There are many roads a television show’s set can take to becoming iconic: Sometimes, a nondescript set is just the lucky backdrop to an ingenious cast, making the averageness of the space beside the point. (Or perhaps the averageness is the point.) In other cases, the set is very much a character—artful and unique. For instance, Downton Abbey production designer Donal Woods has said that his crew considered multiple locations before landing on Highclere Castle. “The search was a major part of our design process,” Woods has said, “not to mention a major part of the casting.” Here, we explore the show sets that—for all kinds of reasons—have become an irreplaceable part of our cultural design landscape.
The Central Perk coffee shop is such an iconic part of Friends that set decorator Greg Grande has called it the “seventh character on the show.” When designing Central Perk, he has said, the idea was, “Let’s make this feel like it’s truly a comfortable, casual living room.” His main inspiration came from a place in West Hollywood called the Insomniac Café: “Nothing really matched, but there was collectible artwork on the wall, so I took that and kind of drove that point in.”
The Office (2005–2013)
The beauty of The Office is that it drops a whole lot of absurdity into a run-of-the-mill corporate office setting. And yet the actual set is highly memorable. That’s thanks to production designer Michael Gallenberg, who has a knack for elevating mundane malaise. Jenna Fischer, who played Pam, has said, “Michael might be our most underappreciated genius. He has an overall vision for our office environment and oversees even the smallest details. If he does his job right, no one notices.”
The Brady Bunch (1969–1974)
The Brady Bunch house in North Hollywood is reportedly the second most photographed home in America, after the White House. But the interior, built on a soundstage by art director Bill Ross, is even more iconic. Mr. Brady was an architect, so the house—with its open living room, wide wooden staircase, exposed stone walls, and orange kitchen—was very groovy, and quite modern for the times.
Full House (1987–1995)
Oh, those red front doors! The Full House home exterior was one of San Francisco’s Painted Ladies houses, but the interior set was built on a soundstage by art director Lynn Griffin. Many of the set’s most iconic parts are lovably ’90s, like the blue plaid couch in the living room where so many of the show’s “learning moments” happened, the cozy wood-paneled kitchen, and Uncle Jesse’s leopard bedding.
Sex and the City (1998–2004)
We can forever debate whether a local newspaper sex columnist could actually afford a roomy Upper East Side one-bedroom with a walk-in closet like that, but one thing is certain: Carrie’s brownstone apartment, with the bohemian rug, row of flower photographs above the bed, and desk in front of the window is a symbol of female independence. Sex and the City production designer Jeremy Conway has said that the “flea market” quality of Carrie’s home is also a depiction of her priorities. “Carrie’s apartment is not about Carrie,” Conway said. “What she’s wearing is where she spends her money, and her apartment is secondary to that.”
The West Wing (1999–2006)
Aaron Sorkin’s beloved political drama took place in one of our country’s most iconic buildings, but The West Wing’s production designer Kenneth Hardy made some aesthetic improvements, like painting the Roosevelt Room a deep red as opposed to its real-life beige, to give it some pizazz. And every time a character says “Walk with me” before speed-talking down a long hallway—well, those hallways are a bit bigger than the originals. “The real West Wing is very cramped,” Hardy has said. “It’s a tenth the size it should be.”
That ’70s Show (1998–2006)
The Formans’ orange-and-pea-green-stacked humble abode in That ’70s Show was seared into America’s memory, accompanied by a raucous laugh track. “This is a middle-class family attempting to be stylish with the money that they have,” production designer Garvin Eddy has said. “They have teardrop lamps. They have an organ. They have National Geographics. And for some reason, they have a built-in bar…. This is what Middle America was all about.”
The Sopranos (1999–2007)
The Sopranos memorialized early-2000s New Jersey in all its gritty glory. Perhaps most memorable among fans was the Soprano family kitchen, with its light wood palette, where Tony was often seen in his robe, rummaging for cold cuts. But the show’s production designer Bob Shaw has said he found the office of Tony’s therapist Dr. Melfi the most interesting, because it was round. For a mobster confronting his own mind, there was nowhere to hide.
