The Comforts of Home: Our Favorite Set Designs

In our quest to go behind the scenes during this month of blog posts, today we learn a bit about set decoration. There are several job positions available on the set of a television show. The set decorator is responsible for buying or renting the set items, the storage of items, placement and monitoring the budgets. The assistant set decorator reports to the set decorator. They often do research before planning for the various sets. The set buyer also reports to the set decorator. They take care of purchasing or renting the individual items needed for the set. Buyers create relationships with stores and antique vendors. The lead dresser carries out tasks assigned by the set decorator. The onset dresser takes care of props, cleans items, places items in relationship to the camera lens.

Beth Kushnick, the set decorator for The Good Wife shares some advice for set design: do your research, create a decorating workbook, choose an item that sets the tone of the room, carry a tape measure with you at all times, try out different furniture placement, and consider using unusual paint colors.

Maggie Masetti wrote an article in 2012 about chatting with Ann Shea, set decorator for The Big Bang Theory. Ann says “she is the set decorator, and so usually once I get the plans and the walls are built is when I start my work of providing the furniture and the plants and the artwork and all the cool objects, the floor coverings and the practical lights.” She has a variety of sources she uses to shop including prop houses, online shops, and retail stores. She said once the sets are developed, she continues to be busy. Sets are put up and taken down over and over and they have to be just right.  Also, if a show is on for an extended time period, subtle changes are necessary just like our homes.

“The Monster Isolation” — After a terrible date, Koothrappali vows to never leave his apartment. Meanwhile, Penny actually impresses Sheldon with her acting skills, on THE BIG BANG THEORY, Thursday, Feb. 21 (8:00-8:31 PM, ET/PT) on the CBS Television Network. Pictured left to right: Jim Parsons, Simon Helberg and Johnny Galecki Photo: Monty Brinton/CBS ©2013 CBS Broadcasting, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Ann said once she determined the set for the comic book store, she was happy, but then a producer said that it had to change every episode like a real store with inventory in and out—as viewers we don’t think about all the work that goes into sometimes more minor settings. I’m thinking about how much a set designer would have to learn to create an astrophysicist’s office/lab. A couple of her favorite items that show up on the show include the DNA sculpture, the WMAP beach ball, and the periodic table shower curtain.

Photo: spotern.com

One of the things I hadn’t considered was that designers have to fill closets and drawers in the main sets, so everything is realistic.

I thought it would be fun to consider some of the sets from shows that are a bit more unique and then look at shows that had to be more realistic. Let’s take a look at a few shows that had unusual sets: The Munsters, Gilligan’s Island, and Green Acres. Then we’ll compare some apartments of some of our favorite television characters including Mary Richards, Bob and Emily Hartley, and Frasier Crane.

Photo: gilliganfandom.com
The girls’ hut which you can tell by the flower box in the window.
Photo: gilliganfandom.com
The Howells’ hut with its orange door

Gilligan’s Island sounds like an easy set to create.  Just throw a few huts up on amid trees and jungle greenery, right? However, you have to personalize each hut with basic items to give each one its own personality. There is also that fine line that is often crossed on the show about how much stuff the castaways actually have with them. I am not surprised they had an accident and were wrecked; I don’t think the storm had anything to do with it, I think it was the thousands of pounds of luggage they apparently took on board.

Photo: gilligan’sisland.org

First, we have the Howell’s hut. Flowered red curtains frame the window. There are a number of knick-knacks setting about including Mr. Howell’s polo stick. There are twin beds with elaborate headboards, several wicker chairs, a writing desk, several tables, and a bamboo hutch. Of course, Mr. Howell installed a hidden safe for his valuables and money. A second room was built to store their luggage and clothing.

Photo: youtube.com

Gilligan and the Skipper share a hut with hammocks. There is a window for each of them at the front entrance. A bamboo telescope resides under one of the windows. Decorations are minimal but include a photo of the Skipper, several shells, a couple of candles, a small table and chair and a crate for Gilligan’s personal items. Gilligan and the Skipper don’t appear to have any other clothes than their uniforms.

Photo: youtube.com

Mary Ann and Ginger also share a hut. A heavy wooden door and one window face the front. A flower box hangs on that. Flowery curtains make it look more “girly.” Each girl has her own cot and here are two tables, one for writing and one for make-up.

I’m assuming the Professor stays in the supply hut. This hut stores supplies, food, water, items salvaged from the SS Minnow and the Professor’s crudely designed laboratory. Like the girls’ hut, it has a heavy door and window out front and includes a smaller window as well. Boxes and crates are placed here and there as is the Professor’s equipment.

Photo: mentalfloss.com

The huts help define the characters who live there. In addition, we learn a lot about them by their clothing with the Howells appearing in designer clothing, Ginger in gowns, Mary Ann in informal rural outfits, the Professor in plain shirts and slacks, and Gilligan and the Skipper in their nautical attire.

