detail, and if the film is going to coast on Best Picture admiration in any craft category, this is likely the one. Losing the ADG award to The Great Gatsby is not a huge hindrance, since that guild does not have the best track record at anticipating Oscar.
Another Best Picture hopeful running in this race is Gravity, which also won an ADG award for its production designer Andy Nicholson and set decorators Rosie Goodwin & Joanne Woollard. Avatar and Alice in Wonderland proved a few year's back that digitally rendered settings are not necessarily at a disadvantage in this category... if they feature in-your-face fantasy design elements. Do not let Gravity's ADG win for Fantasy Production Design fool you; It is not a fantasy and it did does not feature fantastical design elements, which probably makes this one of the few (or possibly the only) craft categories that it loses on Oscar night. If it manages a win, then that would clearly suggest evidence of a sweep effect, strengthening its Best Picture odds.
Perhaps a more plausible dark horse we should be considering is American Hustle, whose 70s sets were created by Judy Becker and Heather Loeffler. Here's an encouraging tidbit for them: Only four times in the last 30 years(!) was the winner of this category not nominated for Costume Design as well. If we assume that this trend holds, then American Hustle is one of three that can conceivably win here, along with the previously discussed Gatsby and 12 Years a Slave. The film is supposedly beloved, as its field-leading ten nominations implies, but some pundits are convinced that like True Grit and Gangs of New York before it, it might go home empty handed! I'm not sure I believe that quite yet, but I do struggle to see it earning a consolation prize here, when its costumes are much more eye-catching.
Probably the least likely to win, but one I'm so delighted to see recognized, is K.K. Barrett and Gene Serdena's clever invention of the not-so-distant future in Her. Fantasy and sci-fi films have had some luck in this category in the past, and this is certainly more of a sci-fi than Gravity is pretending to be, but I daresay its minimalist interior decors and assembly-line chic that build the illusion of a near-future metropolis is too subtle to register with the Academy.
Runner-up: 12 Years a Slave
Should win: The Great Gatsby
Should've been nominated: Elysium