Downton Abbey (2010–2015)
Set in early-20th-century England and filmed mostly at the grand Highclere Castle in Newbury, Downton Abbey followed the lives of an aristocratic family and its servants—which made the kitchen just as memorable as the opulent Great Hall. “While the story takes place in one house, there are really two different worlds,” production designer Donal Woods has said. “The above-stairs world—which includes all the staterooms, the bedrooms, and the dining rooms—is done to look like a lavish Technicolor environment. The below-stairs world appears like a noir film.”
Broad City (2014–2019)
As the series progressed, Abbi’s and Ilana’s apartments grew up, just like they did. The Broad City girls stayed in their respective New York City apartments throughout the show’s run, but production designer Angelique Clark changed the decor as their characters evolved. Abbi eventually retired the Oprah portrait over her bed, and hung her own artwork there. Ilana’s room “started off like a boy’s dorm room, almost,” but in Season 4, Clark has said, “That’s when basically she’s like, ‘I need to get my sh*t together.’ And we wanted to show that by how the collages on her walls change. They became women; they became women of color.”
Orange Is the New Black (2013–2019)
On the Queens soundstage where production designer Michael Shaw built most of OITNB’s Litchfield Penitentiary set, he made sure to give the prison a make-do, neglected feeling, and included details that highlighted the contrast of the “inside” versus the forbidden “outside” world, like the big industrial windows in the cafeteria. He’s said it was “the perfect ironic blend of high security and haphazard inefficiency that I was looking for.”
Mad Men (2007–2015)
With its wood-paneled advertising offices with low-slung couches and omnipresent bar carts, Mad Men certainly heightened the midcentury-modern craze. Production designer Dan Bishop has said, “It makes me feel that people see [the style] as a realistic environment as well as a compelling one.” Of course, some of the most memorable spaces are not the most glamorous—as in the case of Betty and Don Draper’s suburban kitchen, where Don wouldn’t think of lifting a finger and Betty becomes disenchanted with her “dream” life.
Lena Dunham’s groundbreaking, polarizing HBO series Girls began with a shot of Hannah and Marnie, best friends and roommates, spooning under a duvet. A lot happens under duvets in the show’s six seasons—particularly in Hannah’s colorful, if not exactly design-savvy, two-bedroom apartment in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. Production designer Matthew Munn was the mastermind behind the Girls girls’ various New York City apartments, from Shoshanna’s Pinterest-pink explosion of a studio, to Marnie’s “shitbox” in Chinatown, to the flashy Williamsburg high-rise where Jessa lives during her brief marriage to an erratic financier.
Who could forget the Connors’ green living room with the stone fireplace, cozy clutter of family photos on every surface, and, of course, the plaid couch? Then there was the pink wallpaper in the kitchen, with painted plates as decorations. It was all part of the ’80s Midwest charm, which production designer Garvin Eddy said he was not exactly precious about. “We wanted sturdy, heavy furniture,” he’s explained. “Not only because they’re big people, but because of the kids… new furniture that looked old, time-tested, the kind of stuff you find at Sears.”
Home Improvement (1991–1999)
For most of the ’90s, the Taylor family living room embodied the perfectly average American home. “I wouldn’t exactly call it a style,” set designer David Sackeroff has said. “More like a place to put your feet up.” There was a Dustbuster mounted on the wall, fake walnut cabinets, an antique car poster framed over the fireplace, and fresh flowers. It was sturdy enough to sustain all of Tim Allen’s disastrous “Tool Time” experiments, and that’s what counts.
The Jeffersons (1975–1985)
Moving on up to the Upper East Side! Such was the American Dream tale of The Jeffersons, an African American family from Queens who made a fortune in the dry cleaning business and moved to Manhattan, where their family dramas played out in a “deluxe apartment in the sky.” Over the years, the apartment itself got a few makeovers—transitioning from ’70s yellows to ’80s creams—by production designer Don Roberts.
The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air (1990–1996)
“Yo homes, smell ya later!” That’s when viewers know that Will Smith is “finally there”—and “there” was a very fancy L.A. mansion, with tasteful stylings by production designer Fred M. Duer. In the first season, the Banks family living room was done up in dark, traditional mahogany and heavy upholstered furniture, but by the second, Duer had given the space a makeover in a more neutral, modern palette, with clean lines, comfortable furniture, tribal-print throw pillows, and fresh flowers, which remained the aesthetic for the rest of the series.