Photo: pinterest.com

From the airy, tropical setting, let’s flip to the dark and dingy interior of The Munsters. The Munsters are said to live in an average neighborhood, but their home is anything but average. Located in Universal City, the house was rumored to cost a million dollars to outfit in 1963.

Although Herman works at the local undertakers and Eddie goes to school with the other kids, when friends come over, it is definitely not one of the cookie cutter homes in the neighborhood. There are cobwebs all over the house, and the windows are covered in curtains that let very little light in.

Photo: pinterest.com

Lily’s bedroom looks more like a setting for a horror movie than a family sitcom, but she and Herman are quite comfortable in their master bedroom.

Photo: pinterest.com

Although it appears to have been abandoned for quite some time, this is where the family gathers nightly. The furniture is heavy, dark and very Victorian. There is little in the way of knick-knacks.

Photo: pinterest.com

After open and sunny and then closed and dreary, let’s combine the two and look at the Douglas home on Green Acres. In New York City, Lisa and Oliver were wealthy and lived in a penthouse apartment with expensive furnishings. Their house in Hooterville is anything but exclusive.

Photo: hobbydo.com

The walls are falling down, the wallpaper is peeling off the walls, and one of their bedroom walls is open to the outside elements which makes it easy for them to climb the telephone pole when they need to make a phone call.

Photo: pinterest.com

Although they are in a rural setting, Lisa continues to wear her designer gowns and negligees and brought all her expensive items from her apartment.

Lisa and Oliver brought all their expensive artwork and furniture with them from their New York penthouse. Somehow it does not seem out of place for the Douglases. Lisa even uses her fine china and crystal daily.

While it’s fun to see some unique designs that set the stage for some of our favorite characters, now we switch gears to analyze three apartments that had more realistic designs. Often, we watch sitcoms and somehow in the middle of a city like New York, someone has a large apartment that we all realize they could not afford. In order to be more believable, set designers must rely on what a character could afford for their home and interior items on their salary.

Let’s take a look at three apartments and see how they change as we increase the salaries the characters have. The one thing all three have in common is a great terrace with a view.

Photo: chicagotribune.com

Mary Richards’ apartment on The Mary Tyler Moore Show is an iconic one. Growing up, most girls dream of having an apartment just like this one. Located in a classic Victorian home in Minneapolis, her home was affordable but cute and practical.

Photo: pinterest.com

Mary paid $130 a month for her home. Mary often complains about having enough but not any extra money, so she needs to be a bit frugal with her funds. This is a studio apartment so her living room and bedroom share the same space. Usually this is not an issue, but it’s tough to have company stay with her. One night after Mary has settled down for the night, Rhoda and her date stop by and we see Mary quickly trying to fold her bed back into the couch, so they don’t have to sit on her bed and realize they woke her up.

Her rooms are outfitted with great storage options. In her sunken living room, there are shelves running around part of the room where she stores books and knick-knacks. A cozy little area with a chair and table is in front of her terrace window—a fun space where she can read or have coffee with a great view.

Photo: pinterest.com

A little wood-burning fireplace sets off the kitchen, making the room cozy.

She has a functional but little kitchen. A decorative shade allows Mary to open up the area between the kitchen and living room or close it off if she doesn’t want people to see a mess in the sink.

Photo: imdb.com

To the left of the living room is a door. When it’s open, we see Mary’s closet and we know that if you keep going, you’ll find her bathroom. I don’t recall ever seeing the bathroom during the series, however.

Photo: hookedonhouses.com

While the furniture is nice, it probably is not new, and Mary may have picked the items up at used furniture stores or antique shops. Her larger pieces include her sofa bed, a wicker coffee table, an armoire, and a table and chairs. Her personal items strewn around the apartment tell us a bit about Mary. Most people remember the large “M” that hangs on her wall. She has a Ben Shahn poster on her wall in the first season and a Toulouse-Lautrec poster, Jane Avril, in other years. A Laurel lamp is near the reading chair, a pop of sixties modernism that Mary might have had in school in her room. We see her Samsonite luggage that is good quality and probably was a present from her parents. The pumpkin cookie jar adds a bit of color to the kitchen. These items tell us Mary was sentimental, educated about art but could not afford the real thing, and was an individual, learning her style now that she was living alone for the first time.

From Minneapolis, we travel down the interstate to Chicago where we find Bob and Emily Hartley’s apartment on The Bob Newhart Show. Bob and Emily are doing well, but we learn from their furnishings that they don’t care about things much. Bob is a psychologist but seems content to keep a small practice. Emily is a teacher and she and Bob debate about whether she should work or if she should work, so her salary is not necessary to their lifestyle.

