There are few things as soothing during a pandemic (or anytime) as sitcoms. These slices of someone else’s (usually much funnier) daily life are the perfect escape—where all problems can be neatly resolved within 22 minutes. Part of the sitcom comfort factor involves sitting in your home watching your favorite characters in their homes: It somehow feels intimate. And whether or not we realize it, our personal interior design styles are likely influenced by at least one of our favorite shows.
If you’ve admired the decor of a sitcom set at some point over the past 35 years, then there’s a good chance you’re familiar with John Shaffner’s work. The Emmy Award–winning production designer and art director is responsible for some of the most iconic sitcom sets of all time, including Monica’s apartment on Friends, the Golden Girls’ living room, and Charlie Sheen’s (and later Ashton Kutcher’s) home on Two and a Half Men. Shaffner spoke with Clever about sitcom set design, and which shows have had a hand in some of the biggest trends in home decor.
So what makes for a memorable sitcom set? According to John, it’s a combination of designing to reflect and support the characters, being on or ahead of trends, and making it a place where viewers will want to spend time. He thinks of I Love Lucy as “a beginning place where the design and the interior decor related to both reflecting contemporary trends, but also representing what we often refer to as ‘aspirational choices’ in decor.” Of course, not all sitcom sets are aspirational, like the midwestern working-class home on Roseanne (and spin-off The Conners), which Shaffner also designed. “That was definitely strongly character-driven and non-aspirational,” he explains. ”Every once in a while you run across a show that fits into that category. The rest of the time, you’re creating an environment that is somewhat aspirational and inviting, and something that the audience, you hope, will find appealing—where they’ll want to spend time with the characters.” Here are four examples of styles from sitcoms that caught on in our own homes.
Eclectic Furnishings and Decor
When Shaffner designed Monica Geller’s apartment for the NBC sitcom Friends in 1994, he wanted to make it look like it was furnished by a group of 20-somethings on a very limited budget, but who still wanted their place to have some flair. As he points out, there was no IKEA or Target for grabbing stylish and affordable pieces at that time, so he imagined that the characters on Friends did what other young, newly minted New Yorkers did to get furniture: picked it up off the curb on garbage day, or purchased it from a secondhand shop.
The result was an eclectic space where nothing quite matched, yet everything somehow went together—all set against the apartment’s signature purple walls. (Shaffner picked the paint color himself.) More than 25 years later, Monica’s apartment doesn’t seem outdated, thanks in part to the fact that it has served as the inspiration for so many “first apartments” since. “Because the show became so successful and continues to be hugely successful today, it has, I hope, influenced young people to be adventuresome in their decorating, and to make choices based on collecting and finding,” Shaffner says. “The word that is often used today is ‘curating.’ You’re curating your home with the choices that you make with your decor.”
Gray As the New Neutral
On Two and a Half Men, Charlie Sheen’s character was a wealthy womanizer, but when it came to decorating his on-set home, Shaffner wanted to avoid the clichés of black leather furniture in a contemporary apartment full of chrome and glass. “We made a decision early on that we wanted it to have Spanish colonial architecture, which is inviting and comfortable and homey with earth tones and warm colors,” he explains. “So that even though we know he was a pretty unlikable cad, there was something about his home that was appealing, and someplace you wanted to spend time with him and Alan and his nephew.”
Jump ahead to 2011, when Ashton Kutcher moved into Sheen’s role and home on the show. “I was just beginning to see the resurgence of gray, and so I redid the whole house with gray tones and driftwood colors,” Shaffner says. Now, turn on any HGTV home makeover show, and everything is painted gray with off-white trim. “I certainly can’t take credit for inventing gray as the be-all color, but I think it pushed it forward in the use on Two and a Half Men when we redid the house for Ashton,” he says. “That was the choice: to be in the style of the day, if not a little bit ahead, trying to set a trend.”
Your Initial As Wall Art
The Mary Tyler Moore Show featured the character of Mary Richards (played by Moore): a 30-year-old woman who broke off her engagement and moved to Minneapolis to make it on her own. She ends up landing an adorable studio on the third floor of an old Queen Anne Victorian house. The original set description for Mary’s apartment indicates that “there are some—mostly of the working-girl variety—who would consider this place a ‘great find’: 10-foot ceilings, pegged wood floors, a wood-burning fireplace, and, most important, a fantastic ceiling-height corner window.”
It was the ideal blend of aspirational and attainable: a space with great details like a sunken living room, which also happens to house the pull-out sofa where she slept because she did not have a separate bedroom. Though most viewers couldn’t have their own conversation pits, they could, however, emulate some of her decor—specifically, the letter “M” hanging on the wall. “The iconic, subtly placed ‘M’ in Mary’s apartment has inspired us as a way of marking our homes creatively using our own initials,” Claudia Jacobs, a designer who specializes in home staging, tells Clever. In fact, when Moore passed away in 2017, Jacobs posted on Facebook that she always wanted her own “C,” and one by one, her friends came forward sharing photos of their own initials as wall hangings, inspired by the sitcom.
Banana Leaf Print
When Shaffner first moved to California, he began working with a production designer named Edward Stephenson, who transitioned from commercials and variety shows in the 1950s and 1960s to sitcoms in the 1970s and 1980s. Stephenson gave him a script for a new sitcom starring Bea Arthur, Betty White, and Rue McClanahan as women who lived together in Miami. This, of course, was The Golden Girls. And while Stephenson laid out the design for the house, he gave Shaffner plenty of creative freedom when it came to decorating the set. Stephenson did have one request: that Shaffner use the Martinique banana leaf wallpaper made famous in the Beverly Hills Hotel for Blanche Devereaux’s bedroom. They cut out the pattern to make the headboard, and Shaffner had a bedspread made out of fabric to match.
Yes, it’s a timeless pattern, and the Beverly Hills Hotel (and Dorothy Draper) may have put the banana leaf wallpaper on the map, but at least some of its popularity today—on everything from clothing to linens to stationery—comes from the strong nostalgia so many people have for the classic sitcom. “The Golden Girls is another show that has experienced enormous success in terms of its longevity,” Shaffner says. “Young audiences grow up on it now. And so I think a lot of the visuals in [the show] do get kind of embedded.”
Bonus fact: Shaffner used the same banana leaf wallpaper in the Friends episode that takes place on a classic resort in Barbados! Turns out sitcoms inspire other sitcoms too.
Originally Appeared on Architectural Digest