Gilmore Girls (2000–2007)
Home is where the heart is, and Rory Gilmore’s heart was always in the quirky Connecticut town of Stars Hollow with her mom Lorelei. Production designer Rachel Kamerman made the fictional town’s cozy sites—Lorelei’s house lit up with Christmas lights, Stars Hollow High, Luke’s Diner, and the town square’s gazebo—so quaint that fans of the show still flock to Warner Bros. Studios every holiday season to tour the set.
The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1970–1977)
Every working girl in the ’70s needed a yellow shag rug! Mary Tyler Moore’s little apartment, on the third floor of a Queen Anne Victorian house in Minneapolis, was perhaps television’s first independent-lady pad. The space, designed by art director Lewis E. Hurst Jr., was so memorable that Oprah re-created it onstage in 2008—complete with its bay window, brown velvet couches, exposed-brick wall, stained glass window in the kitchen, and, of course, the iconic M on the wall.
The O.C. (2003–2007)
The rich and beautiful but down-to-earth Cohen family was the family every O.C. fan wished would adopt them—but only Ryan was so lucky! The Italianate McMansion in Newport Beach, California, was actually built on a soundstage—so, that breathtaking ocean view from Ryan’s poolhouse? That was a photo backdrop made by production designer Thomas Fichter, who was also responsible for all the “weather” you ever saw on the show.
I Love Lucy (1951–1957)
Lucy and Ricky moved a couple of times, but since I Love Lucy may be the most iconic TV show of all time, so too are all of their homes. First there was their apartment on East 68th Street, and then their suburban Westport house, which the show’s art director Ralph Berger based on the real Westport home of stage actor Arthur Kennedy. Berger described it as “quaint, early Old American,” with a big stone fireplace, a semicircular staircase, and even an orchard outside the window.
Golden Girls (1985–1992)
All the good stuff happened around that round kitchen table. Production designer Ed Stephenson was nominated for an Emmy for his work on The Golden Girls, which drew inspiration from Stephenson’s own time living in Florida. He gave the fierce foursome midcentury rattan furniture, with floral upholstery and leafy wallpaper, and lots and lots of pink accents. Basically, it was paradise—and that’s not even including the company!
The show wasn’t about the blue couch Jerry Seinfeld was sitting on when Kramer crashed through his apartment door for the millionth time, but those basic bachelor pad pieces became iconic right along with the beloved sitcom. Production designer Thomas Azzari’s job was mostly to get things done fast on short notice, like when he had to build a parking garage in a week, or find a new door ASAP after Kramer broke the old one. “We replaced that door three times,” Azzari has said.
Star Trek (1966–1969)
Production designer Walter Matthew Jefferies boldly went where no man has gone with the set’s memorable orange accents. The starship USS Enterprise’s control center in the original Star Trek series was round because Jefferies knew it “had to be on the cutting edge of the future,” and back then it was believed that space vessels would have to be shaped like saucers to travel faster than the speed of light.
The Ewings, a wealthy, feuding Texas oil family, enraptured audiences across the country throughout the ’80s, and while the campy set design passed through many hands over the years, it started under the art direction of Charles Zacha Jr. The real Southfork Ranch and its iconic pool is now a museum outside of Plano, Texas, where fans can visit and—for a hefty sum—stay overnight, opting, perhaps, to start their own family feuds at the long mahogany dinner table or admire themselves in the master bathroom’s walls of mirrors while soaking in the peach and marble jetted hot tub.
How to create the feel of a place where everyone knows your name? Production designer Richard Sylbert based the fictional Cheers bar on the real Bull & Finch bar in Boston. He retained details like the wooden bar and Tiffany stained glass lamps, but moved the bar away from the wall to the center of the room, which created a stage for the show’s many dramas. Apparently the old Wurlitzer jukebox didn’t work, but the piano and the pool table did!
Originally Appeared on Architectural Digest