Tv set design

Every day, after school (post-homework and before dinner)  I would sit with my siblings immersed in American TV programmes. 

Growing up in  Belfast in the ‘60’s,  it was through TV that I was first exposed to an alternative life, and lifestyle, in the American suburbs These homes looked nothing at all like where I lived. They were… more modern, bigger, more expensive. They were stylish.   And they were beautiful. 

Of all the homes, in all the TV programmes  I watched, it was 1164 Morning Glory Circle, from  Bewitched,   that was the home of my dreams.

I really, really wanted to live there.

Even as a child you understand: this is a TV programme and these people are actors. But, because each episode (largely) takes place in the same space you lose yourself in the story and the characters. You accept that this is the home where they live. Sitting in my home in Belfast, I was momentarily transported into that world.

Bewitched ran for 8 seasons from 1964-1972 – 254 episodes. Constantly on repeat, generations have grown up with this show. Right now, somewhere in the world there is a TV channel showing Bewitched.

In each episode we see Samantha and Darren and associated characters  cooking, eating, sitting, talking and moving about into different rooms. They are comfortable and at home in this space because this is their home and their world. 

But of course, none of it is real. 

It is a TV set. A mocked-up home designed by a production team.

And yet this ‘home’ plays a central part in telling the story and lifestyle of a middle-management couple living in the US suburbs. As a spatial simulation of ‘real life’ it tells us much about the characters’ status, style and personality.

Their home is open-plan with big French windows; there is a large brick fireplace, stairs lead up from the living area and the front door that opens directly into the main living space. 

It is modern, trendy, spacious  and yet homely. Most of all: it  was swanky. With a drinks bar, a hatch between the kitchen and dining area, a seating nook, and a kitchen with cooking these were features such as we never had. 

I loved this house.

Inside, the characters  appear sharp, clear and evenly lit –  brighter than bright. And of course outside it was always sunny. 

What’s not to love?

The first two series of Bewitched were filmed in black and white and subsequently re-coloured. But like many people, we didn’t actually own a colour TV until the 1970’s; it’s likely I watched most of it in black and white. 

When you think of it: this was an adult sit-com shown as a children’s TV programme. The stories were all about adult relationships – and magic. The ‘magic’ supposedly drew the children in, but the stories were not particularly child-oriented.

And yet, the visual appeal of Bewitched  was that it was incomparably stylish in its 1960’s chic: the clothes, hair, use of language, colours, materials and shenanigans of adult lives.

It seems I  am not alone in my love for this iconic home.

A trawl on the internet reveals aficionados and devoted fans who have very detailed knowledge of the programme and set. In every episode the design has been scrutinised, de-coded and studied to determine  exactly how it looked, and to account for those changes.

In two walk-through  videos Marina Coates has faithfully recreated the space ( downstairs and upstairs)  to make sense of the set as if it were a real home.

What she found  – no great surprise – was that the set designers played fast and loose with both the design of rooms and the layout. This is not a home that can be faithfully re-built.  The ‘rooms’ bear no relation to a real life 3D footprint: the scale is all wrong in the shape and form, the inside and outside do not match and the upstairs and downstairs do not fit.  Certain elements such as the staircase leading from the kitchen would be impossible in real life. But, such is the artistic licence of TV that most people wouldn’t even notice. 

The interior design of the Bewitched house actually changed a lot – even episode to episode within one series. And so, as Marina Coates attempts to piece it all together, it is a challenge to declare the definitive set.

Despite the many changes – both subtle and big – the set is instantly recognisable. There is the red brick fireplace, the large lamps, the French windows and blow patterns. To me it was strange the sofa and chairs placed in the middle of the room – for conversation. In our house the rooms were smaller, seating was always against the wall – facing the fireplace and TV.

Marina Coates’ provides ‘tours’ of the homes of other popular shows from this era: The Brady BunchThe MunstersI Dream of Jeanie etc. It is fascinating to see, many years later, how the interior design of a ‘set’ of a popular TV show, can impact on our imagination.

The  design of the set adds to the story but it also it becomes its own version of reality. And, because it is through the medium of TV, it becomes a shared experience, a reference point and collective spatial memory. Shown all around the world, over so many years, the influence of this space endures.

It all comes down to the fact: the production designer created a look and feel of a space for the actors to inhabit as characters. For ever and ever, that is where those characters will  live. 

The designers of Bewitched probably never considered how much people would read into the set; studying it, analysing it or taking it all so seriously. But, as the series entered into popular culture its wider influence is undeniable.

All the spaces and places we see regularly on TV enter the depths of our subconscious. For the formative mind, it can become an image of what a home should look like, and could be.  

When the storytelling gets it right even cartoons, such as The Flintstones, or puppet shows like Thunderbirds can seem like ‘real’ spaces where ‘real’ people live. Thunderbirds, of course, was particularly iconic, notably for its mid-century style and glamour; an aspirational James Bond designed lifestyle that we all wanted to experience – and some actually did.

In the ‘60’s, in the UK, Interior Design was gradually becoming more important as a reflection of personality and self. As people looked wider for a new style of living a more modernist, open plan living style was starting to emerge. In the pre-war built housing stock designed with small discrete rooms, people began to knock through to create bigger more open spaces. Space – the final frontier!

TV and film shows us new lifestyles, not just as escapist fantasies but as everyday worlds. They make it seem so real – rather than surreal. This influence creates a demand for more. We want to actually visit the space and to see it for ourselves.

At Harry Potter World, you can experience the sets, props and costumes and learn more about the making of the film.  

The tour details the role of the art department from its creative vision to the models that became the iconic sets  the devotees will know so well. The first Harry Potter book came out in 1997 and the first film in 2001; a whole generation has grown up with Harry Potter. The enduring popularity of the books means it is likely that their children will follow suit.  

Since Disneyland first opened (1955) the fantasy theme park experience from the world of movies, has widened. Northern Ireland offers MANY Game of Thrones tours, where people get to ‘experience’ the landscape where certain scenes were filmed ( pre-CGI). These are actual places. They are not sets.  And so there is very little from the actual TV series to see. But… you get to dress up in costume to enact the scene and play the part in the place where it was filmed.

There are many websites devoted to tracking down the original house(s) used for movies and TV shows – from Breaking Bad to Steel Magnolias, Home Alone to Friends.

We like having our photo taken outside Walter White’s/Kevin Mc Alister’s house. There is something about actually being  there, in their footsteps, that brings us just that little bit closer to the story and the characters that we love so well.

When imagination and fantasy comes into play, it is our reality.

It feels good to be there and to be part of it

Nuala Rooney

I am designer, educator and researcher developing creative and holistic human-centred insights across the social/spatial sphere.

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