Photo: xiguamovies.cf

They have a beautiful apartment with a terrace and a view of Lake Michigan. It’s close to the Thorndale station.

Like Mary, they have a sunken living room with the kitchen located off of it. The kitchen is bigger than Mary’s but still small. Much of the time they eat out or have something easy. Neither Bob nor Emily are gourmet cooks, but Bob grills on the terrace often.

Photo: dailymotion.com

A table between the two rooms is where they take their meals unless they are eating in front of the television. The television is on wheels and Bob can move it back and forth between the living room and the bedroom.

Photo: Ithinkthereforeireview.com

To the left of the living room is their large bedroom and bathroom. To the right is Bob’s den and another bathroom that does not have a tub or shower.

Photo: sitcomsonline.com

Like Mary, Bob and Emily enjoy art and have several pieces on their living room walls. They switch out their furniture a lot and we see three different sofas in their home: brown, white and royal blue.

Photo: dailymotion.com

My guess is that they save a lot of their money and what they spend, they spend on travel, books, and eating out.

Heading 32 hours west of Chicago, we arrive in Seattle, the home of Frasier Crane. Frasier is also a psychologist like Bob. He is a well-known doctor and has his own radio show, garnering him more money than Bob.

Frasier lives in Elliott Bay Towers and doesn’t have a view; he has “the” view. The backdrop for the terrace shows the Space Needle which cannot be seen in reality from these apartments. The cost for the backdrop was about $55,000 to construct. It seems very expensive for a prop, but it goes back to making sure everything about the apartment was the best Frasier could obtain.

Photo: thrillist.com

This was a very expensive set to design. According to the book, Frasier: A Cultural History, by siblings Kate and Joseph Darowki, the architecture and set building cost $250,000 and the total overall for the furnishings and other items came in at about a million dollars. A security guard was on site during shooting.

Photo: pinterest.com

According to Thrillist.com, Frasier’s apartment today would cost about three million dollars. We realize pretty quickly that Frasier is all about the good life and the image he wants people to have of him as a successful, wealthy person.

Like the other two apartments, he has a small kitchen, but it is well equipped and stylish. Set designer Roy Christopher outdid himself by capturing Frasier’s personality in his home.

Photo: pinterest.com

There are quite a few bedrooms in the apartment. Frasier has a large one with an expansive master bath, that features a sauna and a whirlpool. His father and Daphne both have their own bedrooms and bathrooms as well.

Frasier’s apartment is ultra-modern and is filled with expensive, high-end furniture and collectibles. His furniture is a replica, although shorter version, of Coco Chanel’s sofa. He has Eames and Wassily chairs and often throws around the designer labels he enjoys. The rooms are filled with decorative architectural details and expensive finishes. Much was made of the artwork scattered around the apartment.

Photo: pinterest.com

The Dale Chihuly glass bowl on a table near the fireplace was made specifically for the show and reproduced for an exhibit. A Mark Rothko painting was in Frasier’s master bath. Some of the other art included a Nick Berman floating ball, a Pastoe curved sideboard, Le Corbusier lamp, a Steinway grand piano, a Rauschenberg painting in the hall, and a variety of Pre-Columbian and African art.

Photo: pinterest.com

While Bob and Emily didn’t care much about their furniture as long as it was comfortable; Frasier cares dearly about every item in his apartment, except for his father’s Barcalounger which is a reminder of the design element he does not want in his apartment. It becomes the centerpiece of the apartment. The prop department did not think it was “hideous” enough when they located it, so they added some dirt smudges and duct tape to it. It’s a brilliant juxtaposition. We understand that despite the expensive items surrounding him, Martin is quite comfortable in Frasier’s house. His easy-going, but gruff, personality is not off-put by the sophisticated design nor is he impressed by the expensive art. During the course of the show, Frasier must learn to be as comfortable in his home as his father is.

It’s been fun to view some of the spaces our television friends inhabited and take a closer look at what helped reflect more about the characters as we take an in-depth analysis of the items they chose to surround themselves with. Take a look around your own space and see what it says about you to others and how it would help define you as a sitcom character.

3 thoughts on “The Comforts of Home: Our Favorite Set Designs

  1. Set designs are definitely another overlooked part of shows. Just like character’s costumes I feel like I don’t realize how ingrained certain images are until they change or aren’t there anymore. I never thought about the need to have clothes in the closet or extra props to make the scene look normal. I’m looking forward to getting my own home and having the ability to personalize all of it!

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    • I am picturing the set design for your sitcom. Your wardrobe would include a lot of sports team clothing. I’m guessing no periodic table shower curtain for you. However you might like the periodic table table. A guy made a table with small compartments and each one contains a bit of the element. Not sure what he did for noble gases. You might have to take his word that they are there.

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